Dedham Vale and The Vale of Dedham by John Constable

My Daily Art Display today features two paintings by the same artist, with almost the same titles, but completed twenty six years apart.  The artist is one of the greatest landscape painters of England.  His name is John Constable.  Before we look at the two works of art let me give you a potted history of his life.

John Constable was born in East Bergholt, a small village on the River Stour in Suffolk in 1776, the fourth of six children.  His descendents were farmers and his father Golding Constable was an affluent corn merchant who owned considerable amounts of property in the area.  He owned water mills at Flatford and Dedham, two windmills in East Bergholt and even a small ship The Telegraph, which was moored at Mistley, North Essex, and which he used to transport his grain to London.  It was in East Bergholt that two years before John Constable was born his father built himself a large house and lived there with his wife Ann Constable (née Watts), whom he married in 1748.  The couple had six children, three sons, Golding, John and Abram and three daughters, Ann, Martha and Mary.

John Constable was fortunate with his upbringing, being afforded all the advantages of a wealthy family.  His education consisted of a short spell at a boarding school in Lavenham, which proved far too strict, then followed a period at the local day school in Dedham.  John had always enjoyed sketching and this love of this was helped by the local plumber, John Dunthorne, who would take the young boy out on sketching trips around the nearby area. 

As is the case in many life stories of artists, this desire of his son to become an artist did not go down well with his father who believed artists rarely made much money and instead had wanted John to study for a career in the church.  However this, because of his grades, proved to be a forlorn hope.  After that his father decided that John should come into his corn merchant business.  Although John was the second son, his elder brother Golding was mentally handicapped and could not take an active part in the family business and so John was the obvious choice as the future successor.  John did go into the family business but lasted just a year, at which time his younger brother, Abram, was of the age and had the will to become an active member of his father’s business.

The real turning point for John as far as art was concerned came when he was nineteen years old and he and his mother went to visit neighbours.   At this get-together John was introduced to Sir George Beaumont, an amateur artist and wealthy art collector.  Beaumont used to carry around with him, in a specially made wooden box, the latest paintings he had acquired and the day Constable met him he had with him his newly acquired Claude Lorrain painting Hagar and the Angel.  John Constable could not get over its beauty and was totally in awe of the way Claude had depicted the landscape.  The two art lovers spent much time that day discussing art and the works of Claude and the likes of the English landscape artists, John Cozens, and Thomas Girtin.  Sir George Beaumont was very impressed by young Constable’s enthusiasm and knowledge of art.  Constable knew then that he wanted to be a full time artist.  During a visit to Middlesex he met John Thomas Smith, the painter and engraver, later known as Antiquity Smith, because of the book he wrote, Antiquities of London and its Environs.   It was Smith who taught Constable the basic techniques of painting but warned him of the financial drawbacks of becoming a full-time artist.  In 1798 Constable met Joseph Farrington, who had once been a pupil of Richard Wilson.  Farrington goes on to teach Constable the techniques of this great Welsh landscape painter.

Fortunately in 1799, his father relented on his stance about his son studying art and as he now had his other son, Abram, to assist him,  he gave John some money and arranged for him to go London where he enrolled as a probationer at the Royal Academy School.  John was very homesick missing the beautiful countryside of his home and was disillusioned with the continuous copying of the old Masters.  To make things worse he realised that landscape art, which was what he loved, was not held in high regard by the Academy, who only held in high esteem history painting and portraiture.

I am going to conclude the story of Constable’s life at this juncture in his life, aged twenty-three still hell-bent to become an artist but unhappy with his start at the Royal Academy schools.  My next blog will conclude his life story, the tale of his love for a woman and the problems he had with her family but now I want to look at today’s two featured landscape paintings.

In 1802, at the age of twenty-six John Constable completed his first major work entitled Dedham Vale which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  This, like most of Constable’s paintings, was a scene from the area around the Stour Valley.  I started off this blog by saying that Constable was one of the greatest landscape painters of England but maybe his accolade should be that he was the greatest landscape painter of the Stour Valley and Suffolk as he rarely travelled to other parts of Britain, let alone Europe,  unlike other landscape artists, who would travel extensively painting the beauty of the likes of the Lake District or Wales or the Roman Campagna. 

Dedham Vale by John Constable (1802)

Dedham Vale was painted by Constable in 1802 and now hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  The scene we see before our eyes is one of complete tranquility.  Sadly for many, including Constable, it was also the start of a period of change in Britain and even in that area with the onset of  creeping industrialization,  such peace and serenity would soon be a thing of the past.  Even Constable’s beloved Stour valley would be home to the hubbub of a textile manufacturing area. 

We see before us, looking down from Gun Hill in the east, a flattish landscape of Dedham Vale pierced with a number of small waterways, some of which are natural, others man-made.  The lower reaches of the River Stour is in the middle ground of the painting and it can be seen wending its way eastwards towards the sea.   In the central background we see the gothic tower of Dedham Church and the village of Dedham and further back in the hazy distance we can just make out the town of Harwich.

The Vale of Dedham by John Constable (1828)

Twenty six years later in 1828 he returned to this scene for his last major painting of the Stour Valley entitled The Vale of Dedham, which is now housed in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  Maybe the fact that he returned to this scene so many years later is testament to his love for the area.  This later painting of the same view has some subtle differences.  The meandering river heading towards Dedham has got wider and now has a bridge across it.  In the foreground the old stump of the tree is sprouting some new saplings and by drawing our eye to it our attention focuses on the distant landscape.  However what was a more contentious addition to the scene was Constable’s inclusion of a gypsy mother nursing her child besides a fire.  Critics said that the addition did not add to the landscape and the inclusion was just the artist’s way of making the scene more picturesque.  However Charles Rhyne, Professor Emeritus, Art History at Reed College, Oregon,  wrote in his book Studies in the History of Art,  when discussing Constable’s landscapes, that according to an ordnance survey map,  a well was located in this area, and that this would have made it a natural camping site for gypsies.

Graham Reynolds, the art historian and author, also talked about the controversial inclusion of the gypsy in the painting.  In his book about Constable, he pointed out that gypsies were frequently to be seen in East Anglia and that the inclusion of this detail did not infringe Constable’s rule that only actual or probable figures should appear in his landscape paintings. By including the gypsy mother and child in this painting, he said that Constable enlivened the image, with the gypsy’s red cloak providing a contrast to the green of the vegetation.  It should be remembered that Suffolk had been affected by the agricultural depression and social unrest during the 1820s, and the inclusion of the gypsy in the painting may reflect the instability of rural life at this time and Constable’s sympathy with the cause of ordinary people.   Note how the gypsy is wearing a bright red shawl or coat.  Constable always believed that even the smallest touch of bright red in a painting highlighted and animated the green of the surroundings and he often used this technique in his other paintings.  Maybe that is another reason for the inclusion of the gypsy.

This second painting of Dedham Vale was well received by the Royal Academy when Constable exhibited it in 1828 under the title of Landscape.  Six years later he exhibited it again, this time at the British Institution under a different title.  This time he called it The Stour Valley.  People loved it and art critic of the The Morning Post (March 10th 1834) wrote:

“…..We must consider this picture as one of the best which we remember to have seen from Mr. Constable’s pencil. It is a work of great power both of colour and light and shade, and is executed with considerable freedom and dexterity of execution…” 

Which version did you prefer?