Martin Johnson HEADE  
United States of America 1819 � 1904-09-04  
Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Wilmerding Collection (Promised Gift). Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
John CONSTABLE | The leaping horse

Great Britain 1776 – 1837-05-31
The leaping horse 1825
oil on canvas
Reynolds 25.1
142.0 (h) x 187.3 (w) cm
frame 184.5 (h) x 229.0 (w) x 12.0 (d) cm
Royal Academy of Arts, London
VIEW: Article |
Turner to Monet

Constable, one of the foremost British landscape painters of the nineteenth century, first achieved success with his large canvases depicting landscape and life in and around the Stour Valley, which he exhibited between 1819 and 1825. Such was the success of the first of these large paintings, The white horse 1819,1 when Constable exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1819, that he was elected Associate of the Academy later that year.2 Working on a scale usually reserved for history painting, Constable redefined the notion of a ‘finished’ picture by giving his large landscapes something of the spontaneous freedom and expressive handling of a rapidly painted sketch.

The leaping horse is the sixth and the last of these large Stour Valley landscapes and one of the most powerful. Constable chose a place called Float Jump, close to where the course of the old river temporarily left the navigable portion of the Stour. It also marked the boundary between the counties of Essex and Suffolk. The jump itself consisted of a wooden barrier a metre high, constructed across the tow path. Built to stop cattle straying, it was low enough to allow barge horses to leap over it. Constable chose the moment when the horse, mounted by a boy, was leaping the barrier, which gave vigour to the scene. He depicted it from a low viewpoint to give the horse and rider a dramatic presence.

Constable’s principal concern was not, however, with the specifics of the location but rather capturing the atmosphere of place and the general feelings associated with experiencing nature. He sought to present nature as something mutable, not fixed. ‘It is a lovely subject,’ Constable said of The leaping horse, ‘lively – & soothing – calm and exhilarating, fresh – & blowing’.3 He wanted his landscapes to create a total experience, including a sense of movement and sound as well as what can be directly observed. In this painting he wanted to convey the feel of the wind, the shimmering of light, the sense of being outdoors. And he extended the experience of the landscape by depicting a moorhen startled from her nest by the thundering of the horse’s hoofs.

Constable’s handling of paint is expressionist and almost abstract. He used palette knife as well as brush, with which he created a visual impression of flickering lights and shadows. The light rises as if the sun is coming out and the storm clouds are blowing away. It sparkles on the trees on the left and gives the pollarded tree in the centre a silvery look.

Constable also carried through his interest in ‘skying’ into all his large landscapes. In saying the sky was the ‘chief organ of sentiment’ in a painting, he emphasised his belief in the expressive importance of the sky, and its ability to dictate the mood of a landscape.4 His skies are a vital part of his compositions and a main conveyor of mood, as in The leaping horse. They transform comfortable, stable scenes into ones of continual change and transition.

Anne Gray

1 The Frick Collection, New York.

2 Constable described this work as ‘a placid representation of a serene grey morning, summer’, Graham Reynolds, The later paintings and drawings of John Constable: text, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 156.

3 R.B. Beckett, John Constable’s correspondence VI Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1968, p. 198.

4 Beckett, p. 77.