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Constable, The Hay Wain (Landscape: Noon)

John Constable, The Hay Wain (Landscape: Noon), 1821, oil on canvas, 130.2 x 185.4 cm (The National Gallery, London). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Steven] We're in the National Gallery in London looking at one of John Constable's six-footers. - [Beth] The six-footers are a series of paintings that are six feet wide and this was an unusual size for landscape paintings in the early 19th century. The date of his painting is 1821. - [Steven] The original title was Landscape Noon, but it's now known universally as The Hay Wain, and I think it's hard for us to retrieve how radical it was to put forward as your subject at this scale, nature. - [Beth] Landscape painting was one of the lowliest subjects according to the Royal Academy here in London because it was the idea of painting something that was right in front of you. Just like painting a portrait of something right in front of you. - [Steven] So important history subjects, religious subjects, they were often quite large, and less important subjects, landscape, still lifes they were painted on smaller canvases. - [Beth] So Constable is being ambitious here, which might seem funny because the subject seems so very mundane. What we're looking at is a view of the Stour River where Constable grew up and a hay wain, a cart moving through that river with a woman in the background doing some washing, a dog barking, some farmers working in the field in the background, the clouds passing in the sky at noon. - [Steven] So what is Constable heroicizing with the scale of this canvas? - [Beth] Constable's father was a landowner and Constable came from a well-to-do family in rural Suffolk in England. This is a moment when the land in the countryside is fraught. When they're at very severe economic stresses and unemployment among the workers. - [Steven] In the early Industrial Revolution, machines were perceived to be taking employment away. There was great poverty, but we see none of that here. - [Beth] Landscapes are expected to be classical and beautiful to show us something idealized, but Constable is refusing to idealize here. - [Steven] If Constable is looking back to any art history, he's looking back to the Dutch, to artists like Ruisdael. Look at the amount of this canvas that's given over to the sky. Constable had studied meteorology which was a new subject. - [Beth] And that specificity of Dutch painting, capturing a time of day. The title of this painting is Noon. Specifics that are very much opposite of the idealizing tradition that was recommended by the Academy. - [Steven] And in that way there is a subtle political undercurrent, however, we're not close to the workers, we don't actually see their faces. - [Beth] The farmers in the background have become one with nature. There's no sense of the landscape of nature being something that's fraught at this moment. - [Steven] The artist was creating a new kind of beauty. Finding beauty even in the most lowly. That was an expression of his personal experience. - [Beth] And I think that's what makes this romantic when we talk about the style of Romanticism in England, we're thinking about a kind of art that is personal, that is emotional. And we have this lovely quote from Constable about this. He said, writing to a friend, the sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brick work. I love such things. As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight. Still, I should paint my own places best. Painting is with me but another word for feeling and I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the store. These scenes made me a painter and I am grateful, that is, I'd often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil. So you can think about this painting as Constable loving this landscape so much, being so intimately familiar with it. - [Steven] But even as this painting is about his personal subjective experience, his memories, it's also a painting that is fixed in a very particular historical moment because of industrialization and because of the growth of cities. Nature has taken on a meaning because it is now removed from people's everyday experiences. At least those that would have seen this painting in the Royal Academy in London. - [Beth] There's certainly real nostalgia here. - [Steven] The six-footers were well received but the criticism that always comes through is the lack of finish, which was so different from the prevailing traditions in the Academy at this time. - [Beth] Where everything had to be smoothly painted, where you were not supposed to see the hands of the artist. - [Steven] Constable was deliberate in creating a rough surface that he felt captured the variety of textures of nature that he was seeing. - [Beth] We can feel the paint moving across the surface in the currents of the water, for example. - [Steven] And the movement of those billowing clouds, but in some ways the painting is also very traditional, for instance in its composition. We're led in from the lower right and we arc slowly across the foreground towards the left and then circle back to the broadly-lit fields and then up into the clouds. - [Beth] And so it is a fiction that Constable is giving us. This may appear to be a snapshot of a view on the river but this is actually something very carefully composed in the artist's studio in the city of London. - From oil sketches that the artist had done outside, it's a distillation of his memory, of his experience, and of his skill. (soft piano music)