This impressive painting is beautifully painted with jewel-like precision and shows Constable’s ability to capture the immediate sensations of light and atmosphere; it is one of Constable’s most natural depictions of the landscape around his home, reflecting his interest in portraying rural harmony. It is notable in the way the figures are more conspicuous and more particularised than in his other early landscapes. Although based on a number of sketchbook drawings, the work was probably painted in large part in front of the motif. The field depicted here is the same one seen in the right foreground of the The Stour Valley and Dedham Village 5 September 1814 .
Constable depicted a traditional farming community harvesting wheat, with harvesters, gleaners, a boy with a dog and a distant ploughman. The woman and two girls in the foreground are poor, gleaning the ears of wheat missed by the reapers. The boy with the dog is guarding the workers’ food and drink, draped in discarded clothes to provide shade from the sun. Constable presented life before the changes that occurred in rural society with the enclosure of the common fields in 1816 – before the poor had been largely barred from taking part in their age-old practice of gleaning.
Constable exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in 1816 and at the British Institution the following year, when he included with the catalogue entry lines from Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy (1800):
Nature herself invites the reapers forth;
No rake takes here what heaven to all bestows:
Children of want, for you the bounty flows!
His inclusion of this text suggests that Constable too believed that the rural poor, in this instance the gleaners, were deserving of nature’s bounty.
As Michael Rosenthal has noted, the Napoleonic wars saw an increase in rustic subjects at the main London exhibitions. Around the time Constable painted this scene a number of other British artists were painting similar subjects, such as Peter de Wint’s A cornfield c.1815 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) and George Robert Lewis’s Harvest field with reapers, Haywood, Herefordshire 1815 (Tate, London). Such farming scenes portrayed the happy Britain, which invasion – or revolution – would have destroyed (Rosenthal 1983, p. 200).