John Constable, 'The Cornfield', 1826
John Constable strove for a truthful approach to nature and to capture instantly recognisable elements of the English countryside.
In this painting, our eyes are drawn along a country lane on a warm summer’s day – past the sheepdog who has momentarily forgotten the sheep that he is supposed to be looking after, past the herd that progress stolidly forward, past the plough, and through the open gate into a field of lush golden corn. Across the cornfield is a river, and on the other side, a village with only the church tower and some red roofs visible.
The lane is Fen Lane, down which Constable walked as a boy from his home village of East Bergholt in Suffolk. He crossed the River Stour at Fen Bridge which took him to his school in Dedham. In reality, Dedham would have been to the right of the picture edge.
It is tempting to imagine that the boy drinking from the spring is Constable himself and that this is an idyllic scene from his youth. However, the painting contains some ambiguities. What is the purpose of the plough if the corn has not yet been harvested? Are the sheep heading towards the field or to the right along the lane? Why is the gate off its hinges? Why has the dead tree not been chopped down? Do these elements require interpretation or are they simply representations of the idiosyncrasies of life?
The painting has an interesting history for the Gallery; it was the first in the collection by Constable and the first to be purchased by public subscription, in 1837.