Throughout his life Constable was devoted to the work of Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682) – from around 1800, when he first admired the paintings by Claude in Sir George Beaumont’s collection (Beckett II, p. 24), to June 1836, a year before his death, when he praised ‘the inimitable Claude’ in a lecture he presented to the Royal Institution. He described him as ‘the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw’, and declared that in Claude’s landscape ‘all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart’ (Beckett, Discourses, pp. 52–53).
In Landscape with goatherd and goats, after Claude Constable painted a faithful copy of one of Claude’s paintings in Beaumont’s collection. He made the copy slightly larger than the original, but conveyed the spirit of Claude’s original – following it closely in composition and colouring. However Constable adopted a personal approach, as Ursula Hoff has noted, when using impasto to paint the waterfall and in his use of tonal contrast and his texture of paint (U. Hoff, ‘A Constable landscape after Claude’, Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly, July 1962, p. 112).
Constable’s early admiration for the Claude painting was noted in Joseph Farington’s diary, where he recorded that, in around 1800, after studying the painting at Beaumont’s London house, Constable had spoken of his enthusiasm for the work, which he referred to at different times as ‘the little wood scene’ and ‘the little Grove’: ‘[he] prefers the little wood scene of Claude to all others’ (Farington, Diary IV, p. 1527).
On 19 October 1823 Constable expressed his intention to make this copy during his stay at Beaumont’s country house, Coleorton, in Leicestershire, writing to John Fisher: ‘If I can find time to copy the little Grove, by Claude Lorraine (evidently a study from nature), it will much help me’ (Beckett VI, p. 139). On 2 November he had begun the painting and wrote again to Fisher:
I have likewise begun the little Grove by Claude – a noon day scene – which ‘warms and cheers but which does not inflame or irritate’ … [It] diffuses a life & breezy freshness into the recess of trees which make it enchanting (ibid., pp. 142–43).
On 5 November he mentioned the painting again when he wrote to his wife Maria:
I have a little Claude in hand, a grove scene of great beauty and I wish to make a nice copy from it to be usefull to me as long as I live. It contains almost all that I wish to do in landscape’ (Beckett II, p. 295)
And on 26 November he wrote: ‘My … little copy of Claude is only done this morning & it is beautifull & all wet so that I could hardly bring it with me’ (ibid., p. 305).
Constable regarded his copies of Claude’s work as ‘great delights’ that brought him closer to Claude. He saw them as lasting remembrances from which he could ‘drink at again & again’ (Beckett VI, pp. 71 and 142).
Sir George Beaumont gave Claude’s original painting, Landscape with a goatherd and goats c.1636, to the National Gallery, London, in 1826.