In this new series, noted painter Joseph McGurl discusses plein air paintings by past masters that he finds instructive or inspiring. This week: John Constable’s “Study of an Elm Tree Trunk.”

This wonderful study by one of the most important landscape artists succeeds on many levels. The painting’s primary purpose is stated in its title. Constable’s intensive study of this particular elm tree enabled him to gain a deeper understanding of this tree’s botany. He could then incorporate what he had learned into a subsequent studio painting that retains the truthfulness of the study. But Constable goes beyond the mere recording of botanical features. Although this is primarily a study, a painting is always a work of art, and consideration of other artistic principles should not be discarded. The composition is in the format of a portrait, which, in a way, is what this is. The tree is just off center, and by tilting it slightly off the vertical, he creates a sense of tension. He keeps the eye activated by including the light sky behind the tree to give contrast to the muted tones elsewhere. Constable uses the damp English atmosphere to great advantage. The dark branches at the top of the picture, the accents on the trunk, and the tree’s brighter green foliage bring the tree forward from the cool-toned and soft-edged background. The sense of roundness in the trunk’s form is accomplished by the use of perspective. The oval bark shapes become narrower as the sides of the trunk turn away from the eye. Constable also includes the spot of softly lighted grass extending behind both sides of the trunk to further indicate its three-dimensionality. As well as functioning as a plein air study, “Study of an Elm Tree Trunk” can also be considered a successful work of art.



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