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This gorgeous painting is probably John Constable's most famous work. It won a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1824, and has been repeatedly reproduced and studied. Yet it is difficult to explain why it is so wonderful. The subject matter is mundane. A wagon filled with hay pauses while fording a stream so that the horses can drink. A dog runs along the bank barking at a child in the wagon, and on the bank outside the house, a woman is washing clothes. None of these activities are worthy of a second glance.
Yet look at how Constable has framed the picture -- the splashes of color turning the leaves bright gold in the arch in the middle of the picture -- the sun dancing on the fields -- the clouds bunching overhead -- and the peaceful little river all aglow with ripples and colors and splatches of light. The scene is a miracle! And Constable was clearly in love with every inch. He once wrote: "The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork, I love such things. These scenes made me a painter."
Yet Constable painted the entire piece in his London studio in the winter months of 1820/21. He had several preliminary oil sketches on the spot, including a full-size sketch in oil, which must have been both expensive and time consuming. After all this, it is amazing that the painting has so much the look and feel of nature.