On Works by Constable and Delacroix

  • Bridget Riley

I was delighted to find two beautiful sketches at Yale: one by John Constable in the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, and the other by Eugène Delacroix at the Yale University Art Gallery. This discovery gave me a wonderful opportunity to further explore the impact that Constable’s work had upon Delacroix.

Constable’s Sketch for “The Haywain” (fig. 1), free but controlled, depicts one of those late spring days when blustery, turbulent weather throws tall trees, heavy with new foliage, into strong tonal contrast with the sky. He called this the “chiaroscuro of nature,” and as the sky played a critical role in his view of landscape painting, he spent days “skying” — that is to say, “seeing” rather than painting. He had written twenty years earlier to a friend: “I shall not have much to show you on my return, as I find my time will be more taken up in seeing than in painting. I hope by the time the leaves are on the trees, I shall be better qualified to attack them.”1 His time spent seeing was time well spent.

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John Constable, Sketch for “The Haywain”, ca. 1820, oil on canvas laid to paper, 47/8 x 7 in. (12.4 x 17.8 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.137

Constable argued long and forcefully for the acceptance of nature as a viable subject for the painter, claiming “there is room enough for a natural painture.”2 To John Fisher, he wrote, “The sky is the source of light in nature — and governs everything.”3 In his Sketch, clouds of the palest yellow ocher, catching the light from above, are paired with those of an intense blue gray in the shadow below. The painter employs a drawing technique of diagonal hatching to take these yellow ochers and blue grays through his sketch to build an extraordinary pictorial plasticity. He uses a brush and a palette knife — the tip or edge. The eye is led around and through the little painting — from the shadowed foreground with its lively sparkle of human activity, out through sunlit fields to the far distance, back to the trees, and up to the sky. We see the shine and glitter of a recent shower of rain, feel the wind, and hear the splash of water.

Constable’s final painting, The Hay Wain (1821), was shown with his View on the Stour near Dedham (1822) at the 1824 Paris Salon. The response to this “six-footer” was sensational, especially the response from younger artists, who were impressed by the novelty of the work and its monumental scale. One such admirer, Eugène Delacroix, studied The Hay Wain closely, delighted by its freshness and veracity. Feeling that a new direction for the art of painting lay in the Englishman’s work, Delacroix made several visits to John Arrowsmith, a dealer holding the piece prior to its display in the Salon. In an effort to understand this new technique while finishing his own painting for the Salon, The Massacre at Chios (1824), Delacroix wrote in his journal in June 1824, “This Constable is very good for me.” He was not alone in his response to The Hay Wain. Théodore Géricault, seeing the masterpiece in London at Somerset House in 1821, was also “stunned,” he told Delacroix, and it is thought that he encouraged Arrowsmith to take it to Paris. Although critics at the time were rather annoyed by this English import, Charles X, the French king, awarded a gold medal to The Hay Wain at the 1824 Salon.

However, Constable’s paintings were not well received at home. He was not accepted as a Royal Academician — receiving almost no votes in the academy’s annual elections — largely due to the adversity of England’s most powerful critic, John Ruskin (who favored J. M. W. Turner). This led Fisher to advise Constable to agree to the sale of The Hay Wain to the French — it would have been bought for the nation. But Constable, not wanting to expose his painting to hostile critics in another country, refused the offer.4 On January 22, 1825, his wife, Maria, forwarded a letter from Arrowsmith, who was partially French, telling Constable about the award of a medal from Charles X: “You see that in our country merit is rewarded, come from where it will.”5

Delacroix’s watercolor Path on the Side of a Mountain, Eaux-Bonnes, the Pyrénées (fig. 2) is like a glass of fresh water after the heady wine of the Romantic movement. An important change takes place in his interests and practice: pictorial color becomes a passionate quest, and Delacroix discovers a stimulating difference in culture through visits to England and his friendship with the watercolor painter Richard Parkes Bonington.

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Eugène Delacroix, Path on the Side of a Mountain, Eaux-Bonnes, the Pyrénées, 1845, watercolor over graphite, 73/8 × 121/2 in. (18.8 × 31.7 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, Everett V. Meeks, BA 1901, Fund

Delacroix approached this landscape in the same way that he approached his figure compositions: by establishing foreground, middle ground, and background. The artist is present in the point of view to the right of center. Beyond a shadowed wall lies the diagonal passage of the hillside, leading to a screen of dark vegetation and little trees. Seen in opposite light, these appear in soft washes of blue greens, dark greens, olive greens, yellow greens, light greens, bright greens, gray greens, and even turquoise. The distant mountains recede through blue violets to the opalescent tints and fugitive greens of the sky above — an instance, perhaps, of what Delacroix would later call the “concatenation of colour,” a link or chain of color relationships.

Around this time, Constable notes in his papers: “In such an age as this, painting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered only as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific, and mechanical.”6 Although Constable and Delacroix never met, communication took place in the athletics of perception. In September 1846, one year after Path on the Side of a Mountain, Delacroix assesses his encounter with The Hay Wain in his journal: “Constable says that the green of his meadows is superior to that of other artists because it is composed of a multitude of different greens. The lack of intensity and life in the verdure of the common run of landscape painters is due to the fact that it is usually painted in uniform colour. What he says here of the green of the meadows can be applied to all the other colours.” The last entry in Delacroix’s journal reads, “It is the first merit of a painting to be a feast for the eyes.”7

On July 25, 1836, in his last lecture at the Literary and Scientific Institution in Hampstead, Constable included his statement that “the art of seeing nature is a thing almost as much to be acquired as the art of reading the Egyptian hieroglyphics.”8 Delacroix’s little watercolor may be an early sign of his great undertaking to penetrate the nature of pictorial color and discover its principles. He also established procedures that would prove to be of immense value not only to the Impressionists and Postimpressionists but also to succeeding generations of aspiring colorists — including myself.


  1. Quoted in Charles R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable (London: Phaidon Press, 1951), 9. ↩︎

  2. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 15. ↩︎

  3. Constable to John Fisher, October 1821. See Ronald B. Beckett, ed.,John Constable’s Correspondence 6: The Fishers (Ipswich, UK: Suffolk Records Society, 1968), 76–77. ↩︎

  4. He also saw it as “property to [his] family.” See Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 90. ↩︎

  5. John Lloyd Fraser, John Constable, 1776–1837: The Man and His Mistress (London: Hutchinson, 1967), 149. ↩︎

  6. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 273. ↩︎

  7. Quoted in Paul Moorhouse, The Stripe Paintings, 1961–2014 (New York and London: David Zwirner Books), 14. ↩︎

  8. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 327. ↩︎