John Constable (British, East Bergholt 1776–1837 Hampstead)
Oil on canvas
34 5/8 x 44 in. (87.9 x 111.8 cm)
Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 808
This painting was made as a full-scale study for the picture of 1826 now in the Frick Collection, New York. The latter picture was completed for Constable’s friend John Fisher, bishop of Salisbury, who appears at lower left in both canvases. In fact the commission dates back to 1822; in the course of working on the composition, Constable opened up the tree canopy and added a sunny sky to frame the cathedral’s medieval spire, the tallest in England.
Salisbury Cathedral with its stone spire, the tallest in England, dates to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and is surrounded by a flat landscape of water meadows. Constable visited Salisbury in September 1811 at the invitation of Dr. John Fisher, bishop of Salisbury; in early October 1816 on his wedding trip; and in the summer of 1820 to stay with the bishop's nephew Archdeacon John Fisher and his wife. A drawing of the cathedral from the southwest (Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 292-1888) is dated 1811 and contains the germ of the present composition. A related drawing (private collection) is dated 1820. Both depict the chapter house and the south and southeast transepts, with the east end hidden behind an evergreen and other trees. There must have been many more sketches of the kind than now survive.
If not commissioned by the bishop, Constable's first finished painting titled Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, was eventually intended for him and in 1823 was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The artist may have been referring to an oil study (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) for the London picture when he wrote on September 1, 1820, to the younger Fisher, reporting that his Salisbury sketches, including the one made in the cathedral grounds, had been "much liked." In November, the bishop opined that he would like to see the sketch finished, "to grace my Drawing Room in London." Instead, Constable painted the new and larger canvas referred to above, showing, at the left, the bishop, with his wife on his arm, pointing toward the cathedral with his walking stick.
The bishop expressed his dislike of the dark cloud directly over the spire, wanting a sunnier sky. Meanwhile, Constable painted a smaller, squared oil sketch (private collection) and then a smaller finished painting of the cathedral (Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California) as a wedding present from the elder Fisher to his daughter, Elizabeth, which was finished in time for her marriage on October 16, 1823. The following year, Constable engaged a Suffolk boy, John Dunthorne Jr., to join him as an assistant in his London studio. The artist sent for the cathedral picture, presumably to use it as a model for another work, noting in a letter to his wife of July 12 that "Johnny has done a delightfull outline of my Cathedral same size for me to copy."
The present canvas is the full-scale study for Constable’s sixth and final painting (Frick Collection, New York) of the great Gothic building from the grounds to the southwest, which, although intended finally to fulfill his commission from the bishop, was never received by him; it is fully signed and dated 1826, but Fisher had died in May of the previous year. Both of the paintings in New York show the spire of Salisbury Cathedral rising into a bright sky, its height and shape emphasized by white clouds and flanked by the slanting trunks and branches of the old trees to either side in the foreground. While the present canvas was on Constable’s easel, he made changes in the design, suppressing foliage that met in an arc over the top of the spire, the existence of which is documented by infrared reflectography.
A secure chronology for the six paintings of Salisbury Cathedral from the southwest has been developed in recent years, and it has been assumed that Dunthorne prepared his "delightfull outline" on the present canvas. In fact, on the evidence of recent infrared reflectography, the apparent differences in preparation and handling between the Metropolitan and Frick pictures are minimal. Constable may have asked Dunthorne to transfer the design of the cathedral to both canvases, but it cannot be said at present whether any of the drawing visible in the infrared images is, or is not, his.
What can be said is that in the underlying drawing for the Metropolitan’s picture, the trees still meet above the spire, as in the canvas in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The composition seems to have been opened up by Constable in the later stages of painting the sketch, so that there is blue sky not only above but also among the branches of the trees to the right. The underdrawing of the Frick picture, which follows the Metropolitan’s painted sketch, is slightly more elaborate, while the two compositions are on the same scale and perfectly aligned. Constable must have completed them in succession, between late July 1824, the date after which he began the Metropolitan Museum picture, and November 1825, when he described the one in the Frick Collection as "nearly compleated."
