(b. 1776, East Bergholt, d. 1837, Hampstead)
Oil on canvas, 130 x 185 cm
National Gallery, London
John Constable's father was a wealthy Suffolk miller. Constable's truthfulness to nature and devotion to his native scene have passed into legend. Less widely known, however, is his biographer's report that it was seeing Claude's Hagar and the Angel (now in the National Galleery, London) and watercolours by Girtin which first provided him with 'pictures that he could rely on as guides to the study of nature'. Ruisdael, Rubens, Wilson and Annibale Carracci were among other 'reliable guides' whose work he copied as a young man. He also learned from contemporary painters, never forgetting the advice given him by Benjamin West, the President of the Royal Academy: 'Always remember, sir, that light and shadow never stand still...in your skies... always aim at brightness...even in the darkest effects...your darks should look like the darks of silver, not of lead or of slate.'
Constable's youthful exclamation, 'There is room enough for a natural painture [i.e. style of painting]', must be understood not as the outpouring of a 'natural painter' but as the proclamation of an aspiring student struggling for proficiency in the language of art, which shaped his deepest feelings before he could give expression to them.
The Hay-Wain, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821 and at the British Institution in 1822 under the title Landscape: Noon, was one of the big 'six-footers' on which Constable worked in the winters in London from sketches and studies made in the country in summer. The harvest wagon of the modern title was copied from a drawing made by John Dunthorne, Constable's childhood friend and assistant, and sent at Constable's request from Suffolk. The view is of farmer Willy Lott's cottage on a mill stream of the River Stour near Flatford Mill, of which Constable's father had the tenancy. A full-scale sketch for the picture is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In this final version Constable omitted a figure on horseback at the edge of the stream, substituting a barrel which he later painted out (but which is beginning to show through).
In thus 'selecting and combining' from 'some of the forms and evanescent effects of nature' Constable sought an 'unaffected truth of expression' without the loss of poetry. He laboured 'almost fainting by the way' to preserve the sparkle of sketches in these large paintings worked over for many months in the studio. The Hay-Wain, that best-loved icon of the English countryside, was admired by Constable's closest friends but did not meet with success at the London exhibitions. He sold it in 1823 with two other pictures to an Anglo-French dealer who exhibited them in the 1824 Salon in Paris. There at last Constable's achievement was understood. A cast of the gold medal awarded to Constable by King Charles X of France is incorporated in the picture's frame.