The 1812 over four by six foot oil painting on canvas ‘The Hay Wain’ is one of the English artist John Constable’s works that greatly influenced the French Romantic and later impressionist movements, and helped, with J. W. M. Turner’s works, usher in landscapes as a worthy subject matter.
Constable and his art are dichotomous in our minds. He was conservative, loved the old fashioned rural life and his landscapes of everyday rural life seem lovely and picturesque to modern eyes. Yet Constable was a strong willed visionary with controversial ideas about art. His subject matter and techniques were radical and distasteful to the stodgy British Royal Academy. He had great influence on other experimenting artists and movements, including Romanticism, impressionism and even the years later abstract movements.
In Britain at the time that Constable came onto the scene, landscape itself was considered a low level genre of art or was used merely as a backdrop for sentimental mythical and biblical scenes. Landscapes often consisted of maudlin, artificially perfect and unnaturally balanced images of mountains or exotic far away places. These works were composed entirely in the studio from the artist’s imagination and resemble fairy tales.
Constable strongly rejected this. He felt that natural landscapes, local scenes depicting local daily life, was an important subject. Beyond his new painting techniques, this itself was a great departure from tradition. Though he made the final works in his London studio, he made preliminary sketches in the field and strived for accuracy. He painted his landscapes as giant ‘six footers,’ giving them the grand importance of historical paintings. Their large size itself was a statement.
Further, he aspired to paint things as he saw them. He was a champion of science and scientific accuracy in his works. He was the first artist to study meteorology, in particular cloud formations, and made endless studies of clouds. His preliminary sketches included notes on the weather, including sun and wind direction, and he loved that nature and weather changed. He loved that no two leaves or snowflakes were alike and that a scene looked different hour to hour and season to season. He considered his own paintings ephemeral snapshots. He found beauty in nature as it was, not as imagined in the artist’s head. His paintings included the mud, fungus and rotting posts that he was familiar with having from his rural childhood.
He introduced painting techniques to give his works realism and that were controversial with the British Royal Academy. To make things appear as the eyes see them, he used broad brushstrokes and impasto, and mixed colors to depict movement. To the Royal Academy, brushstrokes were supposed to be invisible and his style made the paintings appear unfinished.
Another radical thing he did was to use natural colors. The British Royal Academy at the time wanted landscapes to be painted in ‘coffee colors’ so as to mimic the Old Dutch Masters. This is humorous, because the brown tones of the old paintings were due to the toning and dirtying of the varnish over the years and the original colors were likely much more bright and colorful. Constable did the radical and unapologetic thing of painting the grass green and the sky blue. He even once put a fiddle on the ground to demonstrate to critics that grass was green not brown. It says all you need to know about the British Royal Academy that they wanted painters to paint paintings that looked 200 years old.
Along with scientific accuracy and depicting nature as it really appears, Constable also wanted to express his emotions and beliefs, particularly his love of nature. He felt that the towering realistic skies and clouds expressed emotions and, to modern viewers, the skies give his paintings emotional and dramatic weight. The paintings are accurate but also full of emotion. Though his studio was in London, his heart was with the farm and rural landscape of his boyhood. In the age of the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, he disliked manufactured parks and longed for the rural.
So for Constable, his paintings were both about scientific objectivity and deep emotional expression. These at first seems to be in conflict with each, but, to Constable, the accurate, scientific depiction of nature was an expression of his emotions, love and aesthetic beliefs. He philosophically and psychologically aspired to mimic and celebrate nature as it is, and rejected human made artifice in nature and art.
His interesting coupling of scientific accuracy and the emotional attachment and love of nature is shown in his competing quotes.
“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?”
“Painting is another word for feeling.”
Other quotes show his love of the beauty of nature and disdain for manufactured versions in cities and art.
“There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”
“A gentleman’s park is my aversion. It is not beauty because it is not nature.”
“The climax of absurdity to which art may be carried when led away from nature by fashion.“
The Hay Wain depicts a normal farm scene, with natural colors, normal daily activity and the mud and grime of a real scene. Unlike the previous paintings in this course, there is no central focus. It is an objective depiction of a real scene with many things going on and existing simultaneously. Everything and nothing is the focus. The viewer surveys the scene in any way he or she wishes, as if examining a map.
The Hay Wain was dismissed by the British Royal Academy and went unsold in Britain. However, early French Romantic artist Theodore Gericault saw and championed his works. At a 1824 Paris exhibition, the Hay Wain was awarded a Gold Medal by King Charles X. France had many new Romantic painters with new rebellious ideas who saw Constable’s landscapes as a breath of fresh air. The French writer Stendhal gushed that his works were “the mirror of nature” and Eugene Delacroix was particularly enamored with Constable’s works. Himself a controversial iconoclast at odds with the conservative French academy, Delacroix was struck by Constable’s free brushstrokes, novel use of colors and the spontaneous depiction of clouds, and reworked the sky on the painting he was working on.
The Romantic movement was a diverse and difficult to describe movement covering different subjects, but was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, the political norms and the stale artificial order and balance of Neoclassical painting. It championed nature– real, wild nature– and the artist’s emotional expression. Unlike Constable, the Spanish Romantic Francisco Goya focused on people, but paralleling Constable he depicted normal everyday people realistically and as he saw them. Romantic paintings often used flowing broad brushstrokes and impasto and brilliant colors, and these were often tools to express the artist’s emotions. Much of these things can be seen in and traced to Constable’s works.
His brushwork and colors depicting what the eye saw at the moment can also be seen in the years later impressionism. Further, his in the field preliminary sketches for his six footers, which are more sketchy and abstract, are often seen as a forerunner of the abstract movement. While we today see his works as lovely landscapes, Contable, and fellow British landscape and brushstroke and color experimenter artist Turner, are seen as visionaries and forerunners of the modern and abstract painters. Their landscapes are still fresh and spontaneous to today’s audiences and their techniques still inspire artists.
British National Gallery– nationalgallery.org.uk
Artble.com article on Constable’s style and technique
Wikipedia articles on Constable, Turner and Delacroix
Khanavademy.org article on Constable and lanscape painting