This oil painting was painted in 1817 by John Constable, one of the most famous English landscapist. Constable was born in Suffolk, East Anglia, and throughout his career was impressed by the soft countryside of his native Stour Valley, a gentle hilly landscape that he sketched untiringly. Even though when he lived in London, he returned to East Bergholt regularly in order to sketch in oil his native county.
This canvas is entitled Flatford Mill. This subject matter was very dear to Constable’s heart since his father owned several mills and this type of scene certainly reminded the artist of his happy boyhood. The painter pays particular attention to the work of the men on the river and endeavoured to depict this activity faithfully.
The painting is organised around three main lines converging towards the vanishing point that is the lock on the river. Indeed the meandering river, the drawling path and the rivulet lined with boskets lead the beholder’s eyes to the wooden lock. The scene is framed by a large oak tree that delineates the narrative part of the painting. As a matter of fact, only the bottom left-hand side of the painting includes human figures.
As Constable was first and foremost interested in natural sceneries he placed only a few tiny characters in the landscape. In the very foreground we can see a young child on horseback who is looking backwards and casting an eye on what the other boy is doing. The latter is kneeling down on the bank to catch a rope. The two boys are not placed at random in the canvas since they are working eagerly in their natural environment. On the other side of the river a man is putting all his weight on a long pole to push the barge forward. Farther away, two small human figures are seated on the dock. All these small-scale figures are placed along a diagonal, which gives an impression of depth to the canvas. The boy on horseback is enhanced by the dark shadow of the tree. The contrast is all the more vivid as a beam of light brightens up the head of the horse and the sleeve of the boy’s blue shirt. In spite of their pretty small size none of these figures is reduced to a mere graphic aid to the composition.
Most of the painting is devoted to the landscape. On the right there’s a lively succession of bright and darker areas. The bright green lawn behind the rivulet catches the viewer’s eyes. The same colour is used beyond the bosket of trees and this visual echo contributes to the boundlessness of the countryside. On the left, in the distance, we can see a hamlet or a small village. The brick-red houses are partly hidden by the foliage of the trees that line the river. The village is nestled in a bosky bosket, hence the impression of peacefulness and harmony that comes out of the picture.
Much space is devoted to the cloudy sky, as is often the case in Constable’s paintings. The clouds racing in the sky are painted with brisk and visible brushstrokes. The effect of the wind is also visible in the foliage of the tree painted with dabs of paint. The painter achieves a remarkable equilibrium between calm and liveliness, between the unwavering quietness of men labouring in the foreground and the changeable mood of nature. The detailed narrative scene proves, if need be, that Constable aimed at giving a faithful representation of human activities in the Stour Valley. Things seem to go on very naturally as if the daily life of the worker was not in the least disturbed by the intrusion of the painter. We feel that the painter was really at home in such a landscape.
Constable uses a wide range of colours is this landscape. Only a few tokens of bright red or blue are placed here and there to enliven the composition but each touch is echoed somewhere else in the canvas. The bright yellow colour used for the boy’s waistcoat can be found again in the roof of one of the houses, the red harness of the horse is echoed by the red cap of another figure. Besides Constable chooses the hues of green with astonishing minuteness so as to render the volume and lightness of the leaves in the wind. The dark-green foliage is equally enlightened by brisk touches of bright yellow and greyish greens. The richness of the palette adds to the natural aspect of the scene and confirms that Constable was true to the landscape surrounding him. He shares his experience of the place with the viewer in an attempt to recreate one particular moment of the day.