Study of Tree Trunks
- Place of origin:
Great Britain, UK (painted)
ca. 1821 (painted)
John Constable, born 1776 - died 1837 (artist)
- Materials and Techniques:
oil on paper
- Credit Line:
Given by Isabel Constable
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Paintings, room 88, case WEST WALL
This outdoor sketch brilliantly captures the effect of broken sunlight falling through foliage. In May 1819 Constable expressed his delight in such subjects: 'Every tree seems full of blossom of some kind & the surface of the ground seems quite lovely'. The figure at the right may be the artist's wife, with one of their children.
View from above of a large tree trunk and a woman with a bonnet, possibly holding a child.
Place of Origin
Great Britain, UK (painted)
ca. 1821 (painted)
John Constable, born 1776 - died 1837 (artist)
Materials and Techniques
oil on paper
Height: 24.8 cm estimate, Width: 29.2 cm estimate
Object history note
Given by Isabel Constable, 1888
Historical context note
The chief of Constable's four exhibits in 1821 was 'Landscape: Noon' ('The Hay Wain') (National Gallery No. 1207; for the full-scale sketch see No. 209 [987-1900] in this Catalogue). His third child, Charles Golding Constable, was born on 29 March. He accompanied Archdeacon John Fisher on his visitation of Berkshire in June, took No. 2 Lower Terrace, Hampstead, for his family during the summer and autumn and paid a visit to Fisher at Salisbury in November.
[G Reynolds, 1973, p. 135]
Study of Tree Trunks by John Constable (British, 1776-1837); oil on canvas; Britain; 19th century.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Catalogue of the Constable Collection, Graham Reynolds, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: HMSO, 1973, pp. 135, 145-147
The following is an extract from the text of the entry:
On the purplish back of the paper (not reproduced amongst the plates) is a child’s drawing in white chalk of a face.
Holmes, p. 249, dates c. 1830. While the sketch has many affinities with Constable’s later work, it seems possible that this may have been produced nearer to the time when he was making his systematic studies of skies and trees. The freedom of brushwork in the drawing of the foliage can be paralleled in Nos. 226 [168-1888] and 228 [164-1888], and the colour is more naturalistic than is always the case in Constable’s last manner’ nor is there any trace of the use of the palette knife. The sketch is accordingly grouped here with the works of 1821.
Note on Nos. 221, 222, 224, 226, 228-232, 234 and 235 [151-1888, 156-1888, 167-1888, 168-1888, 164-1888, 157-1888, 162-1888, 133-1888, 136-1888, 323-1888, 786-1888]
Nose. 222 [156-1888], 226 [168-1888] and 228 [164-1888] are fully dated and inscribed examples of the studies of sky and trees which Constable was making in 1821. Although the year is not given in the inscriptions to Nos. 221 [151-1888] and 224 [167-1888], there can hardly be any doubt that they were made at the same time as the fully dated ones. On grounds or similarity of style, Nos. 229 [157-1888] and 230 [162-1888] can be assigned to the same group. It may be noted that chimneys, or roofs and chimneys occur low down in Nos. 221 [151-1888], 224 [167-1888], 229 [157-1888], and 230 [162-1888], as they do in the fully dated sketch No. 226 [168-1888]. The four sketches in question were therefore almost certainly made in the same parts of Hampstead as Nos. 222 [156-1888], 226 [168-1888] and 228 [164-1888]. The assignment of Nos. 231 [133-1888] and 232 [136-1888] to the same group is more conjectural, and Nos. 234 [323-1888] and 235 [786-1888] are only tentatively placed with them to draw attention to a specific feature of the way in which they were painted.
Constable gives in some detail, in his correspondence with Fisher, the motives which induced him to undertake this series of sky and tree studies. In his letter of 20 September 1821 (Beckett, VI, pp. 73-4) he says (following the reference to ‘Trees at Hampstead’ quoted in the note to No. 223 [1630-1888]): “I have likewise made many skies and effects- for I wish it could be said of me as Fuselli says of Rembrandt, ‘he followed nature in her calmest abodes and could pluck a flower on every hedge- yet he was born to cast a stedfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature’. We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & color- as is always the case in such seasons as the present”.
In a letter of 23 October 1821 from Hampstead to Fisher, Constable gives an extended analysis of the place of skies in his paintings: “I have done a good deal of skying- I am determined to conquer all difficulties and that most arduous one among the rest. and now talking of skies—
It is quite amusing and interesting to us to see how admirably you fight their battles you certainly take the best possible ground for getting your friend out of a scrape—‘(the examples of the great masters)’—that Landscape painter who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition—neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids. Sir Joshua Reynolds speaking of the ‘Landscape’ of Titian and Salvator & Claude—says ‘Even their skies seem to sympathise with the Subject’—I have often been advised to consider my Sky--as a ‘White Sheet drawn behind the Objects’—Certainly if the Sky is obtrusive--(as mine are) it is bad—but if they are evaded (as mine are not) it is worse. they must and always shall with me make an effectual part of the composition. it will be difficult to name a class of Landscape—in which the sky is not the ‘key note’--the standard of ‘Scale’--and the chief ‘Organ of Sentiment’--You may conceive then what a ‘white sheet’ would do for me. impressed as I am with these notions. and they cannot be Erroneous. the sky is the ‘source of light’ in nature—and governs every thing—Even our common observations on the weather of every day—are suggested by them but it does not occur to us—Their difficulty in painting both as to composition and Execution is very great. because with all their brilliancy and consequence—they ought not to come forward or be hardly thought about in a picture—any more than extreme distances are—
But these remarks do not apply to phenomenon--or what the painters call accidental Effects of Sky--because they always attract particularly.
