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?

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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.

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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.

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Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.