The Hay-Wain, by John Constable
One of the best-known paintings of the English countryside
John Constable’s paintings of the English landscape, particularly those of his native Suffolk, are so evocative that many visitors to England expect to see nothing but a series of Constable canvases through their car windows. Needless to say, they are often disappointed. However, there are instances when they are not, and it is quite possible to stand today in some of the places where Constable stood 200 years ago and see at least something of what he would have seen. The Hay-Wain is a case in point.
John Constable (1776-1837) was the son of a watermill owner, farmer and corn merchant, and many of his landscapes are of the places he knew from childhood. In his own words: “I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour. Those scenes made me a painter". He stated that he would always “paint his own places best”, because he could put his true feelings into his work, as well as his love for “the sound of water escaping from mill dams” and the trees and buildings that were part of his very being.
The Hay-Wain, painted in 1821, was one of a series devoted to “Constable Country”, which is specifically the Suffolk-Essex border demarcated by the River Stour above Manningtree. The painting took about five months to complete, most of the work being done in the artist’s London studio, based on a full-sized sketch (and further detailed sketches) made on the spot. It is one of Constable’s “six footers”, being large-scale canvasses that allowed full expression of his feelings for the landscape.
The picture, which was originally titled “Landscape: Noon” shows a shallow stretch of the river with a cottage to the left and an open cornfield in the distance. To the left of the canvas the river is shaded by tall trees, whereas to the right the sky is more visible, with cumulus clouds moving across it. The focal point of the painting is the hay-wain of the title, this being a large open cart with planked sides, drawn by horses. The hay-wain is empty as it is being driven across the river to collect its next load from the harvest that is being gathered on the other side in the far distance.
Only a few yards “out of shot” is Flatford Mill, which belonged to the Constable family business (run by John’s brother after the death of his father) and which featured in other famous paintings by the artist. The cottage is Willy Lott’s Cottage, which is still there, as is the Mill. The view is taken from the Suffolk side of the river, looking over towards Essex. The trees are not there today, and a modern hay-wain would find the water somewhat deeper. The banks are more overgrown, such that the distant view is obscured.
Constable’s landscapes are rarely just that, but are snapshots of country life. This is certainly true of The Hay-Wain, with the harvest in progress in the distance and the hay-wain itself, which is motionless in the river as the two farmhands allow the horses to take a drink. A woman is busy outside the cottage and a man can be seen in the bushes on the far bank. A dog runs along the near bank, excited by the hay-wain in the river.
Constable applied his paint in various ways, employing stokes that were both short and long, and both rough and smooth. This gave a variety of textures. The colour palette is restrained, being mostly greens and browns (apart from the sky). Constable used white sparingly, although his use of white for reflections in the water was innovative and not generally welcomed by contemporary art critics. A small dash of bright red on the harnesses of the horses draws attention to the intended focal point.
Constable’s use of light is almost photographic, in that, on a cloudy day like this, shafts of sunlight are allowed to brighten parts of the landscape more than others. The light catches the whitewashed sides of the cottage, but other places are in shade. The grey cloud overhead threatens a summer shower.
The Hay-Wain is a painting that demands more than a passing glance, because the view is worth a second look. To the modern viewer it is a look back at English rural life in an age long gone. There is no hustle or bustle here, and the men on the hay-wain seem to have all the time in the world to set about their work. Today’s viewer can also spare a few minutes to step back in time and forget themselves for a moment or two.
The Hay-Wain is one of the world’s most reproduced pictures, with the scene being familiar from millions of prints, chocolate boxes and jigsaw puzzles. However, it is best appreciated in the original, on the wall at the National Gallery, London.