cleaning the white horse

John Constable (1776–1837) created landscapes that ranged from sketches with broad, loose strokes to highly polished and tightly rendered finished paintings. He would often arbitrarily end the painting process at any degree of finish in between. The four-by-six-foot painting The White Horse (1819), part of the Widener Collection at the National Gallery of Art, seemed to have been painted in one of these intermediate styles at the time of its donation in 1942.

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This is an image of the painting before cleaning. It shows how heavy and flat the trees and sky appeared. This awkwardness is not characteristic of Constable’s sketches or of his finished paintings and demonstrates the reason the painting had been de-attributed from Constable before it was cleaned.

Once considered a same-size second version of the highly finished The White Horse in the Frick Collection, New York City, the Widener White Horse showed a halfway degree of finish that became problematic in determining its attribution. If the painting had been more of a sketch, experts likely would have attributed it to Constable, because over the course of his career he had created nine four-by-six-foot paintings for the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. For all but The White Horse, he had first created a full-size sketch. Because the Gallery’s painting seemed more like a finished work than a sketch, and was somewhat awkwardly realized in a technique that did not really match any of those typically seen in Constable’s paintings, by 1977 scholars concluded that the painting was a lesser copy by another artist.

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John Constable, The White Horse, 1818–1819, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection
In 1984, the Constable expert Charles Rhyne asked National Gallery conservators to prepare an x-radiograph of the painting so that its layering structure could be studied. He and the conservators noticed a second, entirely different composition beneath the painting. It appeared that here Constable had first attempted a large version of Dedham Vale from the Coombs, a scene he had realized in small charcoal sketches and small paintings, such as the well known one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but had never painted on a large scale. For some reason, Constable abandoned this subject and reused the canvas to paint a version of The White Horse.
{article found at The National Gallery of Art}

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