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Constable and Turner: British Landscapes of the Early 1800s

From a grassy riverbank, we look across the placid surface of a river lined along the far bank with trees and farm animals in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is painted loosely with brushstrokes visible throughout, so some details are difficult to make out. For the surface of the river, russet-brown and steel-gray paint skims lightly across the canvas and leaves some unpainted areas visible, creating the effect of light shimmering on the still water. On our left, a shallow wooden barge is propelled along the stream by two men in red caps with long poles. The boat carries a white horse wearing blinders and a harness. The riverbank beyond is lined with pale, sage-green grass tinged with gold, growing in front of a tangle of darker green trees and bushes. Across the water from us near the middle of the picture, a small rowboat sits in the shallows at the foot of a steep riverbank. Above, a white cottage with a reddish roof and chimney is tucked behind the trees, with a wooden rack full of hay next to it. Nearby, a plow and wheeled cart, highlighted with strokes of white, sit near more mounds of hay. Rocky fields reach into the distance. The vista is blocked to our right by another clump of trees and a rocky outcropping, rising from the stream, to our right of center. The steep, dark roof of a farmhouse is barely visible among the trees. Along the riverside to our right, a small group of cinnamon-brown and cream-white cows stand at water's edge. A rolling pasture stretches behind them to meet blue hills in the distance. Above, in the upper third of the painting, mottled white, pale rose, and gray clouds rolling across a steel-gray sky are reflected in the water below.


The landscape painters Turner and Constable were influential exponents of romanticism, an artistic movement of the late 1700s to mid-1800s that emphasized an emotional response to nature. Turner, who traveled extensively, often infused his dramatic seascapes and landscapes with literary or historical allusions. Constable, who never left England, preferred more straight forward depictions of placid rural scenery.

Working in the studio from sketches and his imagination, Turner blended his oil paints in fluid layers of translucent color, called glazes. Constable, sometimes painting directly outdoors, applied flickering touches of thick, opaque oils. Despite their differences in temperament and technique, Turner and Constable evoke the same worship of nature that imbues the literature of their contemporaries, the romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

John Constable, British, 1776 - 1837, The White Horse, 1818-1819, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.9

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We look out onto a landscape with low, grassy hills to the left, a lake to the right, and a brick building in the center distance below a sky filled with towering white clouds in this horizontal painting. A wooden fence closer to us crosses the landscape from the lower left corner and disappears where the land slopes down to meet the water at the center of the painting. Several black and white cows graze in the field beyond the fence to our left. Two men in a wooden boat pull in nets on the lake to our right near a pair of swans. The lake crosses the composition in the near distance, disappearing into a culvert farther back. A donkey pulls a small carriage with two people near a bridge that crosses the lake in the distance to our left. The brick manor house is visible through a break in the full, deep green trees that line the horizon, which comes halfway up the composition. The clouds cast noticeable shadows in the brightly sunlit scene.

This picture, exhibited at Britain’s Royal Academy in 1817, demonstrates Constable’s wish to be “a natural painter” because it was created almost entirely out-of-doors. During August and September 1816, the artist documented this country estate of old family friends and recorded his progress in letters to his fiancée. (The commission financed their wedding.)

Centered in the panoramic design, the red brick manor house stands out by reason of its warm color in an otherwise cool scheme of blues, greens, and grays. Constable wrote about the “great difficulty” of incorporating the thatch-roofed deer barn. To add this requested motif, he cleverly sewed about an inch of extra fabric to the canvas at the far right. Then, in order to restore the composition’s symmetrical balance, he stitched a similar strip to the left side, where he showed the owners’ daughter, Mary Rebow, driving a donkey cart.

John Constable, British, 1776 - 1837, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.10

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We look across an expanse of a flat, grassy lawn at the towering spire of a stone church outlined against billowing clouds in this horizontal landscape painting. The lawn is dappled with light filtering through a line of trees with thick, green canopies to our left. The trees take up almost the left half of the composition, and they line a dirt path where three people walk. Tiny in scale, the people are painted with strokes of slate blue, red, white, and black. A few animals, perhaps cows, graze on the lawn near more trees on the far side of the green. Beyond the trees, the church sits on the horizon, which comes about a quarter of the way up the composition. Miniscule touches of yellow, black, and red may suggest more people in the deep distance. The pale blue sky is nearly filled with puffy parchment-white and mauve-tinged clouds.

