Spring was one of Constable’s favourite seasons (summer was the other), and it inspired some of his most delightful paintings. He wrote: ‘I love the exhilarating freshness of Spring’ (Beckett III, p. 103), and that spring has perhaps more than an equal claim to the painter’s ‘notice and admiration’, because of
the great variety of the tints and colours of the living foliage, besides having the flowers and blossoms. The beautiful and tender hues of the young leaves and buds are rendered more lovely by being contrasted, as they now are, with the sober russet browns of the trees and hedges from which they shoot …
The ploughman ‘leaning o’er the shining share’, the sower‘stalking with measured step the neighbouring fields’, are conspicuous figures in the vernal landscape; and last, though not least in interest, the birds, whose songs again cheer the labourer at his work, and complete the joyous animation of the new season (Beckett, Discourses, p. 15).
In this oil sketch Constable used his paint expressively to capture his feelings for spring. He showed ploughing on East Bergholt Common, with its windmill – after the common had been enclosed (in 1816) and ploughing allowed there (I. Fleming-Williams, ‘A runover dungle and a possible date for “Spring”’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 114, June 1972, pp. 390–91). He portrayed an expansive flat land with a low horizon under a cloudy sky suggestive of squally weather. The cool shadows of the large clouds reflected on the ground strengthen the greens and yellows of the fields. As in his two versions of A ploughing scene in Suffolk (A summerland),painted in1814 and c.1824 , he depicted the ploughman with two horses working side by side rather than in a team of four – the efficient, modern mode of ploughing in this area. The windmill had belonged to Constable’s father and Constable had worked there as a boy.
Constable probably painted this work in the studio, using a drawing made in a small sketchbook on 19 April 1821, but he followed the drawing closely.
This is the oil painting that Lucas used as a basis for the mezzotint, Spring(cats 89–92), and it is possible that Constable painted it especially for the mezzotint. If so, he may have painted it in 1829, when Lucas began to work on the mezzotint. In Constable’s text for the mezzotint, he quoted lines of the eighteenth-century poet Mark Akenside, ‘Light and shade alternate, warmth and cold …’ (Beckett, Discourses, p. 14).