John Constable’s “The Vale of Dedham” – The Greatest Painting Ever?

A stylized double-portrait of John Constable, painter of "The Vale of Dedham".

“I see it feelingly…” — King Lear, William Shakespeare

“If you want to make art; don’t.”  — Richard Prince

Why paint pictures? Some materials for an answer can be derived from the scenarios presented in preceding essays. It should also be stressed that the culture of painting has never been as distant from contemporary critical practice as it currently stands now. The possibility for some (modern) form of re-engagement with the high forms of art is a fascination or fantasy that continually accompanies the provisional enterprises of an art world which believes it can confront the culture of painting in ways that are conceptually and practically oblique.

It’s a conventional assumption of criticism that what is felt in front of a painting is what is expressed by it, and that this expressive content is somehow traceable to the psychology or soul of an artist. Surely this is because we are culturally and psychologically ‘predisposed’ to idealize an artist as a sort of actor—one who is sincerely moved by the reading of his own lines. The task of criticism then is to distinguish and characterise the mechanisms of production whose effects and meanings we ourselves have caused and produced, for in describing these we do no more than simply reproduce our culture and ourselves as its clients. This is to say that an adequate reading of a work of art will need to be reflexive as well as merely descriptive. The mechanisms of reading will have to be considered as they bear on the language of description.

John Constable's landscape painting, "The Vale of Dedham", featuring dark trees, deep clouds and a dark blue sky.
John Constable – The Vale of Dedham (1828)

It’s very on-trend for me to get my critique out of the way. When I claim that this painting by John Constable is the ‘best painting ever made’ I’m using terms that benefit from considerable doubt and critical self-consciousness regarding reference and technique which in recent years has been topicalized in terms of ‘objectivity’ and ‘skill’. It is indeed a careless habit of our culture— entrenched in connoisseurish talk about skill and accomplishment and style—to assume a straightforward antithesis between intentional competence and involuntary incompetence. But this antithesis is often too simple to cope with real cases. It also rests on a misleading isolation of the matter of authorial intention and competence from the question of determining conditions. The history of art and the practice of criticism instruct us that the processes of judgement and interpretation are all too often vexed by the insecurity of distinctions between intentional competence, intentional incompetence, accidental competence and accidental incompetence.

Or am I making a rhetorical mountain out of a molehill? Often our theorising can lead us into a locus classicus of self-satisfied and self-advertising rhetorical excess. I should make it clear that a well-accounted numerical evaluation of John Constable’s work is not my primary concern. The Vale of Dedham landscape will simply serve as a peg on which to hang some very important questions, some of which have relevance to my own practice as a painter and a critic. I am still unwilling and perhaps incapable of the claims and games of objectivity. But I’m not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One of the biggest historical challenges facing the practitioners and critics of contemporary painting is the conflation of the feelings of the artist when making the work and the achievement of the end result of that work. Also people tend not to like critical analysis because it doesn’t tend to produce the poetry and feeling of actual works of art. That said, it wouldn’t hurt to give serious critical reconsideration to our ideas regarding what painting can or might be capable of bringing to realization. I’ve interacted with a great deal of people over the years masquerading their own reactionary prejudice as the most radical of critical insights, especially in regards to so-called ‘abstract’ modernism, which is inevitably re-described as something flat, semi-figurative, symbolic, structured around geometry/symmetry or else is just an exploded microcosm of a ‘proper’ figurative painting.

The critic Patrick Heron once said that Constable was the first painter to ‘break‘ the surface of the picture-plane, which is to say: he was the first painter to use brush strokes in a manner that was expressive and not simply continuous with an equiplanar surface. Notational elements (gestures) are often either flat or nomadic, lacking organic linkages between zoning agencies. These ‘breaks’ in the surface factures can override or evacuate the significance of the figurative depths represented—and by virtue of this apparent frankness and literal factitiousness the painting achieves more than mere anecdotal charm or rehearsed animation. There are precedents of course. In fact, self-consciously crusty, abbreviated surfaces were, in the eighteenth century at least, a signature of professional mannerism. But, in Constable, the broken surface is more than just a means to achieve an atmospheric illusionism or trompe l’oeil. It becomes another way to extend and resolve the work’s content, it’s plastic consciousness.

