John Constable's cloud obsession on display at the Yale Center for British Art.

The big picture.
Feb. 2 2011 10:10 AM

Head in the Clouds

Why was the painter John Constable so obsessed with clouds?

(Continued from Page 1)

Some of the cloud studies flaunt a flippant rococo lightness, reminiscent of Fragonard or Boucher; with added birds, they might be a pattern of Sèvres china. Others embrace a more Baroque grandiosity, recalling the ceilings of Reformation churches. Still others display the restrained neoclassical balance of Poussin or Claude, with the clouds resembling mythological gods in flight.

The whole mood of Romanticism enters the cloud study of September 13, 1821. Its dark columns support a rounded upper white cloud structure, as though to portray those "titanic" energies associated with the French Revolution or with Beethoven's music. One thinks of the description of France that immediately follows the evocation of clouds in Coleridge's "France: an Ode": "When France in wrath her giant-limbs upreared,/ And with that oath, which smote air, earth and sea/ Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free… ." 

To our eyes, Constable's clouds anticipate Monet. At the same time, no one painted more Gothic clouds than Constable. When I look at his diminutive oil sketch of the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, with its huddled shepherd and endangered sheep, I can almost imagine that the blasted landscape was poured out of the swirling clouds above. Lines from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, often mentioned in 19th-century aesthetic treatises, might have been on Constable's mind:

Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked Mountain, or blue Promontory,
With Trees upon't, that nod unto the World
And mock our Eyes with Air.


Constable lost his beloved wife, Maria, in Nov. 1828, around the time that he painted Hadleigh Castle. The illuminated sky of the final version is far less dragonish, with less of what Yeats called "the cold and rook-delighting heaven." Shepherd and dog are still in the picture, but the sheep have metamorphosed into stones and more clouds. Constable's title commemorates a crisis weathered: "The mouth of the Thames—morning, after a stormy night."

The man of clouds, you might say, had seen clouds from both sides now. 

Click here to read a slide show on clouds.

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
Business Insider
Sept. 18 2014 3:31 PM What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Sept. 18 2014 4:00 PM When The Cosby Show Got “Very Special” Why were The Cosby Show’s Very Special Episodes so much better than every other ’80s sitcom’s?
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 2:39 PM Here's How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.