JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 9 (pp. 362 to 372)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 9 (pp. 362 to 372)




John Constable, with J. M. W. Turner among the pre-eminent British landscape painters of the 19th century, was still relatively unknown around 1818–19 when he began painting the National Gallery of Art's version of The White Horse. He painted another version of this painting (of similar scale, approximately 4 6 ft) for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1819 (fig. 2, p. 364). This version, dated 1819 and now in the Frick Collection, received critical acclaim and led to Constable's election to associate membership in the Royal Academy.

Fig. 2. John Constable, The White Horse, 1819, oil on canvas, 51 74⅛ in., The Frick Collection

Although the history of the Frick painting was well documented, the version in the National Gallery of Art had a less certain provenance. It was not recorded in the Constable literature until it appeared in a catalog for the 1872 exhibition at the Royal Academy, which lists it as “118, The White Horse, John Constable, R. A., Canvas, 49 70 1/2 in. Lent by John Pender Esq.” It was next recorded as exhibited in 1882 in E. Fox White's gallery in London. The following year a full-page reproduction engraving by O. Jahyer was included as part of an article on Constable in the Magazine of Art (fig. 3, p. 364). In 1893 the picture was purchased from Wallis and Son, London by Peter A. B. Widener. In 1942, his son, Joseph E. Widener, donated it in his memory to the National Gallery of Art (Rhyne 1990).

Fig. 3. Engraving after Constable's sketch for The White Horse

Although The White Horse was given a prominent position in the galleries upon donation, its appearance, which was somewhat atypical for Constable, gave reason for some discussion. Writing about the painting in 1944, John Walker, then director of the National Gallery, said, “It seems to me a full size sketch made as a preliminary study for the Frick painting” (Walker 1944). This opinion was the accepted wisdom regarding the painting until 1977, when the Constable scholar Robert Hozee wrote that the National Gallery of Art's painting “was probably a later copy” (Hozee 1977). An explanation that reconciled these two views was provided in 1983 by Leslie Parris, the Constable expert of the Tate Gallery, London. He believed that the painting had probably once been an oil sketch that had been painter over by a “later hand” in an effort to make it appear more finished. In 1984, perhaps in an effort to settle the questions posed by these disparate opinions, another Constable scholar, Charles Rhyne, studied a newly prepared x-radiograph of the painting with members of the National Gallery of Art's Conservation Department (Rhyne and Swicklik 1994). Rhyne noticed a second, entirely different composition beneath the painting (fig. 4, p. 365). It appeared that Constable had also attempted a large version of Dedham Vale from the Coombs, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which he had accomplished previously only in the form of small charcoal sketches and small paintings but never on a large scale (fig. 5, p. 365). For some reason he abandoned this painting, covering it with a version of The White Horse. This evidence of an underlying painting indicated that Constable had been involved in producing the work, since a copyist or forger would have been unlikely to first enlarge a small work into a larger one and then paint a copy of a different work over it.

Fig. 4. Overall x-radiograph

Fig. 5. John Constable, Dedham Vale from the Coombs, 1805–1808, Victoria and Albert Museum

Many issues remained unresolved when conservation treatment was first considered in 1992, including whether the visible composition had been meant as a finished version or as a sketch of The White Horse. If it were a sketch, what could explain its current appearance? Even taking the distortion of the thick, highly discolored varnish into consideration, the painting did not present the visual characteristics of a Constable sketch. The painting was heavy and cumbersome, rather than loose and lively; the paint itself was transparent and liquid, not opaque and thick; the trees were rendered as massive, filled-in, hard-edged shapes, not as Constable's typically brushy, air-filled, irregular forms. In many respects the painting was more like a finished work than a sketch.

If heavy repainting explained this look, why had this occurred, and who did it? From the engraving by O. Jahyer in 1883 it was clear that any overpainting would have been in place by that date. Given repainting as an explanation for the painting's appearance, it was not immediately clear whether it had been done by a different person to turn a less marketable sketch into a more desirable finished work or if Constable himself had the same motivation late in his career. It was also possible that later painting was done only to complete an unfinished work that Constable had abandoned at an early stage, because the initial painting on the canvas could not be adequately concealed. Of particular concern was the chance that Constable's painting could have been so disfigured by ill-conceived restoration that overpaint was used to hide the damage. The possibility that the painting could be a forgery also still required consideration.

Copyright 1998 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works