Callcott started painting landscape around 1801, after training at the Royal Academy and working as a portraitist. He joined Thomas Girtin's Sketching Club, and became particularly interested in the early landscape work of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), developing as a result a parallel and independent interest in the use of a paler palette and clear, luminous colours to suggest atmospheric and light effects on landscape. This led the collector and critic Sir George Beaumont to describe both artists as 'white painters'.
This painting, an intimate rustic scene, is a small-scale complement to Callcott's large pastoral landscapes of this period, notably his diploma painting for the Royal Academy, Morning, 1811. It has the naturalism, economy of detail and close observation of an outdoor oil sketch, reflecting Callcott's association during the mid-1800s with the vogue in England for plein air oil sketching. This practice was followed by Turner and John Constable (1776-1837) and also by Callcott's friends the painters William Mulready (1786-1863) and John Linnell (1792-1882), who were neighbours of Callcott in the Kensington Gravel Pits area of west London in 1809. Callcott exhibited several landscapes described as 'studies from nature' at the Royal Academy and the British Institution in 1811 and 1812, of which this painting may have been one. It was, however, reported that 'Callcott himself never painted directly from nature, but from drawings and studies.' (Redgrave, p.345). Callcott's ambivalence towards the plein air practice, in contrast to the rigorous scientific approach of Constable, is illustrated by his comment to Samuel Palmer (1805-81) that 'a picture done out of doors must needs be false, because nature is changing every minute' (The Letters of Samuel Palmer, ed. R. Lister, II, 1974, pp.821-2, quoted in Brown, p.66). Callcott was known for his slow, painstaking working methods, producing relatively few works compared with the prolific output of Turner and Constable, which may also account for his position.
The painting is a carefully composed, harmonious arrangement of modulated light and shade, with elements such as the broken fence relating to the picturesque tradition. The dark foliage and shady water frame the sunlit central area and the rustic figures animate the scene and lead the eye from the foreground detail of the uneven road towards the cottage and the hazy background buildings. Callcott's intimate feeling for landscape and his use of creamy, warm tones and diffused lighting, evoking specifically the mood of a languid summer evening, recall the naturalistic pastoral idylls of the 17th century Dutch painters Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91), Jacob van Ruysdael (1629/9-82) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709), whose work was a significant influence on English landscape painters at this time. Callcott later indicated his approach to landscape thus: 'the perfection of the painter's eye is to reverse the common orders of observing nature, it is to acquire from habit the power of perceiving variety in what is generally considered as unity and unity in what to others appears as a collection of individual things' (Notes on Landscape MS. Whitelegge collection, undated F.35, on deposit, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
Like many of Callcott's rural scenes, the subject of the painting is unidentified, but probably represents a village in the south of England. Unlike Turner and other contemporaries, Callcott did not undertake sketching tours, but instead painted around the Thames valley near his home. He made prolonged working visits to the country homes of his aristocratic patrons, including Sir Richard Colt Hoare(1758-1838) at Stourhead, who appreciated Callcott's 'own original style of colouring' (quoted in Brown, p.62).
David Blayney Brown, Augustus Wall Callcott, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1981
Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School, London 1866