John Constable (English, 1776–1837)
Oil on canvas
34 5/8 x 44 in. (87.9 x 111.8 cm)
Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.8)
From July 13 until August 22, 1820, Constable and his family paid a visit to Archdeacon John Fisher and his wife in Salisbury. The artist had been there twice before, in September 1811, at the invitation of the archdeacon's uncle, Dr. John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, and again on his wedding trip with Maria in October 1816. On these occasions he made plein air oil sketches and drawings that would be consulted for works later executed in his London studio. He produced three finished paintings of the cathedral, all titled Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds. The first was painted for the bishop (1823, Victoria and Albert Museum, London); a reduced version was prepared for the bishop's daughter on the occasion of her wedding (1823–1826, Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California); and a third canvas, displaying a sunnier sky, was intended for the bishop but was not completed until after his death (1826, Frick Collection, New York).
The present canvas is the full-scale study for this last work. While it was on Constable's easel, he made changes in the design, suppressing foliage that met in an arc over the top of the spire (revealed by infrared reflectography), which allowed him to extend and brighten up the sky. Like the finished paintings, it shows the great Gothic building from the southwest, as it appeared from the garden of the Bishop's Palace. The bishop himself appears in the middle distance, pointing out the cathedral spire to his wife. The architecture exhibits uncharacteristic precision, particularly in the steeple of the cathedral and in the windows, where light bounces off the tracery. The trees, more loosely handled, sparkle with Constable's characteristic "whitewash," the sharp accents of white with which he finished his pictures.