Discover Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

31 May 2013

Following a £1 million grant, we’ve helped Tate to buy John Constable’s iconic masterpiece Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows on behalf of five museums. Due to an ambitious programme of collaboration, the work will go on display in partner museums across the UK for the next five years.

Explore the painting with our interactive image map below and enjoy a guide to the work by Amy Concannon, Assistant Curator, 1790–1850 at Tate Britain.


© Courtesy of Tate

Detail

1. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was pre-eminent in Constable’s mind: ‘I have done wonders with my great Salisbury’, he wrote. The work represents the apex of Constable’s ambition as a landscape painter. It is indeed ‘great’ in its scale, its visual drama and its symbolic potential, as well as the investment of time, emotion and intellect it demanded of the artist. The first indicator of the status Constable accorded this painting is its six-foot format – the format he reserved for his finest compositions.

2. By April 1831 Constable was ready to exhibit the painting at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition. Typically for Constable, however, it met with mixed reviews. The critic for The Times deemed it ‘masterly’ but thought it spoiled by ‘clouds as no human being ever saw’ and ‘spotting the foreground all over with whitewash’ (Constable’s predilection for white highlights often attracted abuse); another termed it ‘chaos’.

3. In spite of Constable’s belief that this was his ‘best work’ and the iconic status it has since acquired, the perception of his art that predominates is rooted in the paintings he made of his native Suffolk. Salisbury Cathedral is far removed from the noontime sunshine of The Hay Wain, though the cart crossing the Avon is reminiscent of it.

4. The painting depicts an eerie scene in which sunlight and showers seem at war, just as the Cathedral’s spire, solid and ordered, jars against the wild, foreboding sky. Immensely magnetic, the very components of Salisbury Cathedral’s visual drama lead us beneath the surface, into the complexities of Constable’s art, his character and the political climate at the time it was painted more than any other work by him.

5. Constable was a highly emotional person for whom art was a cathartic process. Salisbury Cathedral is often related to his suffering after the premature death of his wife Maria in 1828, a time through which he found solace in the church and specifically Salisbury. The dark clouds also operate as a metaphor for the perceived threat to the established Church of England that Catholic emancipation and political reform posed: issues that deeply troubled the artist. With its heavily-worked impasto surface, its quivering foliage and tumultuous sky, Salisbury Cathedral is rendered an emblem for unsettling times, both private and public.

6. Much of the painting’s power and tension rests on its rainbow, the first Constable was ever to include in an exhibited work. Rubens’s The Rainbow Landscape (c. 1636–7) made a lasting impression when Constable saw it in 1804: in 1836 he gave a lecture extolling Rubens’s ability to capture in a rainbow ‘more than the rainbow itself’, the qualities of ‘dewy light and freshness, the departing shower, with the exhilaration of the returning sun’. Constable has himself excelled in this, for his rainbow represents much more than meteorological phenomena.

Hover over the image to unlock the story of Constable’s stunning six-footer. Click on a section to zoom in and discover more about this magnificent landscape.

1. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was pre-eminent in Constable’s mind: ‘I have done wonders with my great Salisbury’, he wrote. The work represents the apex of Constable’s ambition as a landscape painter. It is indeed ‘great’ in its scale, its visual drama and its symbolic potential, as well as the investment of time, emotion and intellect it demanded of the artist. The first indicator of the status Constable accorded this painting is its six-foot format – the format he reserved for his finest compositions.

2. By April 1831 Constable was ready to exhibit the painting at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition. Typically for Constable, however, it met with mixed reviews. The critic for The Times deemed it ‘masterly’ but thought it spoiled by ‘clouds as no human being ever saw’ and ‘spotting the foreground all over with whitewash’ (Constable’s predilection for white highlights often attracted abuse); another termed it ‘chaos’.

3. In spite of Constable’s belief that this was his ‘best work’ and the iconic status it has since acquired, the perception of his art that predominates is rooted in the paintings he made of his native Suffolk. Salisbury Cathedral is far removed from the noontime sunshine of The Hay Wain, though the cart crossing the Avon is reminiscent of it.

4. The painting depicts an eerie scene in which sunlight and showers seem at war, just as the Cathedral’s spire, solid and ordered, jars against the wild, foreboding sky. Immensely magnetic, the very components of Salisbury Cathedral’s visual drama lead us beneath the surface, into the complexities of Constable’s art, his character and the political climate at the time it was painted more than any other work by him.

5. Constable was a highly emotional person for whom art was a cathartic process. Salisbury Cathedral is often related to his suffering after the premature death of his wife Maria in 1828, a time through which he found solace in the church and specifically Salisbury. The dark clouds also operate as a metaphor for the perceived threat to the established Church of England that Catholic emancipation and political reform posed: issues that deeply troubled the artist. With its heavily-worked impasto surface, its quivering foliage and tumultuous sky, Salisbury Cathedral is rendered an emblem for unsettling times, both private and public.

6. Much of the painting’s power and tension rests on its rainbow, the first Constable was ever to include in an exhibited work. Rubens’s The Rainbow Landscape (c. 1636–7) made a lasting impression when Constable saw it in 1804: in 1836 he gave a lecture extolling Rubens’s ability to capture in a rainbow ‘more than the rainbow itself’, the qualities of ‘dewy light and freshness, the departing shower, with the exhilaration of the returning sun’. Constable has himself excelled in this, for his rainbow represents much more than meteorological phenomena.

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© Courtesy of Tate