The Vale of Dedham is a dazzlingly clear, light-filled painting, the resolution of believable distance in perspective with a lucid two-dimensional organisation or ‘design’. Which is to say that the ostensible subject matter of the work is subsumed to the invention of a very particular and plasticised spatiality, which at the time was something radical, and still looks it.

Why does this painting look so good? It looks realistic, or you could even say naturalistic. But it’s hardly photographic. There’s distortion happening everywhere in the picture. But you don’t notice the distortion because it’s not supposed to look like distortion. There’s a lot of warping and tensing going on throughout the naturalistic imagery, in the trees, in the clouds which in turn, results in incredibly expressive distortions of surface and texture. Note the swoop of the treetop, the warping and buckling of space, across the whole canvas. The plastic definition and stress makes us feel an overwhelming sense of space and the relations in space whilst never losing hold of that surface-consciousness.

Is it possible, with a painting like this to make a meaningful distinction between form and content? I would say the actual content of The Vale of Dedham as a painting is a direct result of John Constable’s intense commitment to inventing and organising the specific space(s) within. There is a marked emphasis on the particular eccentricities of the space—on the architectural ins-and-outs, the push and pull of the scene. The composition allows access to the viewer at all points and in all manners. There’s just so much space, so much freedom for the eye to roam around.

And look at the sky. The sky in a Constable is rarely if ever a flat backdrop to landscape, but more often an integral horizontal force, parallel with the ground. There is a strangely abstract bending and climbing of forms which gives the impression of a tremendous upward movement, as if the trees are rising to meet or reinforce the top of the painting against the countermovement of the high, distant valley. Every square inch of the canvas has been felt through from corner to corner, from back to front. Nothing has been neglected.

Detail from John Constable's "The Vale of Dedham", showing the thick paint and golden interweaving.
The Vale of Dedham (detail)

Constable’s unique sense of touch is everywhere. In fact, when viewed closely one can observe that everything within this painting is composed by way of dancing, scribbly, blobby marks, an almost ‘abstract’ brush-writing of infinitely varied strokes from the grey English overcast to the dark, foliage. Furthermore, these dancing, rhythmic touches, almost calligraphic in nature, describe the tones of the natural world with a very coherent plasticity. Every square inch of the painting advances and recedes to a precisely determined position in space. Indeed, every touch defines not only the form of a particular part of a particular tree, it also, by so doing, defines the aerial space surrounding that tree to an approximate position.

John Constable’s physicality results from a pressure obtained across the whole picture by means of the piling up and interweaving of tensioned activities. The tops of trees and the sky are invariably where Constable shows a major aspect of his originality—a kind of vertigo, pressurising the airspace above the land and waterways. Note in this painting how already the undersides of the topmost leafy branches reveal themselves, bending away, and how that movement is taken up by the tree behind. The subject-matter is familiar territory to Constable, but the content is wholly new. Very few landscape artists before or since have been capable of such keen clarity of spatial realisation. Gainsborough certainly doesn’t come near, looking mannered by comparison. Turner? Forget it. Constable’s hero, Claude, is bettered already. And in that gathering of trees, is Ruben’s Het Steen even now a precedent?

Peter Paul Rubens's "A View of Het Steen", depicting a landscape of farmers, clouds, sky, and the Het Steen fortress in Antwerp, Belgium, which itself is almost hidden.
Peter Paul Rubens – A View of Het Steen (1636)

The profusion of active detail, far from confounding the content, electrifies the space in surges of action and reaction. We can see for miles and miles to the Gothic tower of Dedham church itself and the Stour estuary beyond where the horizon turns cobalt blue. This is a painting that does far more than depict landscape, and it opens the door to a charged and broken, yet unified, surface in painting.

Paul Cezanne's 1883 painting, "View of L'Estaque Through the Pine Trees", depicting a village occluded by dark green trees.
Paul Cézanne – View of L’Estaque Through the Pine Trees (1883)

The only landscape painter who can possibly hold his own against Constable is Paul Cézanne. This painting in particular is a tour de force of how to build a physical space on a flat surface, how to feel space as a hierarchy of competing perspectives distributed within itself, comprising a non-redundant order of differences. It belongs to a series of works made by Cézanne at L’Estaque between 1882-87 which are amongst the greatest of his oeuvre. Here he tips the viewer into the depth of the picture but consolidates the buildings at the bottom so we don’t fall through completely. It’s a solid articulation between incline and canopy all resolved on the surface, a combination of tightness and flexibility, including the incredible top-to-bottom tree-trunk.

