('Scene on a navigable river'),
This impressive painting, the forerunner of Constable's great six-foot Stour scenes and then the largest known work by him, depicts a view toward his father's mill at Flatford. Corn ground in the mill was shipped in barges down the Stour, which had been made navigable by dredging and the installation of locks. After being unloaded, the barges were filled with coal or other cargo and towed by horses upriver. Constable based the painting on a drawing and worked on it extensively outdoors at the site.
Early Life and Work
Constable grew up in East Bergholt, a village nestled in the Stour River valley of Suffolk County in the southeast of England. The rustic countryside was dominated by the meandering waterway, which had been made navigable for barge traffic in the eighteenth century. Though its gentle terrain lacked the sort of grand vistas and dramatic mountain scenery traditionally favored by landscape artists, Constable believed the Stour valley had set him on the path to his life's work, and he chose it as his primary subject for much of his career. The area became so associated with his painting that even during his lifetime it was called "Constable Country."
Constable's father was a prosperous merchant who expected him to take over the family milling business. Eventually he allowed his son, at the relatively late age of twenty-two, to enroll in the school of the Royal Academy in London, the leading British art society. Its annual exhibitions were crucial for establishing reputations, and Constable made his debut there in 1802. At first the young artist studied the landscapes of the old masters, but he soon decided that his painting would improve only by working directly from nature. During the summers, he returned home to Suffolk to create outdoor drawings and sketches that became the foundation for later studio paintings. As he explained to a friend, "Nature is the fountain's head, the source from whence all originality must spring."
Constable developed his craft slowly, continually reexamining his technique in the wake of criticism that his "finish" (the level of detail and overall surface effect) suffered from coarseness of handling. He voiced his own desire to overcome a certain bleakness in his finished studio work. Attempting to capture the brilliant light of the outdoors, in 1814 he began painting canvases in the open air, with striking results. One example is Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816, an extraordinarily fresh view of a friend's estate. Using finely executed brushwork, Constable carefully arranged a wealth of details across the wide vista, punctuating it with areas of light and shade to convey the radiance of a summer day. Synthesizing so many elements into a harmonious composition proved a useful exercise for his later large canvases.
Flatford Mill ("Scene on a navigable river"), 1817, was also completed primarily outdoors. It was Constable's most ambitious painting to date — a large depiction of working life along the river and an important step toward the six-foot paintings. The subject was one he knew intimately from his childhood: the view faces toward the red brick buildings of his father's mill, just beyond the river on which two barges head upstream. They have just been unhooked from the tow horse in order to be poled under the bridge (indicated by the timbers in the lower left foreground). The fine execution of this intricately rendered canvas drew much praise when it was exhibited, encouraging Constable to move on to his even larger canvases.
Next: Early Six-Foot Stour River Paintings