The year 1824 was coming to an end and, for once, John Constable was feeling relatively pleased about how his art was being received by contemporaries. In the summer of that year, three of his works, including the Haywain, had been exhibited at the Paris Salon, where they were met with a level of critical and artistic acclaim that he had only recently begun enjoying in England; in December, he wrote cheerfully to his friend John Fisher about how the French, encountering his pictures, “call out much about their vivacity and freshness, a thing unknown in their own painting.”1 This was not the only praise that he and his art were receiving at this time: only the month beforehand, in his previous letter to Fisher, Constable notes that Samuel Reynolds the engraver “tells me my ‘freshness’ exceeds the freshness of any painter that ever lived—for to the zest of my ‘color’ I have added ‘light’; Ruisdael (the freshest of all) and Hobbema, were black.”2
In that same November letter, and no doubt emboldened by the compliments his work was now attracting, Constable declares to Fisher that he is planning a “large picture” that would maintain the broad concerns and subject matter of the six-foot landscapes that, since 1819, he had been exhibiting on a regular basis at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions.3 This planned work was The Leaping Horse, which he painted over the winter and spring months, and which was the largest and most striking of the three canvases he exhibited at the 1825 exhibition (Fig. 1). Having sent the picture to be hung at the Academy, Constable declared to Fisher that, though “no one picture ever departed from my easel with more anxiety”, he was as confident as ever that the kind of scene he had depicted was the right one for him to paint: “it is a lovely subject, of the canal kind, lively—& soothing—calm and exhilarating, fresh—& blowing, but it should have been on my easil a few weeks longer.”4
To help us better understand Constable’s works, and their impact within the exhibition space, it is useful to look closely at the words that came to surround them. Here, let us focus on one such word: “fresh”. As will have already become apparent, this was an adjective that Constable, his friends, and his artistic peers regularly used in reference to his paintings and sketches. To offer just two more examples from 1825: in April, Fisher writes to the artist telling him that he is enclosing some of William Paley’s sermons with his letter, declaring that they are “fit companions for your sketches: full of vigour, & nature, fresh, original, warm from observation of nature, hasty, unpolished, untouched afterwards.”5 Meanwhile, in November, Constable writes proudly to his wife about an admirer who had just visited his studio, and who had said that: “he breathes the open air in my pictures, they are more than fresh, they are exhilarating.”6
Significantly, The Leaping Horse attracted the same kind of language when it was on show at the Summer Exhibition, this time on the part of critics. The Literary Chronicle, for instance, lauded the picture as a “charming specimen of that fresh verdant scenery peculiar to this country”; meanwhile, The New Monthly Magazine noted of the painting that it was a “capital example of this artist’s fresh, forcible, and original style.”7
We can begin to see that part of the appeal of Constable as a painter, and of his works within the exhibition space, was their perceived “freshness”. What did this term signify? Most fundamentally, his works were seen to depict, and to call to mind, the “fresh” types of environment, times of day, and kinds of weather that contemporaries associated with a sense of sensory renewal and vigour—one that was, and is, encapsulated most powerfully, perhaps, by the phrase “fresh air”, whether imagined as being breathed into the body or felt as a breeze that brushes the skin. However, the freshness of Constable’s works also included the novelty of a mode of painting that seemed rather different to other artists and that, in 1825, less friendly critics repeatedly called “peculiar”.8 And, finally, we can suggest that works such as The Leaping Horse were appreciated as having a distinctive kind of visual freshness and liveliness, one that stimulated the eye and offered the pleasures of optical vivacity and zest.
This freshness was a hard won and contingent affair, however. Constable was notorious for working on his paintings very laboriously, and, as his comments on the Leaping Horse make clear, with great anxiety. Part of the reason he worried away at his paintings, no doubt, and part of the reason he adopted tactics like working from full-scale sketches and scattering highlights of white paint across his canvases, stemmed from the challenges involved in maintaining a sense of freshness throughout the long process of producing a “large picture” for the Summer Exhibition. One of greatest dangers for his images—and one that always threatened to congeal and render stagnant their lively surfaces—was that they might come to seem overworked.
There were other anxieties too, which revolved around the dialogue between his work’s distinctive qualities and the exhibition space itself. In the earlier part of his career, the artist had exhibited a series of modestly sized landscapes that had hardly received any attention at all; their freshness operated at too low a key. Significantly, it was only when Constable dramatically expanded the size of his exhibition works, enlivened his painterly manner, and brightened his palette—all of which happened from 1819 onwards—that his paintings’ freshness properly came to light, and began to be appreciated as offering a pleasing pictorial oasis within the crowded and often clammy exhibition rooms. Even then, however, there was the danger that these pictures’ charms would become drowned out by the sheer variety and density of the pictorial display as a whole, and by the much louder visual noise that could be made by other kinds of painting on show. Look, for instance, at what Turner exhibited in 1825: Harbour of Dieppe, which hits the viewer in the eye with a very different kind of appeal; not so much the modest, refreshing delights of an English “canal scene”, but rather a blast of heat, colour, and light from a very different climate (Fig. 2).
In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that certain of Constable’s friends preferred to look at his six-footers in relative isolation, as Fisher wrote in 1821, after The Haywain had returned to Constable’s studio after its time at Somerset House:
How does [it] look now that it has got into your room again? I want to see it there. For how can one participate in a scene of fresh water and deep noon-day in the crowded copal atmosphere of the Exhibition: which is always to me like a great pot of boiling varnish.9
For some, at least, the freshness of the artist’s paintings was best appreciated well away from the heated atmosphere of the annual Academy display.
R.B. Beckett (ed.), “The Fishers”, John Constable’s Correspondence, Vol. VI (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1968), 185; the letter is dated 17 December 1824.↩︎
Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, Vol. VI, 181; letter dated 17 November 1824.↩︎
Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, Vol. VI, 181.↩︎
Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, Vol. VI, 198; undated letter, but written sometime in April 1825.↩︎
Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, Vol. VI, 196; letter dated 8 April 1825.↩︎
R.B. Beckett, “Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs Constable)”, John Constable’s Correspondence, Vol. II (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1964), 411.↩︎
The Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, 14 May 1825, quoted in Judy Crosby Ivy, Constable and the Critics, 1802–1837 (Woodbridge; Suffolk Records Society, 1991), 113; The New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1825, Part iii, 301, quoted in Ivy, Constable and the Critics, 115.↩︎
Examples of this use of the word “peculiar” are found in The European Magazine (September 1825, 85), which comments on Constable’s “peculiar and natural style” (quoted in Ivy, Constable and the Critics, 115); and The London Magazine (September 1825, 67), which notes the “sameness and peculiarity of his disagreeable execution and colouring” (quoted in Ivy, Constable and the Critics, 115).↩︎
Beckett, “The Fishers”, VI, 70; the letter from Fisher is dated 19 July 1821.↩︎