Eye Candy for Today: Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden, John Constable, Frick Collection
Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden, John Constable

Link is to zoomable version on Google Art Project; downloadable version on Wikimedia Commons; original is in the Frick Collection, NY.

Constable painted the Salisbury Cathedral a number of times, from several different points of view. This view is the most familiar, and is deservedly one of Constable’s best known paintings.

What isn’t as well known is that there are two finished versions of this composition, as well as a full-size preparatory study.

The original version, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, had a darker sky and a vantage point slightly closer to the cathedral. The painting was commissioned by Dr. John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, who was a close friend of Constable’s.

Constable described it as one of his most difficult landscapes, citing the structure of the cathedral and the light to dark relationships in particular.

Fisher, however wasn’t fond of that version’s darker, more overcast sky, and Constable painted this second version with a lighter sky and a viewpoint slightly further back, opening up the composition somewhat. The full-size study for this version is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I haven’t seen the V&A version, but in reproduction, it looks as though Constable has made other adjustments to the balance of light and dark in the second painting. In the Frick version, the cathedral seems lighter and the foreground darker, as if to compensate for the lack of the darker sky to highlight the cathedral.

Both paintings also include cows grazing on the Bishop’s grounds, and the Bishop and his wife in the left foreground, pointing to the spire. Farther back along the path is a young woman with an umbrella, presumably one of the Bishop’s daughters.

I had the opportunity to see the original in the Frick Collection over the weekend, and I was again impressed with how modern the painting looks — in its immediacy, the almost impressionistic brush marks in the foliage, and the wonderfully painterly approach to rendering the trunks of the trees. Constable’s white highlights are physically thick and textural; his approach to the trees in many ways anticipates the work of the French Impressionists later in the century, as well as contemporary landscape painting in general.

 
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