But I should draw attention to the burgeoning theme of this discourse. What is painting for? How can we make serious claims for the qualities of the painted image without clinging to complacent, outdated or overexposed modernist tropes? Greenbergian formalism was one such moment of transitional thinking which focused on the creation of pictorial forms with a robust imaginative ‘two dimensionality’ or flatness. This often excessive drive to simplicity and flatness in abstract modernism would eventually yield diminishing returns. Vagueness. Generality. Shallowly-entertaining sophistry. I recently flipped through a series of essays by the post-minimalist painter Richard Tuttle, whose work I’ve often had cause to admire. The sheer level of biliousness and pseudo-poetic vapidity was astonishing and painful to experience.

What impresses still about John Constable is his lack of complacency. Indeed, much of the best figurative art of the last five hundred years is always very specific—direct, clear—a long way removed from the spontaneous abandon and carefree self-expression which constituted the popular myth about being an abstract artist in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, a lot of great figurative art is loaded with formal meaning or ‘form-meanings’ which continue to have relevance to the contemporary practice of painting and sculpture. The physicality or three dimensionality of Constable’s The Vale of Dedham is a perfect example of this, the lucid order and inventiveness of the way he builds up and organises the forms of his chosen material. Is it unfair to compare such a masterpiece to what’s currently being produced in art fairs and galleries? Or would it be a meaningless exercise?

Daniel Buren's "Installation" (1971), depicting a sheet of alternating white and thicker orange stripes.
Daniel Buren, Installation (1971)

Imagine hanging a Constable next to a work by Daniel Buren. It simply doesn’t work. There’s nowhere for the comparison to go. In fact, it’s very off-putting. One is very literal minded (Buren). The other is very imaginative and voluptuous. The Vale of Dedham has something to say for itself visually, being driven for the most part by the impulses and the imperatives of the eye, the look of the thing, the “feel” of the thing, the structure of visual organisations, how to organise a space to have the utmost liveliness and intensity…I could go on. The Buren has zero plastic or spatial values. As such it has very little ‘form’ whatsoever—no complexly lucid sense of purpose in the arrangement of its constituent elements. The charm of the Buren rests precariously upon its own generality, its anaesthetic refusal to ‘form’.

I’m not trying to discount Daniel Buren’s work tout courte. In fact, I’m rather well-disposed to his early work with the conceptual supergroup B.M.P.T. I marvel sometimes at how prepared he was to pursue his overly cool design-conscious aesthetic. But at other times I wonder how he didn’t get sick of all the sameness. My point is to show how a painting like Vale of Dedham can be used as a rhetorical beating stick. Why not ask for more? Why, when it comes to contemporary painting, are we always being asked to settle for ambiguity and irreverence or else accept them as unquestioned virtues?

I contradict myself of course. In a previous very epigrammatic essay about Agnes Martin, I recall praising her apparent lack of imaginative thinking, and the seeming absence of form in her paintings. I challenged readers to consider this formal negation as a strength rather than a weakness whilst wondering aloud whether this represented some kind of conceptual cul-de-sac for our popular notions of modern (abstract) art. Making handsome, overdetermined paintings seems like a very minor, albeit respectable painterly tradition when all is said and done. But in comparison, a John Constable painting is like a once-in-a-generation argument for all that painting can do: a space of lavish and outlandish visual invention.

Because honestly, what’s so abstract about stripes? They’re just stripes, after all. And sure, stripes look good. But, arguably there’s far more truly abstract content in the Dedham Vale landscape with its rigorous and coherent interactions in form and space. And here I should also make a distinction between abstract and it’s transitive cousin abstraction—which is to say an abstracting from something in the representational world which always remains naturalistic to the core despite any intermediary design shorthand. In fact, The Vale of Dedham is just as much a challenge to our ideas of ‘abstractness’ as anything produced by Martin and Buren, only more so, as it doesn’t have to deal with all the requisite baggage that comes from an exposure to the predicates of modernist theory.

