Constable's painting is based on a site in Suffolk, near Flatford on the River Stour. The hay wain, a type of horse-drawn cart, stands in the water in the foreground. Across the meadow in the distance on the right, is a group of haymakers at work. The cottage shown on the left was rented by a farmer called Willy Lott and stands behind Flatford Mill. Today, the cottage and river path are still much as they were in Constable's time.
Although the painting evokes a Suffolk scene, it was created in the artist's studio in London. Constable first made a number of open-air sketches of parts of the scene. He then made a full-size preparatory sketch in oil to establish the composition.
The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821, the year it was painted, but failed to find a buyer. Yet when exhibited in France, with other paintings by Constable, the artist was awarded a Gold Medal by Charles X.