Confession time… Normally I don’t spend allot of time in front of landscapes, but George Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell and curator of the Botticelli to Braque exhibition I recently visited, is said to have picked this painting as his favorite piece in the entire exhibit. He jokingly said he was tempted to leave it out when they send the crated paintings back across the Atlantic. So, I figured it was worth spending some time in front of The Vale of Dedham by John Constable to see what was so special about it.
As background information you should know that Constable painted this scene from the same perspective twice. The other piece is called Dedham Vale, go figure. There are some additions in the version owned by the National Gallery of Scotland and on view at the Kimbell. In my opinion, the additions make this piece the better of the two. Research it and decide what you think.
In The Vale of Dedham Constable splits his composition in half with towering trees in the foreground at right and a meandering river at left leading your eye to the distant village of Dedham. That in itself doesn’t make me want to stand there very long. Then I notice her, a gypsy woman wearing red with a baby crouched by a fire in the shadows at the base of the great trees. If I hadn’t lingered in front of this painting, I would surely have missed her. Click on the image above and then again on the enlargement button to see this. Then look half way up and along the right edge of the painting and you will find another half-hidden object. Rising smoke coming from the chimney of what looks to be a cozy cottage. Isn’t it interesting how different one can feel about the smoke from this chimney (warmth, comfort, protection) and that of this mother’s humble fire (cold, exposed, vulnerable). How sad this dichotomy is. Why doesn’t she reach out to those who might provide her with shelter? Do those living in the cottage know she is so near and in such need? Then you notice other contrasts the artist has included in the painting; the tent this woman has constructed vs the cottage and other well-constructed buildings; the storm cloud in the distance vs the bright sunlight on the near trees; the winding river vs the distant sea; an old, shattered tree stump at bottom left vs the new growth emerging directly from it. This last comparison brings me back to the woman in the shadows. She is so much like this tree; her life spent as she protects and holds her own new life. I’m left being chastened about my flippant attitude towards the landscape. This isn’t just a landscape. It’s a conversation and in the end it has left me speechless.