- Museum number
London, from Hampstead Heath in a storm; with double rainbow seen beneath purple masses of cloud. 1831
Watercolour, on grey paper
Verso: Rain clouds over landscape
- Production date
Height: 197 millimetres
Width: 320 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Constable sketched this view from a window of his house at 6 Well Walk, Hampstead. The study is dated June 1831, a few months after the completion and exhibition at the Royal Academy of 'Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows' (R31.1), the first major work of the artist's to depict a prominent rainbow.
This study is not the first by Constable to depict a double rainbow. An oil sketch made at East Bergholt, dated 28 June 1812, shows the same phenomenon (R12.29), but it is not meteorologically accurate. By the time he came to sketch 1888,0215.55, Constable's scientific understanding of rainbows had grown, and this is evident in several features of his sketch. The colours of the outer, or secondary, arc are shown reversed, that is with red on the insde and blue on the outside, as they would appear in nature; in Constable's 1812 sketch, both arcs show the same sequence of colours. The secondary arc should be twice as wide as the primary arc, and Constable does depict it wider, but only by 23 per cent, according to measurements made in the Print Room by John Thornes (John Constable's skies, 1999, p. 88). The distance between the two arcs should be almost three times the width of the secondary arc; here, Thornes calculates it to be about 2 ¼ times as much.
The particular circumstances which gave rise to this unusual effect are described in detail by Paul Schweizer: "As...light was intercepted by the moist atmosphere of a passing cloud, it was refracted into the primary and secondary arcs of a rainbow. Only small segments of these arcs were visible to Constable, however, because the sunlight that passed through the dark clouds was restricted to a narrow shaft of light" ('John Constable, rainbow science and English colour theory' Art Bulletin, LXIV, 1982, p. 427). Schweizer points out that a similar phenomenon is illustrated in Luke Howard's 'Climate of London', where the two fragmentary arcs are refracted by different beams of light, but it is not known whether by this date Constable had studied Howard's work (ibid, p. 428, fig.4).
Constable's intense study of the optics surrounding the appearance of rainbows is recorded in two sheets of sketches and jottings, on paper watermarked 1832, which Schweizer suggests were made around 1833 (ibid., p. 427, n.11; R33.49 to 52). Among other things, these notes reveal that Constable was aware of debates about the number of colours in the rainbow. The Newtonian prismatic or seven-colour rainbow was still not universally accepted, and Constable draws the seven colours rearranged into three bands, red, yellow and blue. In this study, he appears to follow his eye rather than any theory, and paints the bands red, white and blue.
The fruits of this study are also evident in the letterpress Constable composed to accompany the print of 'Stoke by Nayland', in which he writes extensively about different types of rainbows (see JCD, p.21-4). Constable probably relied on Thomas Forster's 'Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena', of which he owned the second edition, and which he described in 1836 as "the best book" adding "he is far from right, still he has the merit of breaking much ground" (JCC V, p. 36). This same letter mentions that Constable had proposed a lecture on weather science to the Hampstead Literary and Scientific Society, where he gave his first lecture on landscape painting in 1833, for the summer of 1837, but he died before this could be delivered.
1888-2-15-55 is of further interest to meteorologists as a depiction of a rarer effect than the double rainbow, that of the apparent convergence of the sun's rays when the sun is behind the viewer. Even though the two arcs of the rainbow are in the same plane, that is, at the same distance from the spectator, the ray of light in which they appear is receding towards the horizon. The slight sketch on the verso of this sheet is a further representation of the same thing, with rays of light appearing to converge over the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. This effect is known as anticrepuscular rays. When such rays intercept a rainbow, the result is called a 'rainbow wheel'. According to Thornes, this watercolour by Constable may be the earliest visual record of the phenomenon. Constable also used it in 'The opening of Waterloo Bridge', which he exhibited in 1832 (though the work had been in progress for ten years; R32.1); the passage in Leslie's biography where the originality of the lighting effect is discussed may be the earliest account of it in print (see Thornes 1999, p.88). The depiction of such unusual effects was apparently something which Constable pointed out to his children, or that they later became aware of. In a letter written by Constable's youngest son, to his brother Lionel some years later, Alfred commented, 'only think of you having seen the suns rays going off in perspective how did it look I believe it is very rare / it is painted in the large picture of Waterloo Bridge' (I. Fleming-Williams, 'Constable landscape watercolours and drawings', 1976, p. 100, pl. 42).
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1936 BM Canaletto to Constable, no no.
1956 Norwich, Castle Mus, Watercolours/British landscape painters, no.14
1958 Apr, BM, Eight centuries of landscape ... water-colours, Section 80
1972 Oct, BM, The Art of Drawing, no.328
1976 Feb-May, London, Tate Gallery, 'Constable', no. 283
1984 BM, 'Master Drawings & Watercolours', no. 180
1985 BM, British Landscape Watercolours 1600-1860, no.104
1987/8 Oct-Jan, New York, NYPL, William Wordsworth, no.218
1991 Jun-Sep, London, Tate Gallery, 'Constable', no. 327
1992 Jun-Nov, Essen, Villa Hugel, 'London 1800-38', no. 257
2002-2003 Oct-Jan, Paris, Grand Palais, 'Constable', no.187
2006 Mar-Jun, Canberra, NG of Austrlia, Constable
2006 Jul-Oct, Wellington, Te Papa Tongarewa, Constable
2020-2021 19 Sep-28 Feb, Haarlem, Teylers Museum, 'John Constable and the Netherlands'
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
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