The three finished paintings of the cathedral and the Metropolitan Museum sketch contain abundant and accurate architectural detail, such as the bishop, a person of eighteenth-century taste and sensibility, would doubtless have required. In all, the chapter house, an octagon, reads as square, perhaps in the interest of legibility. It may be imagined that Constable would have been glad of an assistant, Dunthorne, to prepare an outline of some sort before he took up his fifth and sixth canvases of the subject.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
the artist (until d. 1837; ?his estate sale, Foster and Sons, London, May 16, 1838, no. 30, as "Salisbury Cathedral, for [sic] the Bishop's Garden, 'nearly finished,'" for £16.16.0 to Archbutt); ?Samuel Archbutt (1838–39; his sale, Christie's, London, April 13, 1839, no. 114, as "View of Salisbury cathedral, from the meadows," for £31.10.0 to Theobald); John Davis, Manchester and Wykin Hall, Hinckley, Leicestershire (until d. 1881); E. J. Foxwell, Hinckley (by 1907; sale, Christie's, London, April 20, 1907, no. 104, for £1,575 through Gribble to Agnew); [Agnew, London, 1907; sold to Lee]; A. H. Lee (from 1907); Sir Joseph Beecham, 1st Baronet, Hampstead, London (by 1911–d. 1916; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 3, 1917, no. 6, for £6,510 to Smith); [(?Eugène) Cremetti, London, until 1923; sold to Agnew and Knoedler]; [Agnew and Knoedler, London, 1923; Agnew's share sold to Knoedler]; [Knoedler, New York, 1923–26; sold to Harkness]; Edward S. Harkness, New York (1926–d. 1940); Mrs. Edward S. (Mary Stillman) Harkness, New York (1940–d. 1950)
Rome. British Fine Art Palace. "International Fine Arts Exhibition (British Section)," April 1–October, 1911, no. 15 (lent by Sir Joseph Beecham).
Detroit Institute of Arts. "Loan Exhibition of English Painting," 1931, no. 1.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Landscape Paintings," May 14–September 30, 1934, no. 62.
Pittsburgh. Carnegie Institute. "A Survey of British Paintings," May 10–June 12, 1938, no. 62 (lent by Edward S. Harkness).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 135.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 98).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 362.
New York. Frick Collection. "Harry D. M. Grier Memorial Loan Exhibition: Paintings and Drawings Related to Works in the Frick Collection," November 14–26, 1972, no. 2.
Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," May 22–July 27, 1975, no. 43.
Moscow. State Pushkin Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," August 28–November 2, 1975, no. 43.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Constable's England," April 16–September 4, 1983, no. 34.
Denver Art Museum. "Glorious Nature: British Landscape Painting, 1750–1850," December 11, 1993–February 6, 1994, no. 62.
New York. Frick Collection. "John Constable's Salisbury Cathedral: Two Versions Reunited," September 21–December 31, 1999, unnum. brochure.
Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne," June 23–November 12, 2006, no. 23.
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. "Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 6, 2012–January 4, 2013, no. 92.
Beijing. National Museum of China. "Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," February 8–May 9, 2013, no. 92.
Rouen. Musée des Beaux-Arts. "Cathédrales, 1789–1914, un mythe moderne," April 12–August 31, 2014, no. 41.
Cologne. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. "Die Kathedrale: Romantik—Impressionismus—Moderne," September 26, 2014–January 18, 2015, no. 34.
John Constable. Letter to Maria Bicknell (Mrs. Constable). July 12, 1824, mentions that "Johnny [John Dunthorne Jr., Constable's studio assistant] has done a delightfull outline of my Cathedral same size for me to copy," this picture [see Ref. Beckett 1964].
John Constable. Letter to John Fisher. November 12, 1825, offers the bishop a choice between two versions of the composition, one of which may be this canvas, while the other is the work delivered to his widow after his death (The Frick Collection, New York) [see Refs. Beckett 1968 and Parris and Fleming-Williams 1991].
