The Leaping Horse (1825) by John ConstableRoyal Academy of Arts
This painting is one in a series of six-foot-wide canvases that Constable began in 1819, hoping to build a reputation as a serious landscape painter.
In this landscape the focus is on the tow horse, which would have been used to pull a canal boat with a rope from the path. Constable has painted the horse as it jumps over one of the barriers erected along the towpath to prevent cattle from straying.
A few years before making this work, Constable wrote, “The sound of water escaping from mill-dams, etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things…”
Dangling from the rotten planks in this painting, he's included an elibray (a net for catching eels).
There are lots of other little details in the work – from these bent nails in the post…
...to this moorhen...
...to this smoke from a distant barge…
...to this tiny baby.
There's a long tradition of painting horses in Western art, and they were extraordinarily popular as subject matter in the 1800s when Constable was working. Writer and curator Richard Humphreys has suggested several reasons for their appeal in this era: “In their wild power they embodied the romantic notion of the sublime; in their elegant, muscular form they represented the very definition of animal beauty; and in their work in fields and in city streets they were the great and picturesque movers of daily human activity.”
Horse riders often worked with a lighterman who was on board the boat. Lightermen only had oars so were dependent on the horse and rider for power. Horse riders were known as "whisperers" because of their control of the creatures, seemingly mastered through strange, magical commands and lucky objects they carried on the horse’s back.
Here you can see where Constable has changed the composition, leaving behind the trace of a tree that’s become visible as the paint has faded over time. Constable wrote in a letter to his wife Maria that he had “Got up early – set to work on my large picture. Took out the old willow stump by my horse, which has improved it much”.
This is the willow in its new position. Some critics belittled Constable for being a “portraitist of trees”, but as his friend and biographer wrote, he admired “a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms.”
Here, Constable has used lighter colours to add the texture of bark.
Constable paid great attention to the skies in his landscapes, but he acknowledged that, “Their difficulty in painting as to composition and execution is very great, because with all their brilliancy and consequence, they ought not to come forward or hardly be thought about in a picture”.
The scene in Leaping Horse is based on the River Stour that flows through Constable’s native Suffolk, in east England. This bridge marks a boundary: the horse is leaping over the crossing from Essex into Constable’s beloved home county.
This is the tower of St Mary's church in the Suffolk village of Dedham.
The scene sums up the artist well: Constable was a patriotic Englishman who never left the country, a staunch Tory who revered the traditional social order, and a devout Anglican Christian who apparently prayed in front of his canvases. He wrote that “In the landscape of the painter...the spire of the church, rise amid the ceaseless luxuriance of vegetable life, and by their contrast, give the mighty moral to the scene.”
The Leaping Horse is currently hanging in the RA's Collection Gallery, which you can visit for free, or you can take a guided tour online.