Hampstead Heath with Bathers, ca. 1821–22
John Constable (English, 1776–1837)
Oil on canvas; 9 5/8 x 15 3/8 in. (24.4 x 39.1 cm)
Thaw Collection, Jointly Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009 (2009.400.26)
In 1819, Constable and his family began their annual summer migrations from London to Hampstead, then well out in the country, to escape the city’s noise and heat. Here, between October 1820 and September 1822, the artist produced fifty-four plein air sketches, known as “sky studies,” with which he attempted to understand the transitory atmospheric conditions made visible by clouds and light. On the backs of all but three of these studies he inscribed the date, time of day, and weather conditions associated with the sketch, often relating details about the sun, moon, sky, or clouds and noting relevant changes in air temperature, wind velocity, and precipitation. Blending art and science, Constable moved beyond mere imitation in his work to create nuanced representations of the ephemeral natural phenomena that painters strive to capture.
The present work is one of Constable’s attempts to convey the specific meteorological conditions he observed over the broken heights, grassy glades, and shrub-covered expanses of Hampstead Heath. While many of his oil sketches are on paper, this rendering on canvas would have been a more considered work. A heat-infused red mist rises from the coarse landscape of sand and clay. Above a low horizon, the clouds are in motion, pushed by the wind into feathery wisps and bundles. Eight or ten bathers, all apparently male, seem to have flung their clothing into a great heap on the beach before wading into the water. According to Heseltine’s catalogue, the inscription accompanying the sketch, once seen on the back of the canvas and now likely obscured by the lining, reads: “July — noon — Hampstead Heath — Looking north — wind South east”.