John Constable painted with a freshness and vivacity that was revolutionary for his time. Whereas contemporary landscape artists relied upon pictorial references, even adjusting their palettes to emulate the patina of aged oil paintings, Constable worked directly from nature, using plein air oil sketches as the basis for his finished work. His landscapes were immensely popular in France, where they became an important source of inspiration for the Barbizon School and, eventually, the Impressionists.
With its intricate Gothic architecture, Salisbury Cathedral was a challenging departure for Constable, who described it as “the most difficult subject in landscape I ever had upon my easel.” The painting was a commission from the bishop, his close friend Dr. John Fisher, who appears alongside his wife in the lower left of the composition. To the right, trees frame the spire of the cathedral which, at the bishop’s request, rises into a brighter sky than Constable had originally conceived. To meet Fisher’s exacting standards, Constable reworked the composition twice, this circa 1825 canvas representing a full-scale sketch for the third and final version.