C. J. Holmes. Constable and His Influence on Landscape Painting. Westminster, 1902, pp. 231, 246, reproduces the catalogue of the Constable estate sale of 1838, in which this picture probably figures as no. 30, with the title "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden, 'nearly finished,'" sold to Archbutt for £16.16.0.
Sir Isidore Spielmann Notes on British Section by J. Comyns Carr inCatalogue of the International Fine Arts Exhibition: Souvenir of the British Section. Exh. cat., British Fine Art Palace. Rome, 1911, pp. 106, 108, no. 15, ill.
"The Rome Exhibition: The British and German Pavilions." The Times (May 6, 1911), p. 7, as "one of several versions . . . a little stiff and hard, but important as a lesson to the moderns".
C. Reginald Grundy. "Sir Joseph Beecham's collection at Hampstead: Part I." Connoisseur 35 (February 1913), pp. 73–74, ill., as "a variant from the painting of the same subject now in the South Kensington [V&A] Museum".
H[arry]. B. W[ehle]. "Paintings Lent from the Harkness Collection." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 28 (January 1933), p. 12.
"'Three Hundred Years of Landscape' shown." Art Digest 8 (June 1, 1934), ill. p. 22, as lent to the Museum by Harkness.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29 (May 1934), ill. (cover), as lent to the landscape paintings exhibition by Harkness.
Andrew Shirley, ed. Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A. By C[harles]. R[obert]. Leslie. London, 1937, p. 142, mentions our version as in the Beecham collection.
Arnold Palmer. "Survey of British Painting." Carnegie Magazine 12 (May 1938), ill. p. 39, as lent to the Carnegie exhibition by Harkness.
R. B. Beckett. Letter to Elizabeth E. Gardner. December 30, 1950, believes that "it might quite well be lot 30 [of the 1838 Constable estate sale], if you can describe your picture as 'nearly finished,'" and dates it to 1825–26 as "a study or discarded trial for the Frick picture".
John Steegman. "Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden'." Art Quarterly 14 (Autumn 1951), pp. 202, 205, fig. 9, concludes that it is not one of the three specifically mentioned in Constable's correspondence; calls it the latest version, painted in or about 1826.
"Illustrations of Outstanding Harkness Gifts." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (October 1951), ill. p. 68.
Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 231, no. 135, colorpl. 135.
Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Guide to the Picture Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, part 2 (January 1954), p. 5, ill. p. 46.
R. B. Beckett. Letter. May 1, 1956, calls it "most probably" lot 30 in the 1838 Constable estate sale.
R. B. Beckett. "Constable's "Salisbury Cathedral From the Bishop's Grounds"." Art Quarterly 20 (Summer 1957), pp. 149–50, fig. 2.
A. Hyatt Mayor. "The Gifts that Made the Museum." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (November 1957), p. 106.
Graham Reynolds. Victoria and Albert Museum: Catalogue of the Constable Collection. London, 1960, p. 159, states that it is one of four paintings that could be identifiable with no. 30 in the 1838 sale.
R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable's Correspondence. By John Constable. Vol. 2, Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs. Constable). London, 1964, p. 360 n. 2, publishes a letter from Constable to his wife of July 12, 1824, with what he believes to be a reference to this picture [see Ref. Constable 1824].
R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable's Correspondence. Vol. 6, The Fishers. London, 1968, pp. 206–7, publishes the letter to Constable's friend John Fisher, in which he offers him a choice between two versions of the composition, one of which may be ours [see Ref. Constable 1825].
Carlos Peacock. John Constable: the Man and his Work. rev. ed. London, 1971, pl. 40.
Graham Reynolds. Masterpieces in the National Gallery of Canada. no. 10, John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds. Ottawa, 1977, pp. 28–29, 34, states that this "unfinished version . . . may be his trial run for the picture in the Frick, or intended for yet another commission which did not mature"; notes that it is identified with lot 30 in the 1838 sale.
