The Mill was owned by Constable's father, and the house on the left side belonged to a neighbour, Willy Lott (a tenant farmer), who was said to have been born in the house and never to have left it for more than four days in his lifetime. Willy Lott's Cottage has survived to this day practically unaltered, but none of the original trees in the painting exist today. The water level is also higher, as that area of East Anglia has sunk into the sea by one foot (30 cm) since Constable's time.
The Hay Wain is revered today as one of the greatest British paintings, but, when it was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821 (under the title Landscape: Noon), it failed to find a buyer. It was considerably better received in France where it was praised by Théodore Géricault. The painting caused a sensation when it was exhibited with other works by Constable at the 1824 Paris Salon (it has been suggested that the inclusion of Constable's paintings in the exhibition were a tribute to Géricault, who died early that year). In that exhibition, The Hay Wain was singled out for a gold medal awarded by Charles X of France, a cast of which is incorporated into the picture's frame. The works by Constable in the exhibition inspired a new generation of French painters, including Eugène Delacroix.