A boy has paused from the thirsty work of herding sheep at noon to lie flat on the bank of a pool and drink its cool water. This vision of a Suffolk lane in high summer was painted in January to March 1826 in Constable’s studio in London. The lane winding into the cornfield is based on Fen Lane, along which Constable had often walked as a boy from his own village of East Bergholt to Dedham, where he attended school. The lane still exists but the countryside shown beyond it was largely invented.
Constable exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1826. Despite receiving critical praise, it failed to sell, either at the Royal Academy or at any of the four other exhibitions to which Constable sent it. A committee of friends and admirers finally bought The Cornfield and presented it to the National Gallery in 1837 as a tribute to Constable after his death.
A boy has paused from the thirsty work of herding sheep at noon to lie flat on the bank of a pool and drink its cool water. This vision of a Suffolk lane in high summer was painted in January to March 1826 in Constable’s studio in London.
The lane winding into the cornfield was based on Fen Lane, along which Constable had often walked as a boy from his own village of East Bergholt to Dedham, where he attended school. The lane still exists but the countryside shown beyond it was largely conjured up in Constable’s studio. The church tower and cluster of red-roofed houses ‘never existed’, as the artist’s son Charles Constable was later to point out – Constable invented the village to provide a distant focal point beyond the bend of the river. His resolve to be a ‘natural painter’ did not mean that he depicted everything faithfully.
Constable completed the painting by 8 April 1826, when he dispatched it titled ‘Landscape’ to the Royal Academy for the exhibition opening to the public on 1 May. Shortage of time had forced him to work quickly. He had intended to exhibit his large Waterloo Bridge but had to lay it aside on account of ‘the ruinous state of my finances’. Although not as large as his ’six-footers‘, The Cornfield was of a sufficient size to continue Constable’s bid for attention at the Royal Academy for his monumental scenes of the Stour Valley.
A wooded lane leading to a more sunlit landscape was a recurrent feature of Constable’s compositions, and is reminiscent of the work of both the Dutch painter van Ruisdael, and Suffolk-born Gainsborough, which Constable admired. His first idea for The Cornfield is expressed in a very free oil sketch now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He then produced an oil study of just the landscape (now on loan to the City Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham). The finished picture closely follows the landscape contours of the Birmingham study and echoes its light. The detail of the boy drinking was taken from an oil sketch made some 15 years earlier, probably also in Fen Lane.
Constable remarked to his friend Fisher: ’I do hope to sell this present picture – as it has certainly got a little more eye-salve than I usually give them.‘ By ’eye-salve' he probably meant picturesque details such as the drinking boy, the donkeys grazing the bank dotted with poppies and cow parsley, the flock of sheep, distant village and meandering river. The cornfield itself is painted with masterly economy: just a few vertical brushstrokes at the field’s edge suggest the tall wheat, while broader brushstrokes convey the undulating sweep of the field.
Despite receiving critical praise, the painting failed to sell, either at the Royal Academy or at any of the four other exhibitions to which Constable sent it. It was named The Cornfield by the committee of friends and admirers that finally bought it and presented it to the National Gallery in 1837 after Constable’s death. It was the first picture by Constable to enter the national collection.
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