John Constable, View on the Stour near Dedham

Refusing to idealize, Constable fills his landscapes with the specificity of a fleeting summer day.

John Constable, View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822, oil on canvas, 51 x 74 inches (The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Huntington Library, and we’re looking at one of John Constable’s six paintings that are called the “six-footers.” These are large-scale landscapes and…

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] Which was a radical idea right there.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] Oh, it was a really radical idea. Landscape was not considered a high genre of art at all. Landscape was close to the bottom. This was a scale that was appropriate for history painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:25] Constable is immediately making a statement about the importance of landscape painting, and interestingly, not painting an Italianate, classical, timeless landscape but very much his own landscape of his native Suffolk.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] This is where his father’s farm was, and so this was an environment that he was extremely familiar with.

Dr. Harris: [0:44] It’s not at all ideal. It feels like a specific time of day, a specific season, a specific kind of weather.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] In fact, Constable, we think is the first artist to take weather seriously and to study meteorological books. The trees are so specific you can actually determine what kind of foliage this is.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] It looks like either a storm is approaching or has just passed. You could almost feel the coldness of the breeze. There’s something very rough and tactile, it’s a beautiful, ideal pastoral English landscape. At the same time, it’s filled with the qualities of the mud of the river, and the plants growing by the bank, you can feel it.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] This is a painting that is about landscape, but it’s also filled with vignettes. You have men pulling and pushing. You can see two barges in the canal and somebody who seems to be pushing them apart to maneuver one of these barges past the other. The white horse on the left is at rest, and the men are doing the labor here.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] That’s true. Then across the footbridge, we see a woman carrying a baby bathed in sunlight, another figure doing some washing in the river, and another couple of figures just beginning to move on to that footbridge. And then in the distance a sail on a boat, and then a sail on another barge, and then in the further distance, the church.

[2:06] It’s clearly an important part of this painting — the English Anglican church. And so there’s a real sense of timelessness. That this is a kind of cycle of life, ordained by God, and will continue forever.

Dr. Zucker: [2:19] I agree. It is timeless but it is also full of particularities — of the clouds, of the type of trees, of the work of the men. Even in the foreground, we see a rake, some water lilies in the lower left. The particulars of the reflection in the canals…

Dr. Harris: [2:35] It is an idea of a particularity that should exist, one feels, forever and ever.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] That’s right. What’s actually happening to British society at this moment — this is the Industrial Revolution — and with trains, these barges are no longer going to be that useful to transport grain to the cities, to the markets.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] The price of food had fallen. There was real unrest in the countryside itself. Fires, major political unrest that had the aristocracy and the landowners, like Constable’s own father, really fearful for the future of England.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] Is this a kind of a denial, then, or a kind of nostalgic view to a fleeting present and perhaps really even a past?

Dr. Harris: [3:16] Well then Constable’s own past, his own sense of his boyhood, his own nostalgia. There is both a personal nostalgia for the place that he grew up, a feeling that many of us know very well, but also a nostalgia perhaps for that, a sense of an England that was disappearing.

[3:34] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "John Constable, View on the Stour near Dedham," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed June 25, 2024,