This was Constable’s last major painting of the Stour Valley, his definitive treatment of a favourite subject, which summed up his personal affection for the place and his lifelong devotion to the example of Claude Lorrain.
A relaxing holiday in Suffolk in the autumn of 1827 with his two eldest children had refreshed his associations with the area and may have motivated him to begin painting this work. On 11 June 1828 he wrote to John Fisher that he had ‘Painted a large upright landscape (perhaps my best)’ (Beckett IV, p. 236).
Constable depicted the Dedham Vale framed by trees, looking eastwards from Gun Hill, down along the course of the River Stour towards the sea, with the tower of Dedham Church and the village in the middle distance, and Harwich beyond. For this composition he returned to his early painting, Dedham Vale 1802 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), intensifying the detail of the 1802 study by including the bridge across the river with the Talbooth on the right bank. He added the old stump sprouting new growth in the left foreground as a compositional invention to direct attention to the distant landscape, and as a symbol of regeneration.
Constable’s inclusion of the figure of a gypsy mother nursing her child beside a fire has been criticised as a concession to the taste for the Picturesque. Charles Rhyne, however, noted 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 (C. Rhyne, ‘Constable’s first two six-foot landscapes’, Studies in the History of Art, vol. 24, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1990, p. 129). Reynolds also noted that gypsies were frequently to be seen in East Anglia and that the inclusion of this detail does 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 Constable enlivened the image, with the gypsy’s red cloak providing a contrast to the green of the vegetation. Moreover, Suffolk had been affected by the agricultural depression and social unrest during the 1820s, and the gypsy may reflect the instability of rural life at this time, and Constable’s sympathy with the cause of ordinary people.
In his use of a vertical format and in his composition Constable hinted at Claude’s Landscape with Hagar and the Angel 1646, a work he had admired since he first made a copy of it at Sir George Beaumont’s London house around 1800 (Beckett II, p. 24). He saw the way this scene fitted a Claudian pattern and used Claude’s method of suggesting depth through overlapping scenery. In thus paying homage to Claude, Constable also indicated that his own work was worthy of comparison with Claude’s. Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams have suggested that Beaumont’s gift of Landscape with Hagar and the Angel to the newly opened National Gallery, London, in 1826, and Beaumont’s death in 1827, may have inspired Constable to paint this work as a personal tribute to him and to their shared love of Claude Lorrain (Tate 1976, p. 152).
Constable looked at landscape through the art of the past to create his own unique vision. He painted the natural detail of the location in a quite original fashion, using paint brush, palette knife and his fingers to give variety to the application of paint. He used translucent colour to give luminosity to the shadows. He created a sense of the feel of the place – the white-topped clouds suggesting summer sunshine, the flickering leaves indicating wind in the trees, and the light glistening on the ground hinting at rain that has just past. As Timothy Wilcox has observed, ‘the work that had begun in deference to Claude now appears designed to rival him, or even to surpass him’ (Liverpool and Edinburgh 2000, p. 108).
The painting was well received at the Royal Academy when Constable exhibited it there in 1828 (as ‘Landscape’). The reviewer for the The Sun provided a narrative reading, observing that ‘A shower has just passed over’, and suggesting that ‘The gleaming water in the distance is inimitable’ (The Sun, 5 May 1828, cit. Ivy 1991, p. 127). Constable subsequently exhibited the painting at the British Institution in 1834 (as ‘The Stour Valley’) when one critic commented:
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 (The Morning Post, 10 March 1834, cit. Ivy 1991, pp.186–87).
More recently Michael Rosenthal has described this work as ‘one of Constable’s greatest paintings’ (Rosenthal 1983, p. 188).