Visitors to the Constable: The Making of a Master exhibition will be able to see a number of extraordinary copies painted by Constable alongside the original Old Master paintings that inspired him. His paintings after Jacob van Ruisdael’s (c.1629-1682) Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem and Winter are so similar to the originals that it is tempting to play ‘Spot the Difference’. Constable sought to study and emulate the effects created by Ruisdael through the making of copies, which then influenced his own paintings. To see if we could learn what practical method Constable had used to make his copies we examined the two versions of Ruisdael’s Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem which both belong to Dulwich Picture Gallery.
We didn’t find the answer to that question but we made a different discovery. Under the microscope we found a dog. When Constable borrowed Ruisdael’s Winter to copy it, the owner apparently requested that he added in something to distinguish the copy from the original and ensure no one could be deceived in the future. Constable agreed and painted in a small dog behind one of the figures. This dog was not thought to feature in any other copy by Constable, but on close inspection of the Dulwich painting we spotted it reappearing, with slightly shorter legs this time, in Landscape with Windmills. He created it with just a few flicks of paint.
Today’s visitor will notice other differences too: a figure on horseback with a small boy beside him appears in Constable’s painting. However, this is not another feature introduced to distinguish the two paintings. When Constable made his copy these figures were also found in Ruisdael’s painting. The figures had been added as eighteenth century ‘improvements’ to Ruisdael’s picture and have subsequently been removed by conservators to return the painting to its original composition.
By Nicola Costaras and Clare Richardson