I thought the response below merited inclusion on the blog. It is an assignment from Julie Wardrop to Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ which is often seen as a ‘chocolate box’ image. Julie had asked what she could do to improve her responses and I suggested that a more personal response would take it beyond the obvious internet information. She responded to the challenge with an excellent response!
History of Art Course
The Hay Wain; chocolate box cliché or game-changer?
Written by student Julie Wardrop studying with Stewart Roberts on the History of Art Course
ASSIGNMENT 6 – The Hay Wain, John Constable
Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 185.4cm
Everyone knows this painting, particularly if you are English. Such is it’s British-ness, a reference to it is rumoured to appear on the questionnaire for naturalisation post-Brexit! Constable’s The Hay Wain is renowned as being a cliché in the history of art. It has been over-saturated with reproductions, in the form of ceramics, headscarves, cushions and wallpaper. As such, when one stands in front of the original painting, one immediately feels a sense of déjà vu. Why did such an ordinary view become such an extraordinary English icon?….Although, it is said The Hay Wain came only second in a poll conducted to find what was Britain’s favourite painting. First place went to Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.
For me, looking at it, The Hay Wain straddles a fine line between Romanticism in its naturalistic sense, and Impressionism in terms of its coarseness. The painting has a sense of stillness. It evokes a homely, beautiful, pastoral scene and gives an impression of nostalgia and the halcyon days of a time gone by. There is a sense of fondness; the dog seemingly barking at the cart in the water, the woman in the background washing clothes, and the land-workers in the far background, gathering hay and appearing at one with nature. If one were to ‘listen’ to the painting, only the sounds of the gently rushing water and the barking dog ….and birds in song, would be ‘heard’. In terms of its apparent tranquillity and sense of idyll, however, Constable chose to omit any sign of what was actually taking place in Britain (and in that Suffolk scene) at the time, namely the Industrial Revolution – wherein its machinery was seen as taking work away from the people, who suffered great economic hardship. In the painting he is expressing beauty in a fraught and lowly time. Here there is no inference of the noise of the mill which is nearby (we are told, actually, a small section of the mill brickwork can be seen at the far right – foreground – of the painting). Instead, it recalls his boyhood life – a happy, rural life, as the son of a wealthy landowner.
Immediately one may get the sense that the main focus of the image is the cart, the hay wain, as it takes centre stage in the foreground. The reflection it casts on the glass-like surface of the water evokes, again, that sense of stillness and tranquillity; a snap-shot of the quintessential English idyll. Equally, for me, as much consideration should be attributed to the clouds, a subject, apparently, he observed and studied over a long period. For Constable, clouds best expressed the mood of the landscape – hence this painting’s original title; ‘Landscape Noon’. Here, as in most of his works, Constable’s interpretation of cloud formation deserves a round of applause. It is often remarked about how a particular sunset appears ‘Turner-esque’, yet it was Constable who was the weatherman’s favourite artist, as he always ‘got it right’. In terms of the ‘billow factor’, these clouds are off the scale! Applause?…..nay, standing ovation, surely!
And perhaps because he ‘got it right’ in the sky, then all the more does it benefit the quality of the green(s) on the ground. Home in on the patch of land in the background, and admire the light and shade created by (we are informed) underpainting in light green, allowing it to dry and then half loading a brush with yellow for light – then blue for shade – and drag (scumble) it across the green to achieve what has come to be known as ‘sparkle’. His green underpins, therefore, our understanding of English landscape.
Traditionally, the art world had always turned to Italy, mostly Rome, for the landscape ideal. It’s paintings would include mythical creatures, heroes and nymphs, and the tones used would be on the brown spectrum.
Constable wanted to turn the lens back on Britain. He was determined not to paint like other artists – he wanted to paint things as they were, not from imagination, nor in a way that was ‘in fashion’….“Paintings should have the tonality of an old Cremona fiddle” was Sir George Beaumont’s (one of the original founders of the National Gallery) argument with his friend, Constable. During an afternoon’s painting en plein air, Constable fetched from the house a Cremona fiddle and placed it on the ground next to a puzzled Sir Beaumont….to show that a fiddle is brown and the grass is green.
Constable was indifferent to public popularity, unlike his contemporary, Turner who craved it, and this stubbornness meant his acceptance into the Royal Academy as a full member didn’t come until he was 53 years old (Turner was in his teens when he himself became a member). “Take away that green thing!” (referring to Constable’s work) was one of the rebukes from a Royal Academy jury member in selecting pieces for exhibiting.
Furthermore, traditionally, the dimensions of British landscape paintings were relatively small, compared to that of historical or religious subject matter…….which makes the six-footer that is The Hay Wain a bit of a maverick.
Whilst the Academy was criticising Constable’s work for its ‘unfinished-ness’ (Constable’s retort was “I do not see any finish in nature”), it was another contemporary, Theodore Gericault, who saw The Hay Wain, loved it….so much, that Constable’s paintings were invited to be exhibited (and were awarded a Gold Medal) at the Paris Salon. Another painter of the era, Delacroix, saw the exhibition and it is said that, afterwards, he returned to his studio and repainted all his own works incorporating the techniques used by Constable to achieve that must-have ‘sparkle’.
What ensued, it is said, is that, after Paris, many other artists adopted this technique, including Monet and Pissarro…….hello Impressionism.
It is perhaps an oxymoron that, politically, Constable is very conservative, but artistically he is a radical. With regard The Hay Wain – whilst the subject seems mundane – Constable is actually being very ambitious.
So, The Hay Wain; chocolate box cliché or gamechanger?
Answer: Game-changer….. and a symbol of England.
History of Art Course