Art can say a lot about the time and place in which it was created. It reflects how events in history have shaped people’s ideas and tastes. John Constable's The Hay Wain, from 1821, is no exception.
From Horse to Machine
Before the Industrial Revolution, England had been a rural farming society. As the country became more and more industrialized, English society was transformed. To put it very simply, one could say that it was a transition from horse to machine, from country to city.
Nostalgia for Country Life
With all the changes the Industrial Revolution brought about came new ways of looking at the world. This could be seen in art and literature. The restful sight of the idyllic English countryside was idealized in paintings and poetry. The very famous 1821 oil painting The Hay Wain* (by the English landscape artist John Constable) is an example of this widely felt nostalgia for England’s rural past. The life of a famer living in harmony with the land and with nature was the perfect example of this calm, peaceful existence.
The Hay Wain is interesting also for what has been left out. Many farmers lost their livelihood during this period, and traditional family and social structures were upset. People were distressed by this. There was a lot of violence and unrest in the countryside as a result, yet there is no trace of this in The Hay Wain. The only ominous sign may be the storm clouds that seem to be gathering in the upper left-hand corner.
*a hay wain is a cart or wagon
Tasks and Activities
- Why were people nostalgic for English country life?
- Why was there also unrest in the countryside at this time?
- Give a brief description of the painting - what do you see?