Constable frequently depicted Salisbury’s famous spire, which, at 404 feet, is the tallest in England. Piercing the air, the lofty steeple attracts attention to the atmosphere around it. One of Constable’s main interests was portraying the weather—a process he called “skying.”

When the Gothic cathedral was finished in the 1300s, its grounds were walled or enclosed; this Close forms a lush, marshy park. The couple strolling through the Close’s avenue of elms may be John Fisher, the Archbishop of Salisbury, and his wife. Their nephew, an archdeacon and art patron, was Constable’s closest friend. This personal souvenir, kept by the artist, freshly observes the sunshine dappling the lawn. With long shadows falling from the west, the time is early evening. The canvas was executed spontaneously on the spot, and its brown underpainted layer is still visible beneath the trees.

John Constable, British, 1776 - 1837, Salisbury Cathedral from Lower Marsh Close, 1820, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.108

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We look across churning waves at four sailing ships and a wooden rowboat with four men aboard in this horizontal painting. Dark, iron-gray and tawny-brown clouds approaching from the right fill the top two-thirds of the composition. The water closest to us roils with steel gray and tan, which deepens to charcoal gray as it recedes toward low hills in the distant background. In the lower left corner of the painting, a wooden container bobs in the waves, and a white bird flies low over the water nearby. Two ships to the left of center head directly toward us, leaning steeply to our left with their beige sails taut with wind. Two men, tiny in scale, stand on the deck of the ship to our left. To our right, two ships with butter-yellow and peach sails cut through the water. Three men stand on the deck of the ship in the front, pulling on the rigging. Closest to us and to the right of center, the rowboat crests a wave, tilting forward so we look into the long side of the boat and see the four men there. Near the stern, one man hangs over the side while another holds onto him. Two men sit to the right, one facing us while the other faces away. Sunlight streaks down through a break in the storm clouds to fall on a ship with furled sails in the distance at the center of the composition. This and two additional ships near the distant shoreline are silhouetted against bands of white clouds around blue sky, beyond the bank of dark gray clouds closer to us.

Turner, who earned an early reputation for producing accurate topographical views, opened his own private sales gallery, where he exhibited this turbulent seascape. Based on notes in the artist’s sketchbooks, the scene is the wide mouth of the Thames joining the North Sea, where the smaller River Medway further churns the waves. To the south, the town on the far shore is the seaport of Sheerness.

To heighten the storm’s impact, Turner artfully manipulated the lighting in this composition. The sails at the right, for instance, are brilliantly silhouetted against the dark clouds. In actuality, however, the sun is obscured high in the sky behind the thunderheads, making it impossible for sunbeams to strike those ships from the side.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, The Junction of the Thames and the Medway, 1807, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.87

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Painted in golden tones of butter and harvest yellow, tawny brown, and olive green, this horizontal landscape painting has a low wall stretching diagonally from the lower right corner off to our left, dividing a river to our right from a grassy lawn to our left. The waist-high wall is lined with tall trees with high canopies, which fill most of the composition. Close to us, at the lower center of the painting, a hoop rests against the end of a second, low wall. A short ladder with four rungs leans against a tree trunk in the lower left corner. Only a sliver of the ivy-covered trunk rises along the left edge of the painting. A short distance away, two chairs near a small, square-topped wooden table sit on the grass under the long shadows of the tall trees. Two or three people, seeming to wear long skirts, stand or sit on the long wall that spans the width of the painting, behind a nearby tree trunk. A navy-blue garment lies over the wall to our right, and a black dog walks on the wall near the center of the painting, beyond the people. Barely visible, a small white dog stands with its front paws on the wall next to the black dog. A pathway alongside the trees and wall leads to a covered structure with a triangular pediment roof held up by fluted columns in the distance. Several long, low barges filled with people float in the river to our right. Red and white flags flutter in the breeze and the full, rectangular sails of a couple of the boats are raised. The placid surface of the river is thickly painted, especially where the small disk of the pale yellow sun reflects on the golden surface of the water below. The horizon comes about a third of the way up the composition and is lined in the deep distance with a band of loosely painted, muted, mauve-pink buildings and trees.

