Throughout his working life Constable copied the work of other artists, doing so both as quick sketches and in facsimile. He copied artists as diverse as Cozens, Cuyp, Reynolds, Rubens, Titian, Willem van de Velde the younger and Richard Wilson. But the artists he copied most frequently were Claude Lorrain and the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape artist Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9–1682).
In this drawing, which is an almost exact copy of Ruisdael’s etching The wheatfield 1648, Constable showed his understanding of Ruisdael’s technique and vision. He reproduced details of the etching such as the uppermost twigs of the front tree. He also faithfully imitated Ruisdael’s signature and feigned the plate mark, which led Ian Fleming-Williams to suggest that Constable, rather than just showing off his technical ability, may also have been making ‘an elaborate leg-pull’ (Fleming-Williams 1976, p. 64).
Constable frequently mentioned Ruisdael in correspondence with his friend John Fisher; on 28 November 1826 he wrote enthusiastically about another work by Ruisdael: ‘I have seen an affecting picture this morning, by Ruisdael. It haunts my mind and clings to my heart – and has stood between me & you while I am now talking to you. It is a watermill, not unlike “Perne’s Mill” – a man & boy are cutting rushes in the running stream (in the “tail water”) – the whole so true clear & fresh – & as brisk as champagne’ (Beckett VI, p. 229).
Constable first mentioned his interest in making a copy of a work by Ruisdael in 1797 when he wrote to J.T. Smith announcing that he planned to copy one of Ruisdael’s etchings, and asking Smith to send him one which was not too scarce or expensive. His last copy, Landscape with windmills, after Jacob van Ruisdael, which Constable painted in 1832, was of a Ruisdael painting now in the Dulwich Collection (Fleming-Williams 1976, p. 64).