John Constable’s 1821 piece The Hay Wain is considered to be his masterpiece. Constable revolutionized landscape paintings in the 19th century, with his works depicting picturesque scenes of the English countryside. The Hay Wain is particularly celebrated for its portrayal of a quintessentially English country scene, although the serenity and optimism illustrated in the work belies that conflict and turmoil that was surrounding the country due to the Industrial Revolution. Singulart will be exploring how Constable’s upbringing influenced The Hay Wain, the dissonance between the idealized countryside of the painting and the Industrial Revolution, and how reactions to the work have changed from its creation up to the present day.
How John Constable’s upbringing contributed to The Hay Wain
Born in Suffolk in 1776, Constable grew up surrounded by idyllic country landscapes. His father, a corn merchant, owned Flatford Mill and later acquired Dedham Mill in Essex. Although Constable was encouraged to follow in the footsteps of his father and enter the corn trade business, he convinced his father to allow him to enrol in the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer. He began exhibiting paintings in 1803.
The Hay Wain was completed in 1821, depicting a rural scene on the River Stour, which divided the counties between Suffolk and Essex. Specifically, the scene depicts three horses pulling a wain, or large wagon, across the river.
The idyllic countryside vs the reality of the Industrial Revolution
The Hay Wain shows an idealistic, peaceful view of England’s agricultural scene, but the piece is at odds with the events that were actually happening at the time. The industrial revolution was occurring at the time Constable painted The Hay Wain, and workers in the agriculture sector were facing land enclosures and a lack of employment due to machines replacing work that was previously done by hand. Many farmers were forced off their land after they could no longer afford to pay for it, and riots were becoming more frequent and violent.
The Hay Wain is a curious subject because while it is often mentioned in relation to the Industrial Revolution, it does not show any of the civil unrest that was occurring at the time. In fact, it barely shows the workers at all – the people we see portrayed in the piece blend into the scene around them. Their features are almost unrecognisable, and their distance from the foreground of the painting could represent Constable’s acknowledgement of the tension between the landowners and the workers. As he came from a wealthy family, he would not have been directly affected by the revolution.
Constable’s paintings are heavily steeped in nostalgia, a callback to the ‘good old days’. He painted scenes that had been prevalent throughout his childhood, the England that he knew and loved.
Constable’s painting techniques
The serenity that is portrayed in The Hay Wain is represented by Constable’s use of color. Natural tones are used to create a calming, tranquil atmosphere, with the blue tones of the sky reflected in the water, and a similar shade of red used for both the terracotta house and the highlights of the horse’s mane. Flecks of white, a feature in many of Constable’s pieces, are used to highlight the sun’s reflection on the river, portraying the position of the midday sun.
Constable was particularly interested in capturing the likeness of the clouds, noting “It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment.”. He dedicated many hours to sketching the formations in the sky, determined to emulate their likeness as accurately as possible.
Reactions to The Hay Wain, then and now
Although The Hay Wain clearly shows Constable’s adoration for his home country, the piece was not received well in England. When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1823, it failed to find a buyer and raised criticism for being different to other landscapes at the time, in particular the work of Claude Lorrain.
It wasn’t until the painting was shown in France, at the 1824 Paris Salon, that The Hay Wain began to receive critical attention, influencing artists like Delacroix and Corot. It was awarded the Gold Medal of the exhibition by Charles X, and a cast of the medal was integrated into the frame of the piece. Today, The Hay Wain is one of Constable’s most recognised works, and was voted the second greatest painting in Britain in a public poll, losing the top spot to The Fighting Temeraire by Turner. Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s house (the cottage depicted in The Hay Wain) were given to the National Trust in 1943, and painting itself now hangs in the National Gallery.