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The Hay Wain

Painting, 1821, 130.2×185.4 cm

Description of the artwork «The Hay Wain»

The Hay Wain is an idyllic image of a summer day in the artist’s beloved Suffolk countriside. First shown to the public in 1821, the landscape became the third in a series of so-called , the canvases that Constable painted for exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts.

What we see is a hay wain crossing the shallow mill pond. Drawn by three horses, it stands in the water; to the left is the farmhouse, and across the meadow to the right, figures of mowers can be seen against the background of trees. Constable depicted the surroundings of his father's mill in Flatford. The tenant of the cottage, which still exists today, was a man named Willie Lott. He claimed that he was born in this house and in his entire life never left it for more than four days.

Robert Cumming, the author of “The Interpretation of Art. Studying and explaining the greatest paintings of the world ”, suggested that the hay wain was brought into the water for two reasons. In hot dry weather, the river flow had to, firstly, cool the legs of the horses, and, secondly, soak the wooden wheels so that the metal rims that farmers attached to them in the summer would not come off. Wetting the wheels reduced shrinkage and kept the outer metal band in place.

Unlike the Impressionists, Constable painted the landscape in his studio. He made a number of preliminary sketches from nature (the most famous 
full-size sketch is now kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London). Such sketches were needed for the most reliable rendering of details, for example, the wain and harnesses. You can even identify different types of trees in the painting. In addition, Constable was the first renowned painter to study meteorology in order to depict atmospheric phenomena with scientific precision.

At the same time, many historians doubt that at the beginning of the 19th century, the English countryside was as full of harmony and happiness as it appeared on this canvas. Constable could not help but notice the social and economic consequences of industrialization, which changed the way of life in Britain. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, machines were increasingly used to work on farms, leaving many people unemployed. Riots often broke out in large agricultural regions, and mass migration to cities began.

For the conservative Constable, the village was a lost Eden, with clean air and water, open spaces and honest work in stark contrast to the overcrowding, pollution, and immorality of his contemporary cities. He deliberately refused to depict reality, romanticizing the abstract "good old England", that was not affected by industrial and social changes. In fact, he is credited with the revival of landscape painting in the 19th century - a genre that until then was valued just above still life.

However, this happened over time. When first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1821, the painting with the original title Landscape. Noon had cool critical reception. Everyday rural life was an unfashionable subject in the era of panoramic views of pristine nature and picturesque ancient ruins in the spirit of Claude Lorrain. Critics also did not appreciate the innovative technique of "impasto" (thick overlay of paint to enhance light and texture effects), considering Constable's loose handling "careless".

The situation was saved by the French painter Theodore Gericault, who was in London at the time. Admired by Constable's work, on his return to Paris, he persuaded the art dealer John Arrowsmith to buy four of his works, including The Hay Wain. In 1824, the canvas was exhibited at the Paris Salon. The story goes that two weeks before the opening, Eugene Delacroix saw it and got permission from the judges to take his Massacre on Chios in order to quickly repaint the background in Constable’s "careless" manner.

Gericault, who died earlier that year, turned out to be a prophet: King Charles X considered the "Hay Wain" worthy of a gold medal. Its casting can now be seen on the frame of the painting.

Having passed through several private collections, Constable's work in 1886 ended up in London's National Gallery, where it still hangs. The canvas, which did not find a buyer at the first exhibition, has now become a cult painting for the British. It has been replicated on jigsaw puzzles, tea sets, boxes of chocolates and cookies. Landscape is firmly ranked second in all polls for the nation's favorite paintings.

In 2013, a man pasted a photograph of a boy on a canvas hanging in the hall. The man wanted to draw the attention of politicians to his fatherly rights, for which he had been unsuccessfully fighting for five years. The painting was not seriously damaged.

Written by Vlad Maslov




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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Landscape

Style of art: Romanticism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1821

Size: 130.2×185.4 cm

Artwork in selections: 29 selections