I invite you to enjoy a last taste of summer and the importance of harvest time in The Hay Wain, a famous harvest painting, painted in 1821 by the English artist, John Constable.
Even though in the 1800s landscapes were near the bottom of the hierarchy of desirable art subjects, Constable specialized in painting scenes around his family’s farm northeast of London. He refused to paint landscapes in the dark tones others used and didn’t sell a painting until he was 39.
But first in France and eventually in England, his large landscapes became popular. Constable’s work influenced several later groups of artists, including the Impressionists.
The Hay Wain hangs in the National Gallery in London. It is large—about 4’ by 6’ and can’t be missed! It is full of sunlight and shade and details of country life.
The wain or wagon, pulled by 3 black horses, is standing in a millpond, but will eventually join the haymakers in the meadow beyond. It’s hard to see in this small picture, but out there workers toil away, gathering and stacking hay high on another wain.
In the foreground on the left is a house where a lady leans down to fill a water jug. It was leased at that time to a Willy Lotts. A dog trots along the edge of the pond. You can almost hear him barking at the men and horses parked in his pond.
Ducks swim near the opposite bank where a boat is beached and a person pokes about in the bushes with a long pole.
On the right is a low brick wall, which is all you can see of the mill the Constable family had operated for a hundred years. Both the house, the millpond, and the mill still exist.
For a long time no one knew why in this painting, originally titled Landscape: Noon, the wain is parked in the millpond. If you were taking a noon break, you might take a swim, especially if you were covered in itchy wisps of hay and chaff! But then you’d probably come out to eat and relax beside the pond.
Then a man from a rural area wrote the Gallery saying he remembered when people drove wagons into streams or ponds in the summer to soak the wheels. If they didn’t do this the wooden wheels dried and shrank in the summer heat. Wooden joints loosened and iron rims could roll right off.
Constable was a stickler for accuracy in every aspect of his paintings, and painted only from close observations. He painted trees that can be identified by their kind, and the horses’ harness is correct, right down to the bright red fringe. Constable often went “skying” to study cloud formations for his paintings.
In many ways he anticipated the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists by using dots of red (the complement of green) on leaves to help energize the green. And he painted tiny dots of white on surfaces to reproduce the shimmering effect of light.
At this time, when the Industrial Revolution was taking many people from rural areas to the cities to work long hours in factories and live in squalid conditions, Constable’s paintings showed a quiet, peaceful country scene on a warm end-of-summer day. Sun shines on the hay field, while the wagon stops in a shady area to give the horses a break as well as soak the wheels.
Today we also work long hours. And though our living and working conditions are usually safer and more comfortable, we often must take work home and find it hard to put down our electronic devises to rest, relax and enjoy family times. We tend to ignore daily and seasonal rhythms that can help us unwind.
Out in that field in this painting we’re reminded that harvest time is incredibly busy on a farm—it’s super important to get crops in before bad weather comes, but The Hay Wain also shows us that it’s important to take time for rest even when we’re at our busiest. The horses need a rest from their heavy work of pulling loaded hay wagons. The wagon must be taken care of too.
I hope this amazing painting will remind you of the beauty and bounty of God’s creation as well as the need for rest as fall schedules ramp up.
Looking ahead: we’ll explore the composition of this landscape, and how Constable created its great depth, so sign up to receive picture lady posts in your inbox!
And speaking of fall schedules, I love to bring alive great paintings and do fun art projects with groups of all ages! So head over to my website to see some of the topics I can cover and invite me to visit your group!
I can be found at kathy-oneill.com
You can also comment here and give me ideas of paintings you’d like to see me discuss. I read all comments and will give serious consideration to any of your ideas!