John Constable:
Dedham Vale

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    • Oil on canvas, 43.5 x 34.4 cm
    • 1802
    • Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the first major painting by John Constable, painted when he was 26 years old, yet containing all of the elements he was to cultivate for the rest of his life. Almost all of Constable's paintings are of scenes in or near the Stour Valley, where he was raised. Most follow the pattern set in this earliest of landscapes. It shows the flat landscape, pierced with numerous waterways, both natural and artificial, and rising almost naturally out of this countryside is the gothic tower of Dedham Church. Overhead, clouds drift across a wide expanse of sky.

The scene is peaceful, almost unimaginably so. Yet in 1802, England had just emerged from 10 years of fighting against the French Revolution, and the peace Treaty recently signed would not last three years. Moreover, industrialization had already begun to transform valleys such as the Stour into bustling centers of textile manufacturing. Constable is painting a scene which is rapidly disappearing, despite its peacefulness.

And his technique is revolutionary. Allowing the brown ground of the canvas to show through, Constable painted the foreground with thin strokes and dabs of paint, while the background is formed with longer, wider strokes. Years later he was to confess how hard his path had been, breaking with traditional norms, but his goal was clear: "By a close observation of nature, [the artist] discovers qualities existing in her which have never been portrayed before, and thus forms a style which is original."

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