On June 18, 1817, the second anniversary of the battle in which Napoleon was finally defeated, London's Waterloo Bridge opened with splendid public festivities. This occasion provided John Constable with urban subject matter unlike his more usual Suffolk landscapes. He may have been attempting a modern “historical landscape” in emulation of Claude Lorrain. The finished picture, which today hangs in Tate Britain in London, is a grand composition documenting a significant moment in the city's cultural heritage.
Constable may have made this smaller rendering of Waterloo Bridge in preparation for the painting at the Tate, or as a separate work in itself. It is far less documentary than the Tate composition, which recalls Canaletto in its precise arrangement of buildings and figures. In the Cincinnati canvas, Constable experimented with a lower horizon line. A wide expanse of sky and a broad range of the river draw the viewer’s eye toward Saint Paul’s Cathedral in the distance. Although the urban subject is unusual for the artist, the magnificent clouds and the graceful tree at the left are exceptional examples of his more lyrical work in landscape painting.