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John Constable’s seminal Romanticist painting The Hay Wain, painted in 1821 is a figurative reproduction of a landscape scene set in Suffolk, England. The hay wain, another name for a horse-drawn cart, sits lodged in the waters of the River Stour. Created in the artist’s studio in London, Constable first made a series of preparatory sketches in the village of Flatford, culminating in one full-size sketch in oil before starting on the composition of The Hay Wain. First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821, the painting failed to attracted interest, yet when shown in France alongside other works by the Romantic artist, the canvas was showered in accolades.
The Hay Wain is a fascinating key to understanding the cataclysmic changes taking over the English countryside during the industrial revolution. Largely responsible for the emergence of the Romantic Movement in poetry and painting, the appearance of factories and the increased might of economic capitalism were noticeably changing the meaning of nature in the early nineteenth century. Constable was largely responsible for bringing the genre of landscape painting to prominence, a thematic concern that would culminate in the work of the Impressionists some fifty years later. Previously, landscape painting was reduced to a short history among the Dutch masters, and then seen by many as the basest form of painting, only slightly above the much ridiculed form of the still-life. Constable’s works challenged this received truth, presenting immense landscape paintings the size of history canvases.
This visual lineage to history painting suggested that within these immense vistas lay a deeper narrative, linked to the changing fate of a nation, and the shifting understanding of the natural surroundings. As cities became dense industrial melting pots and factory-cities sprung up in the North, the rural world became increasingly a site of retreat, a symbol of moral purity in contrast to the evils and perils of urban Industrial life.