A fashionable London suburb, Mortlake Terrace lies next to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, visible here on the distant bend of the River Thames. This is one of a pair of views commissioned by the owner of a town house, The Limes, named after the magnificent lime trees lining its terrace. Both scenes daringly portray the blazing disk of the sun itself, which here flashes a reflection from the stone parapet.

The companion piece, now in New York City’s Frick Collection, depicts the house at sunrise. Reversing the view, this picture looks west over the garden at sunset after the children have abandoned their toys. A black dog barks at the Lord Mayor’s flag-decked barge. This dark accent, which enhances the summer evening’s hazy paleness, was a last-minute addition. Just before the Royal Academy show opened in 1827, Turner cut the dog out of paper, stuck it onto the wet varnish, and touched it up with highlights and a collar.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, Mortlake Terrace, 1827, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.109

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A passenger boat, its bright tan sails reflecting the sun, careens among choppy water with at least eight more sailboats and a town along the water’s edge in the distance in this horizontal landscape painting. The water closest to us is muted slate blue, and it lightens as it extends to the horizon, which comes less than a quarter of the way up this composition. We look onto the long side of the passenger boat, at nine men, women, and children huddled in two groups there, in the lower center of the composition. The people wear black, white, red, or blue, and all seem to wear hats, though they are sketchily painted. Foamy, white crests lap at the long side of the tilted boat. Several larger ships with white sails unfurled float beyond to our left. To our right, seven flags and banners fly from a three-masted ship with its sails tied up. Two rows of more than a dozen black canons each poke through doors along the side we can see. It floats upright, closer to the distant town lining the water across the right half of the picture. The buildings are painted with strokes of white paint to create loose silhouettes. Loosely painted vertical strokes suggest more boats and ships lining the harbor. A bank of cream-white and some pale gray clouds fill most of the sky, breaking to reveal blue sky only in the upper right corner of the painting.

This seascape was exhibited in 1833 at the Royal Academy, where Turner taught as the professor of perspective. Conquering the problem of creating a believable sense of space across a featureless expanse of water, Turner anchored the carefully aligned design upon a small passenger ferry. From this foreground focus, a row of larger ships moves backward over the choppy waves on a diagonal line, generating a remarkable illusion of depth. The warship’s Dutch flags and the skyline of Rotterdam pay tribute to Turner’s predecessors, the marine painters of seventeenth-century Holland. In particular, the low horizon and cloud-swept vista derive from harbor scenes by Jan van Goyen and Aelbert Cuyp.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, Rotterdam Ferry-Boat, 1833, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.135

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We look across a glittering waterway lined with long, low boats and sailboats at an ivory-white church in the distance to our right in this horizontal landscape painting. The horizon line comes about a third of the way up the composition, and wispy white clouds sweep across the brilliant azure-blue sky above. A row of buildings comes into view lining the canal to our right, with a terracotta-orange building followed by a cream-white building beyond, both angled toward the church. The church has a high dome rising over the temple-like front, which has columns supporting a triangular pediment. A tall bell tower rises to the left of the church. The low boats, gondolas, to our left are packed with people while a few gondolas floating in the center of the canal appear occupied only by their gondoliers who stand holding their poles. Painted in tones of ivory and peach, the sails of boats behind the gondolas to our left billow in the breeze while the sails of vessels docked to our right are furled. The structures, boats, and people cast shimmering reflections on the gently rippling surface of the water in the canal. Rows of boats and buildings lining the canal extend into the deep, hazy distance to our left.

At the “especial suggestion” of a British textile manufacturer, Turner devised this Venetian cityscape as a symbolic salute to commerce. Gondolas carry cargoes of fine fabrics and exotic spices. On the right is the Dogana, or Customs House, topped by a statue of Fortune, which Turner greatly enlarged in size. Moreover, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been pushed very far back in space, making the Grand Canal seem much wider than it really is.

