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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

John Constable: Clouds


John Constable Study of Cirrus Clouds, oil painting,1822, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Constable was the most dedicated cloud sketcher in the art history, painting ever-changing appearances of nature's most elusive element.

While several earlier and contemporary artists made occasional sky studies, Constable mastered to his extent this subject, not only because of the unprecedented quantity of his studies (most of them in oil) but above all because they possess a compelling veracity and a richly expressive vitality.

These sketches achieve an unrivalled degree of pictorial self-sufficiency, fully justifying their acceptance today as autonomous works of art.

John Constable is one of the greatest landscape painters, rivalled only by his almost exact contemporary Turner.

Born near the River Stour in Suffolk, Constable spent much of his life painting the scenes of his “careless boyhood” which he said “made me a painter”. He was depicting the area so often that it’s now commonly known as “Constable country”.

In 1799, Constable persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art. Entering the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer, he attended life classes and anatomical dissections, and studied and copied old masters.

Constable’s early struggles to establish himself as a painter as the pastoral scenes were not fashionable and were not as highly regarded as paintings of historic scenes.

In 1816 he married Maria Bicknell his childhood sweetheart, and settled in Hampstead, where Constable hoped the clean air would improve Maria’s fragile health.

In Hampstead in 1820–1822 he made his first veritable campaign of “skying” set of sky studies and study of Clouds, which are notable for their meteorological exactness to precisely record different weather conditions, in preparation for his large landscapes. He considered the sky of paramount importance to landscape painting: “The sky is the source of light in nature and governs everything”.

In 1821 he painted the iconic image of The Hay Wain, that remains one of the most famous British paintings in history and also serves as an important milestone in the development of landscape art.

This famous six-foot piece from 1821 was originally titled, Landscape: Noon.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, National Gallery, London

The pastoral scene is the traditional English landscape of Suffolk that characterised his childhood as he was the eldest son of a wealthy mill owner, depicted in the most realistic way without any element of imagination.

The most attractive part of the painting are the clouds, a scientific representation of specific types of cloud in specific weather conditions and time. He did several sketches of the sky and he returned later on the painting because he wanted to get the cloud formation accurately.

Although, The Hay Wain is revered today as one of the greatest British paintings, when it was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821, it failed to find a buyer.

Constable was probably unaware at the time that two French visitors to England, the artist Géricault and the writer Nodier, had seen his painting in the Royal Academy. According to Delacroix, Géricault returned to France “quite stunned” by Constable’s picture. Nodier suggested that French artists should similarly look to nature rather than relying on journeys to Rome for inspiration (by this he meant emulating the classicising landscapes, painted by artists such as Claude Lorrain).

The French interest in "The Hay Wain " in 1821 led to its exhibition to great acclaim in Paris in 1824, receiving a gold medal awarded by Charles X of France.

Delacroix famously was inspired. The internationalisation of Constable was renewed in earnest in the 1860’s with his recognised influence on the Barbizon school, the Impressionists till the abstract artists.

Constable refused to go to Paris for his award and carried on his sky studies in Hampstead.

Hampstead was a relevant place, a hilly, open, windy region offering fewer objects of “endearing associations” than did its native Suffolk, it very conceivably induced the artist to consider still more than previously the crucial role that weather circumstances can play in the landscape painting.

In the 1820’s there was a contemporary fashion about a new branch of science concerned with the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere, especially as a means of forecasting the weather, the meteorology.

Luke Howard had first analysed cloud formations and gave a nomenclature system for clouds in 1803, and his work came to greater notice on the publication by his student Thomas Forster of Researches into Atmospheric Phaenomena (1813), a second-hand copy of which Constable owned and annotated.

Goethe was an admirer and correspondent of Howard, and the poets Coleridge and Shelley both wrote “cloud” poems around 1820.

