Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821): Painting Change

Decades before the Impressionists, Constable was laying the foundations for a transformation of landscape painting, from which they benefited directly. One painting, Noon which was eventually to be known as The Hay Wain, depicts an exceptionally beautiful part of England and so it cannot really be a surprise that some see a “chocolate box” sentimentality to it.

I’ve nothing against “chocolate box” art, nor of a nation taking a picture like The Hay Wain to its heart in the way that England has. It is of course no coincidence that the area in the painting, Dedham Valley, is known as Constable Country. I’ve been visiting the area since I was boy and it is a truly magical place. The first time I went, I was desperate to see the cottage of Willy Lott, nestled amongst the trees and shrubbery and it didn’t disappoint.

For all the sentimental hold the artist and his works may have on us today, Constable was not in the business of idealising nature and The Hay Wain is a case in point. The picture is large (1.3m x 1.8m approximately), it is one of his so-called “six-footers”. With that in mind Constable, giving the sky c.40% of the canvas, has painted a considerable amount of it! The sky he wrote was “the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment” in a painting.

Detail, The Hay Wain (1821)

When you consider that sky, you can see where Constable’s focus really was. The last thing he had in mind was sentimentality, he sought to represent the natural world as fully as possible, capturing its ever-changing and varied character.

It is precisely because he wasn’t idealising nature that the reception by his peers was at best, mixed. When it was presented to the Royal Academy in 1821, The Hay Wain didn’t even find a buyer. Collectors were accustomed to Palladian vistas, often painted from imagination and in studios, in the style of Poussin and Lorrain. To see dock leaves, brambles and bushes, a staple of the English countryside, on a six-foot panel was something altogether revolutionary.

As it was, landscape painting at the time was already widely denigrated. Sir Joshua Reynolds, contemporary grandee of the art world, declared: “A mere copier of nature can never produce anything great.” The prevailing view would have seen an unenhanced depiction of a landscape in an even lower category. Constable picked up on this when he wrote: “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up”.

* * *

“The world is wide, no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world.”

Constable, cited in Parkinson (1)

Change is everywhere in The Hay Wain, indeed it is woven into the fabric of its very subject. A closer inspection of the trees in the middle distance reveals the summer is on that point of giving way to the first colours of autumn. Workers in the distant fields are collecting the harvest. The centrepiece cart, or wain, is to transport harvest hay from the fields. Constable’s painting style lends itself easily to this theme. English landscape painting was still discovering its own vocabulary and Constable served it with broken and vigorous brushwork, which in some of his other paintings and sketches, could become wilder and more expressive:

This turbulence on the surface of the canvas is indicative of something more to Constable’s approach than a dedication to capturing nature. He has been categorised as part of the Romantic period which started the later half of the 18th century and lasted into the 19th. Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was treated as a founding text. Burke’s work is, amongst other things, an attempt to categorise and organise aesthetics around Romantic first principles. It was part of the process of shattering the clinical, Neo-Classical world, which for all its purity and symmetry, was unsustainable in its rigidity.

One of the insights of Romanticism was to seek to represent the feelings Nature inspires in us. It is no accident that Constable was received better in France, where Romanticism had already gained much ground and Rousseau advocated the nobility of man when in his natural state. This signature Romantic trait we see in Constable and is why he went on to influence Delacroix. But it was his focus on capturing the ever-changing, frangible aspect of the natural world which the Impressionists were to later take to its natural conclusion.

Bibliography

Parkinson, Ronald (1998), John Constable: The Man and His Art, London: V&A, ISBN 1-85177-243-X

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