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Constable and the English Landscape

by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, oil on canvas, 51–1/4 x 73" (National Gallery of Art, London)
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, oil on canvas, 51–1/4 x 73" (National Gallery of Art, London)

Reviving Landscape Painting

Studying the English painter John Constable is helpful in understanding the changing meaning of nature during the industrial revolution. He is, in fact, largely responsible for reviving the importance of landscape painting in the 19th century. A key event, when it is remembered that landscape would become the primary subject of the Impressionists later in the century.
Landscape had had a brief moment of glory amongst the Dutch masters of the 17th century. Ruisdael and others had devoted large canvases to the depiction of the low countries. But in the 18th century hierarchy of subject matter, landscape was nearly the lowest type of painting. Only the still-life was considered less important. This would change in the first decades of the 19th century when Constable began to depict his father's farm on oversized six-foot long canvases. These "six-footers" as they are called, challenged the status quo. Here landscape was presented on the scale of history painting.
Why would Constable take such a bold step, and perhaps more to the point, why were his canvases celebrated (and they were, by no less important a figure than Eugène Delacroix, when Constable's The Hay Wain was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1824)?
John Constable, Sketch for "The Hay Wain," c. 1820, oil on canvas laid to paper, 4 7/8 × 7" (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
John Constable, Sketch for "The Hay Wain," c. 1820, oil on canvas laid to paper, 4 7/8 × 7" (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Painted in the Studio, from Sketches Done Out-of-Doors

The Hay Wain does include an element of genre (the depiction of a common scene), that is the farm hand taking his horse and wagon (or wain) across the stream. But this action is minor and seems to offer the viewer the barest of pretenses for what is virtually a pure landscape. Unlike the later Impressionists, Constable's large polished canvases were painted in his studio.
He did, however, sketch outside, directly before his subject. This was necessary for Constable as he sought a high degree of accuracy in many specifics. For instance, the wagon and tack (harness, etc.) are all clearly and specifically depicted, The trees are identifiable by species, and Constable was the first artist we know of who studied meteorology so that the clouds and the atmospheric conditions that he rendered were scientifically precise.
Constable was clearly the product of the Age of Enlightenment and its increasing confidence in science. But Constable was also deeply influenced by the social and economic impact of the industrial revolution.
Manchester, England, pictured in 1840 showing the mass of factory chimneys, engraving by Edward Goodall, original title Manchester, from Kersal Moor after a painting of W. Wylde (photo: Badseed, public domain)
Manchester, England, pictured in 1840 showing the mass of factory chimneys, engraving by Edward Goodall, original title Manchester, from Kersal Moor after a painting of W. Wylde (photo: Badseed, public domain)

From Farming to Factories, From Country to City

Prior to the 19th century, even the largest European cities counted their populations only in the hundreds of thousands. These were mere towns by today's standards. But this would change rapidly. The world's economies had always been based largely on agriculture. Farming was a labor intensive enterprise and the result was that the vast majority of the population lived in rural communities. 
The industrial revolution would reverse this ancient pattern of population distribution. Industrial efficiencies meant widespread unemployment in the country and the great migration to the cities began. The cities of London, Manchester, Paris, and New York doubled and doubled again in the 19th century. Imagine the stresses on a modern day New York if we had even a modest increase in population and the stresses of the 19th century become clear.
Industrialization remade virtually every aspect of society. Based on the political, technological and scientific advances of the Age of Enlightenment, blessed with a bountiful supply of the inexpensive albeit filthy fuel, coal, and advances in metallurgy and steam power, the northwestern nations of Europe invented the world that we now know in the West. Urban culture, expectations of leisure, and middle class affluence in general all resulted from these changes. But the transition was brutal for the poor. Housing was miserable, unventilated and often dangerously hot in the summer. Unclean water spread disease rapidly and there was minimal health care. Corruption was high, pay was low and hours inhumane.

Child Labor, Long Hours & Calls for Revolution

As is still true in too much of the world today, families would depend on the labor of even very young children. Working long days with only Sunday off was normal. The contemporaneous author Charles Dickens famously chronicled the depravity of laissez-faire or pure market capitalism that characterized this era. There were no laws to soften this harsh new world. No unemployment insurance, no health insurance, no unions, no benefits, no vacations, no retirement, few safety regulations, no child labor nor bankruptcy protections.
A cotton mill scene, from Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy (1840) (photo: Staceydolxx, public domain)
A cotton mill scene, from Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy (1840) (photo: Staceydolxx, public domain)
If you couldn't pay a debt because you had been sick and lost your job, you, and sometimes your family, were sent to prison. The wealth created by the rich (the return on risked capital) was largely theirs to keep as a permanent national income tax would not become law until 1874 (U.K.) and 1913 (U.S.).
Such terrible abuses were answered by both calls for reform and revolution. Radicals and bourgeois reformers slowly forced change. In 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels co-authored a pamphlet that would become enormously influential, The Communist Manifesto while revolts raged in England, France and to a lesser extent in Germany. It is no surprise that France and England were particularly hard hit as they were amongst the most industrialized of nations.