In art several artists approached different ways to depict the sky. Claude Lorrain did a study that represents plausible spread-out cumulus cloud mass, Willem van de Velde the Younger did several studies of the clouds that he called with the term “skying” used by Constable as well, and van de Velde spent the latter half of his life in London and it is documented that he was going to Hampstead Heat for his studies of the skies.

Claude Lorrain, Tiber Landscape North of Rome with Dark Cloudy Sky, undated, Albertina, Vienna

The first English artist to draw skies, so far as we know, was Alexander Cozens.

Alexander Cozens, The Cloud, c.1770, Tate Modern, London

For the most part, his surviving sky drawings, including his most famous one The Cloud, are not actual study from nature, but arbitrary cloud effects realised in the studio but he is famous for a series of twenty engraved skies accompanying his extraordinary treatise, A New Method in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1785-86) copied by Constable.

Also, Joseph Wright of Derby realised some watercolours and drawings about skies in a similar manner of Cozens.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Opening in a Cloudy Sky (Smaller Italian Sketchbook, leaf 13 recto), 17774-75, The Metroplolitan Museum of Art, New York

William Turner painted several skies studies, the fruit of intensive and searching first-hand scrutiny and persistent sketching of cloudy skies, though perhaps secondarily inspired by some awareness of earlier sky sketchers.

William Turner, study of sky 1816-18, Tate Modern, London

Constable, a part to have the most scientific approach in his sky studies in Hampstead and later in Brighton, used more constantly the oil sketch technique, most of them are in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

It is well known that Constable often painted on thin homemade card (made from two or three pieces of paper glued and pressed together). Before he painted on the paper laminate, he applied a coloured 'ground' (an initial coating or priming) to the entire sheet.

Constable used the colour of these grounds which were often left visible in places to give a particular atmosphere to his scenes. This can be seen with two scenes painted on Brighton Beach in 1824. He used a pink ground for a sunny evening in July and a brown ground for a stormy day with dark clouds approaching.

John Constable, Brighton Beach, oil painting, John Constable, 1824,Victoria and Albert Museum, London
John Constable, Brighton Beach, oil sketch, John Constable, 1824, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Constable usually painted oil sketches outdoors so that he could quickly and freely capture the ever-changing light and movement in the landscape. In these small paintings, which were intended to be impressions and not final works, we can really see the artist's virtuoso painting ability to create fresh and spontaneous illustrations of the world around him. We can see how rapidly they were painted as brushstrokes of different colours were mixed together on the sketch. This technique is also known as “alla prima” (from the Italian, meaning “at first attempt”). Swirls of colour demonstrate how one colour was blended into the next, to capture the mood and feel of a subject at that moment in time as in Cloud Study: Hampstead, Tree at Right 1821 or in one of the most dramatic studies of sea and sky that Constable sketched at Brighton, Rainstorm over the Sea, ca. 1824-1828.

John Constable, Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right, 11 September 1821, Royal Academy of Arts, London
John Constable, Rainstorm over the Sea, ca. 1824-1828, Royal Academy of Arts, London

For Constable: "Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature" (discourses 69).

Constable had achieved a remarkable naturalism in the skies shortly before launched his sky studies in Hampstead in 1821.

The main difference between their skies and those in works after 1822 is that the latter the clouds are more strongly modelled and often present a more dramatic appearance. Probably in 1822, he may have begun sketching clouds without any definitive ulterior motive but realising them as a private product, enjoyable for themselves, though well aware that the public would not accept them as such. In other words, Constable may initially have undertaken his Hampstead series partly as a practice exercises of particular cloud effects which might help to stimulate his conception and execution of skies but at some point, his sky sketching may well have become an autonomous activity.

Constable transformed the genre of oil sketching from one used for recording landscape motifs to a means of capturing transient effects of light and weather and he is turning weather into art.

John Constable finally received official academic acceptance in joining the Royal Academy at the age of 52 after many years of hard toil as a skilled artist involved in an art style that was still struggling for acceptance.


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