Here there’s obviously a risk of over-refining a term like abstract out of existence. But the usual questions continue to niggle like a bad tooth. Is painting something linked to our apprehension of the world? Or is it something that precedes language and expands within the conscious mind as an extension of optical experience? Is painting something linguistic, which is to say, semiotic (a system of signs), or is it something preceding language—something revelatory? Many 1950s abstract pundits were self-confessed purists. Part of the modernist programme was an idea that one could trim away the rhetorical fat, the excesses of subject-painting in order to arrive at something approximating a completely unmediated ‘visual’ pictorial experience. You could call it art for art’s sake. Or maybe even joy; a kind of experience for and unto itself. But, I would claim that even today it’s still unclear as to precisely or even theoretically what that pure visual experience might look like. My interest here is in our willed ‘misreadings’ of these generational ideas. That a concept like abstract art might actually be in need of rescuing from the very people who created it.

I offer the Constable landscape as a counter to the fallacy of abstract art as false moderacy or sheer ordinality. Abstraction, I would argue, needn’t be the oppositional exquisite of complexity. In fact, John Constable’s complexity is an almost unconscious kind of complexity: the kind of complexity that one struggles to say anything useful or clever sounding about. After all, what could one possibly say about Constable’s unconscious mind? In this essay I’ve used terms such as ‘space’ and ‘spatiality’ as kind of symbolic placeholder for this category of overrunning complexity. But my use of the term space is neither literal or neutral. Brushwork is always spatial but space is irrational.

Space as and within a Constable painting is always space-as-formality. Or perhaps more precisely it’s an imaginary as well as illusionistic space; a space which by necessity, cannot exist, except by means of the thinnest tissue of representation. Naturally, a Constable painting is telling you something about the real familiar spaces of the actual material world(s) that we inhabit, the physical strength of trees, and the density of air. But it’s also giving you something else; this far more elaborate thing which is like an ‘abstract’ multilayered flowing of energy. And yet these various layers of complexity never build up into a self-advertised complicatedness or grandiosity. In fact it’s a very coherent, very moderated kind of complexity that just sort of pulses and moves across the painting with the indifferent progress of an ocean wave.

This is perhaps where the reality of painting truly exists- in the picture’s own visual dramatisation of its making. Every form within the pictorial space is roughly equivalent to some kind an aggression or distortion of the human body converted into a residuum. The Vale of Dedham allocates the manual particulars of its labour into imaginative detail—into signs or rhythms of light, air, space and colour. Purposive, but without intelligible purpose.

This is perhaps one of the great ecstasies of painting—the seeming independence of the hand from the brain which tempts and rewards painters who operate by daring and risk-to-failure. Great art is often achieved in accordance with something prior to either reason or intellect. No painter, no matter how militantly programmatic can completely predetermine how his painting will look. Things get adjusted and changed. Things get cancelled or dissolved. One mark interrupts and argues with another. A space seemingly builds up and gets interrupted by something else. Not all of this can be rehearsed or predetermined.

The brain says, I will put a mark here. The hand moves, automatically, to respond to its command. But then the artist observes the more conspicuous errors of his scheme; the recordings of an unexpected weight or warp, finally both surprised and pleased by what she had previously found impossible to contrive. In this regard painting in essence is both irrational as well as reasonable, corresponding closely to a kind of highly imaginative bodily experience recreated as visual ecstasy. One can really feel when a painting has been made either rapidly or slowly, delicately or firmly. If one trusts one’s involuntary response to the picture surface it can open up a whole world of expressive traits, of light, colour and form. Ultimately, too much chaos can be as equally deathly as something overdetermined and boring so it becomes a challenge to arrive at some kind of ‘working’ equilibrium.

The painting "Meme" by Brad Troemel, depicting a soy-faced wojack screaming that "Any artist critical of the art world must also provide the viewer with an actionable path FORWARD! It's THEIR responsibility to do this for me!"
‘Meme’ by Brad Troemel

Perhaps I’m being naive or pedantic. I confess to many doubts and insecurities about my theorising. Maybe it would be less of risk to simply say that John Constable was extending an inherently representational idea of semi-abstraction or that he straddles a conceptual border between abstract and figuration. Perhaps in referring to the landscape’s abstract aspect, I’m merely trying to describe the mechanics of an excitement that coordinate to a direct experience of a pigmented surface. Clement Greenberg would famously shrug and say: ‘I don’t want to be categorical about it’. But my overarching point, indeed my provocation to the reader, is to consider how a painting might be used to capture and captivate with visual stimuli. After all, if you can use a painting as a beating stick, why wouldn’t you?

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More from Ethan Pinch: Giorgio de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Strange, Forcing Quiet: Notes on the Painting of Agnes MartinCharles Ray & Postmodern Art: A Retrospective