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John Constable

Daniel Gardner, 'John Constable', 1796. Museum no. 589-1888

Daniel Gardner, 'John Constable', 1796. Museum no. 589-1888

Constable, the son of a prosperous miller, was born in 1776 at East Bergholt, Suffolk, and it was in this area of the Stour Valley on the Suffolk - Essex border that he spent most of his life. He began his professional career as a student at the Royal Academy Schools and spent his early years absorbing the influence of Gainsborough's landscape drawings, Claude's classical compositions and Rubens's stormy skies and rainbows, as well as the landscapes of the 17th century Dutch painters, above all, Jacob Ruisdael.

Following the fashion for painting mountainous, Romantic scenery, he spent some time in Derbyshire (1801) and the Lake District (1806), but it was only on his return to the quieter, less spectacular countryside of his native Suffolk that he developed his personal style. From 1810 there is an uninterrupted series of drawings and oil sketches painted in the open air and depicting his native countryside in what was an unusually fresh and direct manner.

After his marriage to Maria Bicknell in 1816 he moved to London, but continued to spend his summers painting from nature at East Bergholt. He was still virtually unknown, and in order to achieve a measure of public recognition, as well as to convey his feeling for the Suffolk Countryside, he decided to submit a series of large paintings to the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. The first of these 'six foot canvases' was 'The White Horse' (New York, Frick Collection) of 1819; the second, 'Stratford Mill' (National Gallery) was exhibited in the following year, and 'The Haywain' (National Gallery), the third, in 1821.

The Hay Wain

John Constable, Study for 'The Haywain', about 1821. Museum no. 987-1888

John Constable, Study for 'The Hay Wain', about 1821. Museum no. 987-1888

Originally exhibited under the title 'Landscape: Noon', the finished painting was referred to by Constable's friend Archdeacon Fisher as 'The Haywain' as early as February 1821, and this soon became its popular name. A rustic scene of great calm, it shows a harvest wagon crossing a shallow stream near Flatford Mill; on the left is Willy Lott's cottage, which belonged to Constable's father and in the sight of which he himself had grown up.

It is fortunate that several preliminary studies for this composition have survived, for they enable us to obtain an insight into the artist's method of work. To begin with, there are the sketches from nature made in his early years, upon which Constable drew throughout his career. For example, there is a small oil sketch of Willy Lott's cottage in the Museum which has been dated about 1810-15. As was his practice with oil sketches of this period, he blocked in the main features in broad masses of strong, bright colours, giving the work a rough texture and a surprisingly modern appearance.

Years later, he made use of such early sketches when he was devising the composition of 'The Hay Wain' - even the dog has been retained in the final version. At this stage he made the small oil sketch for the whole composition in the  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Constable now faced the problem of converting these small, broadly executed oil sketches into carefully composed 'six foot canvases'.

John Constable, A Study for 'The Leaping Horse' (detail), 1824-25. Museum no. 986-1900

John Constable, A Study for 'The Leaping Horse' (detail), 1824-25. Museum no. 986-1900

It was at this point that he produced the large sketch, a full scale treatment of the subject but with the details only roughly indicated, the background merely blocked in and the predominant tone provided by the light brown canvas on which it is painted. By contrast, the full scale sketch of 'The Leaping Horse' is much more finished in both colour and detail. 'The Haywain' sketch really is an intermediary stage between the small sketch at Yale and the final version.

The finished picture in the National Gallery differs hardly at all in composition - only the figure on horseback in the foreground has disappeared - but it does show a more detailed treatment of the landscape, with firmer contours and more naturalistic colouring. It is by far the better known of the two, yet in some ways 'it is the sketch, with its rapid brush strokes, its flecks of white and green skimming the surface, and its generally broader treatment that accords more with modern taste.

Constable's art

'Painting should be understood...as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific and mechanical'.

'Painting is with me but another word for feeling'
- John Constable

These two statements may, at first sight, appear contradictory, but it is important to appreciate that for Constable there was no conflict between a naturalistic and a poetic representation of landscape. The 'Haywain' sketch, like many of his other paintings, is dominated by dark threatening clouds.

Constable made a scientific study of cloud formations; he was determined to represent them accurately, and at the same time he saw that clouds could best express the mood of a landscape. 'It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment'.

In the 18th century there had been a gulf between, on the one hand accurate topographical views, for example those of Paul Sandby, and Romantic or expressive landscape epitomised by J R Cozens. It was Constable's achievement to combine these two tendencies: he portrayed his native Suffolk and one or two other areas in a manner both more naturalistic than that of any of his predecessors and yet imbued with a deeply Romantic spirit.

Written by C. M. Kauffmann, 1976, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series. Revised 2006.

Recommended reading

Graham Reynolds, 'The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable', New Haven, London 1984, pp. 67-70, pls. 213-215.

Anne Lyles (ed.) 'Constable: The Great Landscapes', exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2006, pp. 140-145.

The Hay Wain on the National Gallery website

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