John Constable, 1802 (top), 1828 (bottom), Oil on canvas
144.50 x 122.00 cm
Scottish National Gallery
John Constable’s contribution to landscape painting effectively increased the clout of landscape painting as a genre. Throughout the 18th century, landscape was consistently considered at the end of the hierarchy of subject matter. However, Constable’s dissemination of his history-painting-scaled landscapes, coupled with the encroaching cultural influence of the Industrial Revolution, fostered an appreciation and popularization of landscapes. For Constable, the rural became of symbol of a lost paradise, a moral epicenter epitomizing peace, childhood, and an escape from modernity and urban life.
The composition of The Vale of Dedham was in part inspired by Claude Lorrain’s Hagar and the Angel. Claude used popular landscape-structuring factors as organizational elements, such as trees as a framing devices and buildings as compositional stabilizers. Constable’s finer artistic details, however, from the texture of the clouds to the sense of recession, were based on sketches produced on site. In the studio, Constable attempted to preserve the transience and sense of emotional evocation of these outdoor sketches through a variety of techniques, using palette knives and specific brushes to render bold effects, contrasts, depth, and consistency.
Constable sketched and painted the subject of Dedham Vale multiple times over the course of his career, first in 1802, when Constable was twenty-six years old, and last in 1828. The latter contained a number of deviations from the former, including the inclusion of a gypsy mother nursing her baby by a fire, a lighter palette, and the addition of new architectural developments filtered throughout nature. During a time of such intense and rapid change for England and beyond, Constable found comfort in the genre of landscape, a symbol of what he feared to be lost and desired to preserve: rural, simplistic, natural life.