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A Constable discovery

20 September 2016

John Constable
(1776–1837)
A Donkey
9 ¾ x 12 inches; 248 x 305 mm
Dated Feby:27 1816 (lower left)

We are getting ready for TEFAF New York and looking forward to exhibiting a fascinating unpublished painting by John Constable. This fluidly painted oil sketch of a donkey was made by Constable at an important, transitional moment in his career. This small painting offers important evidence of the work Constable was making en plein air in East Bergholt in 1816. It is likely that the painting remained with the Constable family until the late nineteenth century.

The present oil study is painted on panel and is dated in Constable’s distinctive hand ‘Feby 27 1816’, just two days before a very similar oil sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We know Constable was in East Bergholt as he wrote a long and anxious letter to his fiancé Maria Bicknell on the same day worrying about her health. Probably working from animals belonging to his father and used on the family land at East Bergholt, Constable produced two characteristically sensitive and incisive studies of the donkey. Clearly working rapidly, out of doors, Constable first painted the animal, capturing the mass of the body and profile with a range of brown brushstrokes before blocking in the background with passages of thickly applied cream paint.

John Constable
(1776–1837)
Two Donkeys, 1816
Oil on canvas mounted on panel
7 ½ x 9 ⅞ inches; 149 x 200 mm
Philadelphia Museum of Art: John G. Johnson Collection, 1917

This exceptionally rare dated oil sketch offers important new evidence of Constable’s work at a key moment in his career. The death of Constable’s father in 1816, his marriage to Maria Bicknell and permanent move to London, had enormous impacts on his painting and career. It was the greater naturalism and impulse to work more and more out of doors which governed his work in the winter of 1815/16 and which directly influenced his exhibited works of the same year. The more informal oil studies he produced, such as our sketch of a donkey, assumed a greater importance in the artistic formula he devised to enable him to execute exhibition works in this new, more naturalistic style. The present study offers crucial insight into Constable’s method, whilst remaining a work of great beauty and intelligence.