More on Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

Salisbury Cathedral was the focus of my previous post. However, it did introduce one of Constable’s great paintings which has a history and symbolism worth its own spotlight.

John Constable had just lost his wife, Maria, and was encouraged to produce this large scale painting by his friend and patron, Archdeacon John Fisher. Constable had visited the Bishop of Salisbury several times and produced a number of paintings and sketches.

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831, oil on canvas, 1537cm x 970cm, Tate Britain, London.
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831, oil on canvas, 1537cm x 970cm, Tate Britain, London.

Not known particularly for allegorical themes, many believe that there is much symbolism in this painting. The stormy skies certainly represent dark turbulence both in Constable’s life at the time, and the Anglican Church. The Church was threatened throughout the nineteenth century and the great Reform Act of 1832 further attacked its supremacy. However despite the politics and his own personal grieving the presence of the rainbow represents hope and the idea that the storm will pass. The end of the rainbow seems to settle on the Archdeacon’s house, maybe acknowledging the valuable part played by John Fisher in the artist’s reconciliation.

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831, oil on canvas, 1537cm x 970cm, Tate Britain, London. (Detail)
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831, oil on canvas, 1537cm x 970cm, Tate Britain, London. (Detail)

There are representations of death in the collapsed fencing and life in the Ash tree (a symbol of new life)

What you cannot see from this image is Constable’s virtuoso treatment of  paint. It varies from the nearly translucent glazing of the rainbow to the, almost, three dimensional laying of thick daubs in the foreground vegetation. Constable would apply the paint with brush, palette knife, fingers, anything he could lay his hands on. His treatment of the bramble in the foreground with its drops of rainwater is stunningly beautiful. But whereas landscape artists generally produced representations, Constable painted ‘what he saw’. No wonder he was so admired by the impressionists and their en plain air ideas.

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831, oil on canvas, 1537cm x 970cm, Tate Britain, London. (Detail)
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831, oil on canvas, 1537cm x 970cm, Tate Britain, London. (Detail)

Finally I cannot leave this painting without a mention of those little patches of rich scarlet red that appear in all his works. Look for the horses tack and the indistinct figure on the left. Also look for the gorgeous treatment of the reflected storm clouds on the surface of the River Nadder. Do look for this painting next time you are in London and it’s earlier oil sketch, both in the Tate.

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