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Oil painting - Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree
  • Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree
    Constable, John RA, born 1776 - died 1837
  • Enlarge image

Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain, Uk (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1821 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Constable, John RA, 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

Constable probably painted this remarkable sketch in Hampstead. It is so realistic that it has an almost photographic quality. The artist's friend and biographer C. R. Leslie recalled: 'I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms'.

Physical description

Study of an elm tree trunk with a forest scene behind.

Place of Origin

Great Britain, Uk (painted)


ca. 1821 (painted)


Constable, John RA, born 1776 - died 1837 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Oil on paper

Marks and inscriptions



Height: 306 mm approx., Width: 248 mm approx., Height: 544 mm frame, Width: 499 mm frame, Depth: 40 mm frame

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]

Descriptive line

Oil painting, 'Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree', John Constable, ca. 1821

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Catalogue of the Constable Collection, Graham Reynolds, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: HMSO, 1973, pp. 135, 146-147
The following is an extract from the text of the entry:

Holmes, p. 243, dates c. 1815, and this view has been generally accepted (for example by Shirley, p. 97 and by Key, p. 46). But though the first impression given by the sketch is of uncompromising and ‘photographic’ naturalism, the treatment, particularly of the foliage in the background, lays more emphasis on linear brushwork than is usual in the sketches made around that date. The treatment of the foliage and the glimpse of the house beyond recall similar features in Nos. 222 [156-1888] and 226 [168-1888], and the sketch is accordingly listed here under the year 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.
Robert Hoozee, ed. British Vision. Observation and Imagination in British Art 1750-1950 / with contributions from Mark Evans, Mark Haworth-Booth and Stephen Calloway. Ghent: Museum voor Schone Kunsten; Mercatorfonds, 2007. ISBN: 978 90 6153 749 6
Exhibition catalogue. The full text of the entry is as follows:

'185. John Constable
East Bergholt, Suffolk, 1776 - London, 1837
Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, c. 1820-23
Oil on paper, 30.6 x 24.8 cm
Verso: JC [monogram]
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Given by Isabel Constable, daughter of the artist, 1888

Of Constable, his friend and biographer C.R. Leslie observed: 'I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms.' (Leslie 1951, p. 282) The artist made many studies of trees in the early 1820s, principally in Hampstead. This plein air oil sketch is remarkable for what Graham Reynolds calls its 'first impression...of uncompromising and "photographic" naturalism' (Reynolds 1793, p. 146). Compositionally, it resembles a similarly truncated wash drawing of an oak tree by Claude Lorrain from Richard Payne Knight's major bequest of his drawings to the British Museum. Although Constable castigated these in a letter of January 1824 as resembling 'papers used and otherwise mauled, & purloined from a Water Closet' whose 'mere charm was their age' (Beckett 1962-68, vol. 6., pp. 149-50), this oil study probably reflects his knowledge of such a work by Claude, whom he revered as a tireless student of nature. Lucian Freud has admired Constable's sketch, and in 2003 made an etching after it. (ME)'

Exhibition History

British Vision. Observation and Imagination in British Art 1750-1950 (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent 06/10/2007-13/01/2008)
John Constable, selected by Lucian Freud (Grand Palais 10/10/2002-13/01/2003)

Labels and date

Label, probably created for Elise load [author unknown]:

"At first sight, this study seems astonishingly 'photographic' in its acuity of detail, but closer examination reveals Constable's characteristic devotion to the physicality of oil pigments and paint-brushes. In particular, the treatment of the bark of the tree results in a tactile quality we usually only experience in the work of artists such as Velasquez and Chardin. They too were able to invest humble, ordinary subjects with a dignity and splendour. Constable would be surprised to find himself in such company, but would appreciate our recognition that - in his own words - his art was 'to be found under every hedge and in every lane'. He also wrote that 'the landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind - no arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty'. We might also remember the anecdote Constable's friend and first biographer, Leslie, told: when William Blake saw a drawing of some trees by Constable, he announced 'Why, this is not drawing, but inspiration!'"


Paper; Oil paint


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Tree, Elm



Collection code


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