These theatrical exaggerations and the precise, linear drafting of the architecture owe much to Canaletto, an eighteenth-century Venetian painter whose art glorified his city. At the 1834 Royal Academy show, critics gave enraptured praise to the scene’s radiant, sparkling waters. The next year, another commission from the same patron resulted in its moonlit companion piece, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.85

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We hover over a flax-yellow body of water lined with ships to our left and right, which are silhouetted against a moonlit, cloud-veiled sky in this horizontal landscape painting. The horizon comes about a third of the way up the composition. The moon hangs to our left of center in the sky, its light reflecting on the clouds in a bright, hourglass shape to create a tunnel-like effect. The sea below turns from a gold color close to us to pale blue along the horizon. To our left, one ship with gray sails is cut off by the edge of the canvas and another, also with gray sails, is situated farther from us. A small, dark rowboat with two passengers moves between them. Light from the windows in buildings along the distant horizon to our left reflect in the water, and another building, a factory, spouts white flame from its chimney. More dark ships line the waterway to our right, their spiky masts black against the sky. Three flames, one orange between two pale yellow fires, flare in the darkness in front of the ship closest to us. The forms of men shoveling coal, crates, and barges are dark silhouettes against the firelight and smoke. More rowboats float among the boats in the distance. Near the lower right corner of the canvas, a broad, flat fragment of wood floats close to us. The hot orange and black on the right side of the painting contrasts with the silvery gray, light blue, and white that fills much of the rest of the composition. The painting was created with thick, blended brushstrokes throughout, giving the scene a hazy look. The texture of some of the brushstrokes is especially noticeable, as where the moon casts white light onto the water and in the clouds. The artist signed a buoy floating to our left with his initials, “JMWT.”

On England’s River Tyne, near the mining city of Newcastle, stevedores called keelmen transfer coal from barges, or keels, to oceangoing vessels. The harsh glare of the workmen’s torches contrasts with the funnel of creamy light emanating from the moon. Critical opinion about Turner’s unusual nocturne was divided. One reviewer observed: “It represents neither night nor day, and yet the general effect is very agreeable and surprising.’

Commissioned as a pendant to Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore and shown at the Royal Academy in 1835, this canvas creates a total counterpoint in mood and meaning. The Venetian scene is far away in the Mediterranean Sea, concerns luxury goods, and glows with warm daylight. This North Sea view—a familiar sight to the British public—reveals sooty, modern industry chilled by the colors of a winter’s night.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.86

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About a dozen people, tiny in scale, flail their arms or huddle in small groups in a vast, mountainous landscape in this gold-toned, horizontal painting. A grassy expanse stretches across the bottom edge the canvas into the middle distance, where it meets steep hills separated by deep valleys. White water, falls or rivers, separate some of the mounds. Two tall branches of a sparse, V-shaped tree cut into the sky to our right. The horizon comes about halfway up the composition, and the landscape and people are painted loosely so details are difficult to make out. The people cluster in two groups in the landscape, which is painted with tones of eucalyptus and laurel green. To our left, a person runs from what appears to be a fire-lined opening in the ground. A basket, a set of pan pipes, perhaps a cloak, and maybe some tools are gathered near the tree to our right. A walled building complex high on a flat hilltop in the distance is warmed to peanut brown by the setting sun. A blanket of dark buttercup-yellow and rust-orange clouds mostly hides an icy blue sky.

In classical mythology, Pluto, the god of the underworld, abducted the maiden Proserpine to make her his wife and the queen of Hades. Turner, in this entry from the 1839 Royal Academy exhibition, depicted the moment when Pluto’s fiery chariot erupts earthward, burning the meadow and terrifying Proserpine’s attendants. The setting, equally dramatic, is a fantasy based upon the hills, gorges, waterfalls, and ruins at Tivoli, an ancient village near Rome.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, The Rape of Proserpine, 1839, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Watson B. Dickerman, 1951.18.1

