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The Hay Wain

Painting, 1821, 130.2×185.4 cm

Description of the artwork «The Hay Wain»

"The Hay Wain" landscape is an idyllic representation of a summer day in a quiet corner of England, dear to the painter — on the banks of the River Stour, between the counties of Suffolk and Essex. The picture was first presented to the public in 1821. It was the third of the so called ‘six-footers’ he painted for the exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts.

The focus of the composition is on the cart drawn by three horses, in the middle of the river. On the left, there is a farmhouse, and across the meadow on the right, one can discern the haymakers against the trees in the background. Constable depicted the vicinity of Flatford Mill that was owned by his father. The tenant of the cottage (which still exists) was Willy Lott. He claimed to have been born in that house and to have never left it for longer than four days.
Robert Cumming, the author of the book Art Explained. The World’s Greatest Paintings Explored and Explained, suggested the two reasons for the cart being directed into the water. Firstly, the river flow was supposed to cool the horses’ legs in hot, dry weather. Secondly, the water was to soak the wooden wheels so that the metal band farmers fixed around their rims in the summer did not loosen and go off. Wetting the wheels reduced the shrinkage of the wood and kept the outer metal band in place.

In the twentieth century, Constable was sometimes made out to be a precursor of Impressionists. But, unlike them, the British artist painted the landscape in his studio, basing on a number of prior oil studies made en plein air (the most famous of them, the full-scale one, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum). He needed sketches like this to be realistic in details, like the cart, or the harness. In the picture, even some tree species are identifiable. Besides, Constable was one of the first painters who studied meteorology to be scientifically accurate in portraying atmospheric phenomena.

However, some historians find it unlikely that in the early 1800s, the English countryside was as full of harmony and peace as it seems to be in this painting. Constable cannot have been ignorant of the social and economic impacts of industrialisation that was changing Britain’s lifestyle. Since the Industrial Revolution took off, machines had been introduced in farms more and more widely putting lots of people out of work. In large agricultural areas, riots were frequent, and mass migration to cities began.

For conservative Constable, the countryside became paradise lost where fresh air, clear water, open space, and honest work were in sharp contrast to the overpopulation, pollution, and immorality of the cities of his time. He intentionally rejected the low reality and romanticised the abstract ‘good old England’, unspoilt by any industrial and social changes. In fact, it was due to him that landscape painting, a genre that had previously been valued not much higher than still life, became so important in the 19th century.

However, it would take place later. So far, the painting, originally titled Landscape: Noon, was ‘premiered’ in the Royal Academy of Arts and received with no enthusiasm. Everyday rural life was not a trendy subject — popular were panoramic views, à la Claude Lorrain, of wild nature and picturesque antique ruins. Nor did the critics appreciate the innovative technique of impasto (when paint is laid heavily to intensify the effects of light and texture) — they just called his dynamic brushstrokes ‘careless’.

It was the French Théodore Géricault, staying in London at that time, who helped the situation. He admired the picture and, back in Paris, had John Arrowsmith, an art dealer, buy Constable’s four works, including The Hay Wain. In 1824, the canvas was exhibited in the Paris Salon. It is said that Eugène Delacroix, two weeks prior the opening date, saw the picture and persuaded the judges to allow him to take his Massacre at Chios back from the display, to repaint the background in his colleague’s ‘careless’ manner.

Géricault, who died at the beginning of that year, had shown himself a prophet: King Charles X of France found that The Hay Wain deserved a gold medal. A cast of the medal can be seen now incorporated into the picture’s frame.
After being kept in a number of private collections, in 1886, Constable’s work found its way to the National Gallery in London where it still hangs. The canvas that failed to find a buyer when first exhibited is now iconic for the British people. It has been reproduced in multiple jigsaw puzzles, on tea sets, chocolate box covers, and cookie packages. The landscape firmly holds second place in all surveys on the nation’s favourite pictures.

In 2013, a man glued a boy’s photo on the canvas in the display room. The man wanted to draw politicians’ attention to his paternal rights he had been unsuccessfully trying to assert for five years. Luckily, the painting suffered no serious damage.

Text 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: 17 selections