Rural Landscape as a Lost Eden

What effect did these changes have on the ways in which the countryside was understood? Can these changes be linked to Constable's attention to the countryside? Some art historians have suggested that Constable was indeed responding to such shifts. As the cities and their problems grew, the urban elite, those that had grown rich from an industrial economy, began to look to the countryside not as a place so wretched with poverty that thousands were fleeing for an uncertain future in the city, but rather as an idealized vision.
The rural landscape became a lost Eden, a place of one's childhood, where the good air and water, the open spaces and hard and honest work of farm labor created a moral open space that contrasted sharply with the perceived evils of modern urban life. Constable's art then functions as an expression of the increasing importance of rural life, at least from the perspective of the wealthy urban elite for whom these canvases were intended. The Hay Wain is a celebration of a simpler time, a precious and moral place lost to the city dweller.

Additional resources:

Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • blobby green style avatar for user arnaud.alain
    What does it mean "oil on canvas laid to paper"?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user rachelmammahobbit
      It was typed incorrectly. It should have read "oil on paper, laid to canvas." Which means that the original work was created with oil paint, on paper. Unfortunately, painted paper decomposes, so in order to save the painting, it was laid on (attached to) canvas, to keep it from falling apart.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user L H
    So are you suggesting that this view of Dedham Vale painted by Constable actually look different in 1821? Your video seems to suggest that the view would actually already have been eaten up by the Industrial revolution (factory chimneys in the distance, train tracks and pollution etc). I just wanted clarification as to whether Constable was painting with a nostalgic eye already, or simply emphasising the importance of remaining areas of beauty. Thank you
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Connornator110095
    In a pre technological world, images of nature were the keys in art. Today for most people nature has been replaced by the culture of congestion cities and mass media. in the past people looked at one thing at a time, things could not be reproduced, each object singular each act of seeing transitive not today today the object splits into a swarm of images of itself and the more famous and object is the cultural meaning it has. The more it breeds mass production strips the image of its complexity. Only it isn't any better for being handmade, pictures are different they're more complicated they mean a lot of things you scan them and their meaning adds up and unfolds. You don't get it all at once pictures educate signs discipline mass language always tends to speak in the imperative voice the idea of sitting down and painting this landscape like an impressionist was obviously observed but how could our defend itself against torrent of signs which were more vivid than its own images by assimilating by grafting the vitality of media on to what had become a wilting language that at any rate was the hope in the 19th century the world of the industrial revolution appeared in landscape painting slowly pushing its way into a fixed aesthetic category like an intruder in paradise manufacture invading nature.

    In addition to that, in the early 19th century in London the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and Romantic painter John Constable was working on his most famous work “The Hay Wain (1921)” best known for painting these beautiful, pastoral scenes in the English countryside. And in a sense that is what was intended, to be kind of a quintessential English countryside scene,very green, and beautiful. But it is actually quite unique because what Constable was doing was reflecting the landscape back onto Britain. Because before this, everyone was always looking to Italy, looking abroad, that beautiful paradise that you wanted to go and capture. People were traveling around in Rome and copying people who'd gone before, and their ideas of light and colour what picturesque, beautiful places would look like. And what Constable is doing is he's turning the lens back on the UK and saying, Look at our wonderful countryside.  This scene was actually painted not in the countryside, but in Constable's London studio. He did a lot of preparation sketches out in the countryside, but he actually painted this in his studio. He's looking at this Industrial Revolution that's eating up the British countryside, holding up this beautiful, green, still, pleasant lifestyle as something that's in reaction to that industrialization of Britain. The work also strikes a very nostalgic tone. So although it's nostalgic for a time before the machination of the Industrial Revolution came along, it's also harkens back to his youth, because the land where the scene was set was owned by his father. In which comes across in the way he's managed to capture his own passion and closeness to the land.

    this is part of my essay would love to know your thoughts
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user RyleeM
    It mean the oil on canvas laid to paper
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Derick
    the heck
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user carolynbryantcb54
    Why would Constable take such a bold step, and perhape more to the point, why werw his canvases celebrated ( and they were, by no less important a figure than Eugene Delacroix, when Constable's
    The Hay Wain was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1824 )?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user carolynbryantcb54
    Can these changes be linked to Constable's attention to the countryside?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user habitat002
    what did the dominance of landscapes as subjects matter in response to the industrial revolution? How did Constable act as early environmental activist?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user carolynbryantcb54
    What effect did these changes have on the ways in which the countryside was understood?
    (1 vote)
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