In what ways is John Constable's painting "The Hay Wain" different from traditional Neoclassical forms? Why is it Romantic?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Neoclassicism is an art movement inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art, referred to as Classical art. The ancient Greek and Roman art movement is referred to as Classicism. The Neoclassical movement, meaning new classical movement,  thrived during the 17th through 19th centuries. Landscapes were not popular during the Neoclassical movement since Classicism focused more on the importance of history and philosophy. Therefore, French landscapist Claude Lorrain (1600 - 1623) invented ways to incorporate biblical and classical illusions into his paintings by creating biblical and historical vignettes. Others imitated this idea well into the 19th century (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, "The Transformation of Landscape Painting in France").

When John Constable began painting landscapes in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, he rebelled against the idea of creating biblical and historical vignettes within landscapes. Instead, Constable viewed nature as worthy of celebrating all on its own and "used his work to showcase the beauty and power of nature" (Artble, "John Constable"). He also rebelled against the idea of Neoclassical naturalism and instead, to capture the true power and beauty of nature, developed his own technique using brushstrokes that would soon be adapted by the Impressionists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

We can see his celebration of nature in his piece titled "The Hay Wain," which is a simple depiction of a farmer forging a stream with his hay wain. As we can see, there are no biblical or historical illusions found in the piece as we would see in Neoclassical landscapes; instead, it is a simple depiction of the way farm life truly is. In addition, we can see his use of brushstrokes to create a surrealistic image in order to capture the beauty and power of nature. His brush strokes are most clearly seen in his trees, water, and clouds.

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