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Why does a beautiful sketch please us more than a beautiful painting…?

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

… It’s because there is more life and less form. The more form one introduces, the more life disappears

Denis Diderot, about 1767 Paris Salon.

In summer 2016, during the “Defining British Art Evening Sale” auction at Christie’s, John Constable’s full-size sketch “View on the Stour near Dedham” was sold for 18,860,000 US Dollars.

Two weeks ago, on December the 6th 2017, during the “Old Masters Evening Sale” at Sotheby’s, a much smaller Constable’s sketch, “Dedham Vale with the River Stour in Flood” reached $1,809,000.

If we were to put price on yet another Constable’s sketch of the Stour Valley, On the Stour, 1830, currently paired with McTaggarts “The Storm” at the marvelous exhibition in National Galleries Scotland, we may try to compare it to the two mentioned above. The Edinburgh sketch is small, 8 x 9.25 inches, which puts it close to the Sotheby’s piece. Is executed on millboard, one of Constable’s favorite supports for small works, which puts it well within the interest of a paper conservator – definitely a good thing - but which also lowers value somehow. On the other hand the artistic quality is exquisite, the style mature and unrestricted, and the provenience well documented.

John Constable, On the Stour (Reverse: Study of Cows), 1830,

National Galleries Scotland.Creative Commons.

Still, the question arises, what so important about Constable’s sketches that one of the best European art galleries builds a whole show around it? (And he even wasn’t a Scott!)

Between 1819 and 1825, John Constable executed a series of 6 oil paintings of the Stour Valley in Suffolk. The final paintings, exhibited at the Royal Academy, sealed his reputation as the leading British artist of the period. What was unusual at the time, for each painting, Constable prepared a full-size sketch. Even though the series of final paintings was completed in 1825, over the next few years Constable continued to create more large scale sketches of his favorite Valley, both on canvas and on millboard.

The first six sketches are highly appreciated, until today stirring discussions among art historians and critics. Kenneth Clark wrote about two of the most famous sketches:

“ His first versions (they cannot be called sketches) of ‘The Hay Wain’ and ‘The Leaping Horse’ are the greatest thing in English art, and it is tragic to think that much of his time was spent in making from them dull replicas, finished for exhibition according to the timid taste of the day.”

Quite the same could be said about many other, less popular paintings by Constable. While the sketch, if we are lucky to know it, seems fresh and full of life, the final, polished pieced may appear ever slightly too detailed”, or maybe too self-conscious.

Interestingly, we may deduct certain degree of similar thinking from the artist himself. As Charles Rhyne noticed, even though originally, the large scale sketches were executed by Constable for purely technical reasons – to research the best possible composition before committing to the final version, along the years a curious process occurred, where the final canvas became more and more similar to sketch. The artist continued to produce sketches on their own, experimenting with composition and layering out the pentimenti, without the purpose of converting them eventually into “final picture”. The practice of producing so many sketches was actually considered dangerous at the time. Charles Robert Leslie, a painter and an early biographer of Constable, wrote in 1845:

“The best painters know that a work of any value can only be carried through be the head and hand of him who planned it, and consequently, those only undertake to complete unfinished pictures who are least capable of divining the intentions of their authors. Some of Constable’s sketches have thus been ‘finished’ into worthlessness, and what is a still greater injury to his reputation, entire forgeries have been made of his works.”

We know well that Constable’s longstanding political positions were conservative; indeed, Nathaniel Hawthorne could call him a Tories' Tory. And the traditional, detailed and a little bit stiff recreation of pastoral English countryside in his final paintings presented at the Royal Academy do seem suitable for a Tory. But was there maybe another side to John Constable that we don’t know much about? Can his sketches, especially the late ones, offer to a careful viewer a clue to some changes in artist’s personal philosophy, where classical approach cracked a little and gave way to more subtle, modernist ideas rising slowly among the ranks of the European artistic bohème; the ideas that true memories of the past cannot be forced onto this world, but rather only observed, in the brief moments when the light, the scenery, and one’s personal perception are in the right alignment?

On a technical note: the Edinburgh sketch has been executed on millboard, recently conservators from the Victoria and Albert Museum, managed to reactivate the “Constable-paper” and documented the whole process in a very interesting paper available at the link below:


Further reading:

Ronald Parkinson,”John Constable: The Man and His Art”, Univ. of Michigan, 1998.

Charles Rhyn, “The Remarkable Story ofthe ‘Six FootSketches ’”, in: Sarah Cove et al. “Constable: the great landscapes”, London-Tate 2006.

Charles Robert Leslie, “Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Esq., R.A.: Composed Chiefly of His Letters”, London 1845 (quot. p.306)

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