Robert Hoozee. L'opera completa di Constable. Milan, 1979, p. 151, no. 657, ill., doubts the attribution to Constable.
Charles S. Rhyne. "Constable Drawings and Watercolors in the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon and The Yale Center for British Art: Part I. Authentic Works." Master Drawings 19 (Summer 1981), p. 139 n. 2, disagrees with Hoozee, calling it "beyond the capacity of anyone but Constable".
Graham Reynolds inA Dealer's Record: Agnew's, 1967–81. London, 1981, p. 141, reaffirms his 1977 opinion [see Ref.].
Graham Reynolds. Constable's England. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1983, pp. 16, 72, 98, 104, 181, no. 34, ill. p. 105 (color), dates it about 1825–26; calls it "a studio sketch" for the Frick picture; and notes that when making the later versions "Constable had some help in laying in the outlines from . . . Dunthorne".
Graham Reynolds. The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable. New Haven, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 167, 172–74, no. 26.19; vol. 2, colorpl. 629, calls it "an unfinished version . . . probably a sketch" for the Frick picture; finds Hoozee's doubts to be unfounded; mentions Dunthorne's role.
Sarah Cove in "Constable's Oil Painting Materials and Techniques." Constable. Exh. cat., Tate Gallery. London, 1991, pp. 508, 518 nn. 162–64, states that Dunthorne's pencil outline is visible by infrared reflectography and that x-radiography reveals that it was originally a precise copy of the 1823 picture, probably worked up by Dunthorne and reworked by Constable.
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams. Constable. Exh. cat., Tate Gallery. London, 1991, p. 260, believe that Constable's letter to Fisher of November 12, 1825 refers to this picture [see Ref. Constable 1825] while his letter of 1824 refers to the Frick painting [see Ref. Constable 1824].
Katharine Baetjer inGlorious Nature: British Landscape Painting, 1750–1850. Exh. cat., Denver Art Museum. New York, 1993, p. 202, no. 62, ill. p. 203 in color and dust jacket, calls it the last sketch, begun in summer 1824 over Dunthorne's "delightfull outline".
Jonathan Mayne, ed. Memoirs of the Life of John Constable. By C. R. Leslie. 3rd ed. London, 1995, p. 395.
Susan Grace Galassi. John Constable's Salisbury Cathedral: Two Versions Reunited. Exh. brochure, Frick Collection. [New York], 1999, unpaginated, colorpl. 1, notes that Dunthorne prepared an outline for this and the Frick picture.
Katharine Baetjer inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne. Exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Martigny, 2006, pp. 132–36, no. 23, ill. (color, overall and detail), notes that Constable must have asked Dunthorne to transfer the outline of the cathedral to two canvases, and then "must have worked them up in succession" between late summer 1824, when he began this picture and November 1825, when he finished the Frick picture.
Amy Herman. "Permanent Collection: Constable's Versions of Salisbury Cathedral." The Frick Collection Members' Magazine 7 (fall 2007), p. 12, discusses its role in Constable's development of this subject.
Asher Ethan Miller inMasterpieces of European Painting, 1800–1920, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, pp. 21, 227, no. 19, ill. (color and black and white).
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 242–46, no. 117, ill. (color), figs. 169, 170 (infrared reflectogram).
Asher Ethan Miller inEarth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. [Tokyo], 2012, pp. 148, 151, 246, no. 92, ill. (color and b&w) [Chinese ed., Hefei Shi, 2013, pp. 202–3, no. 92, ill. (color)].
Diederik Bakhuÿs inCathédrales, 1789–1914, un mythe moderne. Ed. Sylvain Amic and Ségolène Le Men. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen. Paris, 2014, pp. 87, 182, no. 41, ill. (color) [German ed., "Die Kathedrale: Romantik—Impressionismus—Moderne," Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, 2014, pp. 95, 108–9, no. 34, ill. (color)].