The Leaping Horse is the sixth and last of the large River Stour scenes exhibited between 1819 and 1825. It shows a rider urging a barge horse to jump over a barrier on the towpath. It is set at a site called the Float Bridge, further towards Dedham upstream from Flatford.
The painting is deliberately grand in conception and recalls some of the great equestrian portraits of the past by Leonardo and Velazquez. It is less specific in its sense of a particular moment than Constables earlier Stour paintings: instead of being set at noon, for instance, it focuses on wind and light in a more abstract and generalised fashion. Constable uses the turbulent sky to echo the energetic movement of horse and rider.
Significantly, Constable takes liberties with the actual topography of his scene, moving the spire of Dedham Church far from its actual position. While his frequent changes to the full-scale sketch and finished canvas show his increasing concern to get a satisfying composition, the church is also a powerful spiritual presence in Constables personal landscape.
John Constable, First Study for The Leaping Horse 1824
Pen, brown ink, grey and brown wash on laid paper
This studio sketch shows two barges manoeuvring past the Float Bridge by the sluice further upstream from Flatford towards Dedham. It is at this point that the old river temporarily left the navigable section of the Stour. A stationary horse for one of the barges waits before attempting to cross the barrier which was erected on the bridge to prevent cattle straying. Suffolk Punch agricultural horses were specially trained to leap over such barriers or jumps.
John Constable, Second Study for The Leaping Horse 1824
Pencil, pen and grey wash on laid paper
Constable shows only one boat here, with a riderless prancing steed leaping over the barrier.
It may be significant that Constable shows the horse leaping northwards over a barrier on the old river which was the boundary dividing Essex from his native Suffolk.
John Constable, A Willow Stump c.1821
Pencil on paper
Courtesy the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London
This drawing shows a willow stump very like that in The Leaping Horse 1825, but seen from the opposite bank. In both images Constable includes Dedham Church.
John Constable, A Moorhen Startled From its Nest c.1824
Oil on board
The moorhen just visible in the lower righthand corner of the finished painting is taken from this oil sketch. It has been frightened by the thundering hoofs on the wooden bridge.
John Constable, The Leaping Horse (full-size sketch) c.1824
Oil on canvas
Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Here Constable introduces the key idea of a rider to urge the leaping horse over the jump. The motif has often been compared with great equestrian portraits by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Velazquez.
As usual Constable made many changes as he worked on this large sketch and then on the finished work. The willow stump in the sketch, for example, is to the right of the horse, while in the exhibited canvas it is to the left. This achieves an opening up of the vista.
John Constable, The Leaping Horse 1825
Oil on canvas
In describing the painting to a prospective buyer Constable wrote: Scene in Suffolk – banks of a Navigable River – barge Horse leaping on an old Bridge. Under which is a flood Gate and an Eli bray. River plants and weeds – a more-hen frightened from her nest – near by in the meadows is the fine Gothic tower of Dedham. Eli bray is probably local vernacular for an eel-trap. A net can be seen trailing in the sluice under the bridge, almost certainly intended to trap eels.