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Through a golden haze and across an expanse of gently rippling water dotted with boats, ghostly ivory and parchment-white buildings rise along a distant shore in this loosely painted horizontal landscape. The misty horizon comes about a third of the way up the composition, and the sky above is mostly butter yellow with a few touches of shell pink, and a patch of topaz blue in the upper left corner. Closest to us, in the lower right corner, several honey-yellow boats are pulled up to a parchment-white dock. Touches of charcoal gray, peacock green, ruby red, and mauve pink suggest cloth or other objects filling the boats and piled on the corner of the dock. A few strokes of white, blush pink, and brick red suggest several people beyond a low wall or other structure to our right. Farther back and to our left, streaks and swipes of coral red, pale yellow, and gold suggest boats along a dock. Along the horizon, in the distance opposite us, there is a golden-yellow building with a tower on its front façade. Beyond this building, a cream-white structure with two tall domes rises against the sky. Along the horizon to either side, blended smudges of lilac purple, rose pink, and aquamarine blue suggest more buildings and boats. The buildings and boats are reflected in the loosely painted, straw-yellow water. The artist signed the painting as if he had written his initials on the wall near the lower right corner, “JMWT.”

Displayed at the Royal Academy in 1843, Turner’s late view of Venice shows the Customs House, or Dogana, from an angle opposite to that seen in his 1834 picture. Behind the Dogana, the domes of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute rise against the vibrantly luminous sky. Although his early works had made Turner wealthy and famous, this later style—in which light evaporates the solid forms—was far too avant-garde for his contemporaries to comprehend. In retrospect, however, it is such late works that had the most impact upon subsequent landscapists. (The parapet at the bottom right is formally inscribed with Turner’s full initials, JMWT; informally, friends called him Bill.)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1843, oil on canvas, Given in memory of Governor Alvan T. Fuller by The Fuller Foundation, Inc., 1961.2.3

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A butter-yellow sky fills the top two-thirds of this square landscape painting while in the bottom third, a brown structure is surrounded by golden yellow and pine-green forms like clouds. The scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes, so much of the detail is indistinct, and the view seems hazy. Clouds spiral around the sun or moon, painted as a pale yellow disk, hanging in the center of the sky. The golden yellow clouds near the center darken to slate gray then rust brown, and nearly wine red along the top edge. A flock of birds painted as a dense band of navy and denim-blue Vs curve around the sun and continue into the deep distance. Below, touches of burgundy red and brown could indicate people or animals around the arched, copper-brown structure. Cloud-like puffs in forest green and golden yellow could be a forest or wildly crashing waves. A few faint outlines in this area suggest a bear, crocodile, giraffe, and maybe other ghostly creatures.

While Noah and his wife sleep in their tent, the biblical Flood begins. In a spiraling vortex of rain and moonlight, birds and beasts head toward the distant Ark. This is a preliminary version of a canvas shown in the 1843 Royal Academy. Now in London’s Tate Gallery, the final work uses stronger color contrasts but is equally evocative and sketchy.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, The Evening of the Deluge, c. 1843, oil on canvas, Timken Collection, 1960.6.40

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Butter-yellow clouds and water, a periwinkle-blue sky, and pale plum-purple buildings blend in hazy, indistinct bands across this horizontal landscape painting. The paint is thickly applied in some areas, especially along the top of the sky, and the scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes throughout. The blurry horizon comes about a third of the way up the composition and the small, round, white sun shines low in the sky to our left. The sky or clouds around the sun are painted with shades of pale sapphire-blue with touches of lavender, which give way to a lemon-yellow clouds or haze in the right two-thirds of the sky. Buildings along the horizon, deep in the distance across the right three-quarters of the canvas, are loosely painted with vertical swipes of heather pink and cream white. The water, closest to us, reflects the yellow of the sky with additional touches of celery green. Brown boats spaced along the harbor carry people and objects away from us, toward the town.

As barges and gondolas slowly cross the Venetian lagoon, the misty city vanishes in the twilight. John Ruskin, the major art critic who was one of Turner’s few champions later in his career, hailed the canvas as “the most perfectly beautiful piece of colour of all that I have seen produced by human hands.” In the Royal Academy catalogue for 1844, this entry was accompanied by a quotation that Turner himself rewrote from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold:

“The moon is up, and yet it is not night,
The sun as yet disputes the day with her.”

Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851, Approach to Venice, 1844, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.110

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