John Constable:
The White Horse

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    • Oil on canvas, 51 3/4 x 74 1/8 inches
    • 1819
    • The Frick Collection, New York City

In 1819, Constable exhibited the first of his monumental "six-footers," canvases which he hoped would attract attention. His previous works had been small compositions, now he wanted to enter the great tradition of European landscapes. Constable entitled this work, "A scene on the River Stour," but its first owner renamed the masterpiece, The White Horse. It shows a flat-barge crossing the river just below Flatford Mill, at a point where the tow-path switched sides. Two men are pushing against into the current with long poles, while in the aft of the boat the horse, which will be used to pull the boat, stands patiently.

This picture is a wonderful representation of the soggy lands of the Stour, the decaying houses, the hard-working inhabitants. Although another painter might have painted all this poverty as an indictment, as a failure, Constable celebrates it with joyful exhuberance. Look at that remarkable tree in the right center, growing on a tiny piece of land which is crumbling into the river. That tree has no right to be there, but it is flourishing! Critics have sometimes charged Constable with nostalgia, painting a world that was rapidly disappearing. But if so, it is gorgeous nostalgia.

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