I hope you will not think I am turned critic instead of painter. I say all this to you though you do not want to be told—that I know very well what I am about. & that my skies have not been neglected though they often failed in execution—and often no doubt from over anxiety about them—which alone will destroy that Easy appearance which nature always has—in all her movements.”
(Text corrected from the original letter, given by Lord Clark to the Minories, Colchester, in 1962). The sketches of 1821 in the Museum are as much studies of foliage in motion under sun and wind as analytical paintings of the clouds. The earliest dated pure cloud studies by Constable are of 1822 (see note following No. 251 [339-1888]).
Among other dated sketches of this year are the following, in the gift made by Miss Isabel Constable to the Diploma Gallery of the Royal Academy in 1888; all were exhibited at the Constable Exhibition held in Manchester in 1956 and the numbers quoted in brackets refer to the catalogue of that Exhibition.
‘Hampstead Heath, looking West’ (10 x 12 ins.) 14 July 1821. (No. 39)
‘Study of Clouds and Trees’ (9 ½ x 12 ins.) 11 September 1821. (No. 48)
‘Hampstead Heath, looking over to Harrow’ (9 ½ x 11 ½ ins.) 27 September 1821. (No. 43)
‘Cloud Study with Trees below’ (10 x 11 ½ ins.) 27 September. (No. 51)
(Although no year appears in the date, this study was doubtless made on the same day as the immediately preceding sketch.)
For a study of the possibly influence of The Climate of London, 1818-1820, by Luke Howard, upon Constable’s sky studies, see John Constable’s Clouds by Kurt Badt.
100 Great Paintings in The Victoria & Albert Museum.London: V&A, 1985, p.108
The following is the full text of the entry:
"John Constable 1776-1837
STUDY OF TREE TRUNKS
Oil on paper, 24.8 X 29.2 cm
323-1888. Gift of lsabel Constable.
In 1819 the scale of Constable's exhibition pictures changed. In that year he exhibited the first of his 'six-footers' at the Royal Academy, the 'White Horse' in the Frick Collection in New York. These large pictures were intended to bring his art to public attention and take their place in the history of landscape painting as the natural successors to Hobbema, Van Ruisdael and Rubens. He went to enormous trouble in their execution, even to the extent of painting full-scale sketches for some of them. The Victoria and Albert Museum owns two of these sketches, for the Hay-Wain of 1821 (National Gallery) and the Leaping Horse of 1825 (Royal Academy). The success of Constable's exhibition pictures may be gauged from the fact that he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in November of 1819 and that the Hay-Wain has since become the most famous landscape in the history of British painting.
This emphasis on careful finish and composition in Constable's exhibition pictures contrasts with the increasing informality and broad handling of his out-of-door sketches. Often they focus on some hitherto neglected aspect of the landscape or some transitory effect of atmosphere or weather. This study of tree trunks is thought to date from 1821, when Constable was making his cloud studies on Hampstead Heath. It is no more than the fragment of a scene, a study of the way in which sunlight filters through the leaves of a tree and illuminates its trunk. The leaves are painted with a yellow that suggests the brilliance of the sun and the tree trunk is painted in broad, smooth strokes that blend into one another and suggest the sheen on the bark of the tree in the light of the sun.
The composition is deliberately oblique, with the trees rising up on the left and the grass bank sloping down on the right, which leads the spectator's eye out to the right of the composition, where a girl is portrayed in a few brush-strokes in the sun at the bottom of the bank. Constable has depicted a sensation that everyone who has walked in the countryside will know, that of coming out of a dark wood or bank of trees into the sunlight beyond.
It may seem odd that Constable's sketches out-of-doors should grow looser in handling and composition when his exhibition pictures show a much higher degree of finish and attention to composition based on a study of the old masters. However, it was all the more important to Constable to keep up his study of nature in order to handle the elements of these large pictures naturalistically. He was in effect keeping close to the source of his art, as he himself summed it up to his biographer Leslie: 'My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up.
Martin Gayford and Anne Lyles Constable Portraits. The painter and his circle London, National Portrait Gallery, 2009. ISBN: 13:978 1 85514 398 2.
Constable Portraits: The Painter and His Circle (National Portrait Gallery 05/03/2009-14/06/2009)
Constable: a breath of fresh air (The Millennium Galleries, Sheffield 08/02/2003-27/04/2003)
John Constable, selected by Lucian Freud (Grand Palais 10/10/2002-13/01/2003)
Labels and date
Label [Author unknown]
This study is no more than a fragment of a scene, a study of the way in which sunlight filters through the leaves of a tree and illuminates its trunk. The leaves are painted with a yellow that reflects the brilliance of the sun and the tree trunk is painted with smooth strokes that blend into one another and suggest the sheen on the bark of the tree. The composition is deliberately oblique and the spectator's eye is led out to the right of the composition where a girl is portrayed in the sun at the bottom of the bank.
Paper; Oil paint