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?

During the summers of 1821 and 1822, while living at Hampstead, the English painter John Constable set up his easel at various elevated locales on the Heath and painted oil sketches of clouds, as many as 50 during the summer of 1822 alone, with notations on the back concerning such atmospheric conditions as the time of day and the direction and speed of the wind. At first, these studies included treetops or bits of buildings, as though to tether the sky to the earth below. Soon, however, all ties were cut. Constable painted the first of his pure cloud studies on Sept.13, 1821, with the notation: "One o'clock. Slight wind at North West, which became tempestuous in the afternoon, with rain all the night following." Constable was understandably proud of his achievement in these paintings. "You can never be nubilous," he told his friend Archdeacon John Fisher in 1823. "I am the man of clouds."

Slide Show: John Constable's Cloud Obsession. Click image to launch.

On recent trips to New Haven and New York, I've taken to stopping at the Yale Center for British Art to spend some time with the stunning constellation of Constable's cloud studies on view, along with the other incomparable works by the artist in the collection, including two versions of one of his last great paintings, a view of the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, as well as a much earlier cloud study of the same subject. Looking repeatedly at the cloud studies, I've felt a lingering dissatisfaction with what I've read about them, and I've found myself wondering whether there might be a fresh way to understand them. 

It has never been entirely clear what inspired these marvelous and enigmatic cloud studies, much prized by collectors (such as Paul Mellon, who bequeathed14 of them to Yale), or what purpose they might have served in Constable's larger career. Around the same time that he indulged in what he called his "skying," he was also undertaking the major landscape compositions, such as The Hay Wain and Stratford Mill, which he painted in duplicate (first a freely painted full-size oil sketch and then a more finished version) and called his "six-footers."

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The six-footers, with their bustling activity around canal locks, their lazy fishermen, and their horses towed on barges, are as full of incident—of "world," one is tempted to say—as Bruegel's peasant scenes. The cloud studies, by contrast, can seem, in their brushy airiness, like pictures of almost nothing, in which a streak of white or a scrape of the palette knife can change the mood completely. One can point to general connections—a lighter ground, for example—between the cloud studies and the big paintings that followed. But Constable never transferred clouds directly from his studies to his landscape paintings.

In the absence of a clearly stated purpose for the cloud studies, scholars have explored some possible motivations for these extraordinary works. It has been noted, for example, that Luke Howard, a Quaker chemist from London, announced his Latinate classification for clouds—cumulus, stratus, and cirrus (the latter from the Latin for a curl of hair)—in his "Essay on the Modification of Clouds" of 1803. Howard introduced some scientific order into what had often seemed the sheer chaos of the heavens, banishing such poetically suggestive names as "mare's tails" and "fleeces."

Goethe, an amateur scientist in the matter of colors and plants, was much impressed with Howard's work and published, in German translation, an autobiographical letter that Howard sent to him at his request. He also published a poem of his own inspired by Howard's work, and tried to hire Caspar David Friedrich, the German lyrical painter of loneliness and moonlight, to paint some studies of clouds, "for scientific use," in accord with Howard's classification. Friedrich refused, foreseeing "the immediate downfall of landscape painting in this system," and fearing "that in future the light, free clouds would be forced slavishly into this classification."

Was Constable, in this regard, a more "scientific" painter than Friedrich? This is the view of Ernst Gombrich, in his chapter on "The Image in the Clouds" in Art and Illusion(1960). "There are no more truthful images of clouds than those painted by Constable," Gombrich maintains. But there is no evidence that Constable was aware of Howard's scheme for classifying clouds, unless a scrawled word on the back of one of his canvasses really is, as some scholars have hopefully claimed, the word "cirrus."

Among Constable's contemporaries, the English Romantic poets also had a great deal to say about clouds. Wordsworth famously "wandered lonely as a cloud." In Shelley's "Mutability," clouds, as often in Romantic poetry, are an emblem of evanescence and change; in the second section of his "Ode to the West Wind," when Shelley turns from wind-driven leaves to clouds, they become symbols of our own fleeting selves.For Coleridge, clouds were emblems of freedom, as in his ode to France—"Ye Clouds! that far above me float and pause,/ Whose pathless march no mortal may control!"—or of poetic consciousness, as in "Dejection."

It is tempting to conclude that Constable's cloud studies somehow combine scientific observation with poetic inspiration. But Constable was neither a scientist nor a poet; he was a painter. Is there a way to look at the cloud studies as primarily works of art? 

What I've found with repeating viewing is that the cloud studies are more various than one might think. Far from being mere passive "impressions" or "observations" from nature, the cloud studies seem to be overtly expressive. They seem, in fact, to register quite distinct aesthetic programs, as though what Constable is classifying isn't clouds at all, but rather whole schools of painting, along with their dominant moods. The best analogy may be Chopin's Etudes, explorations of styles and modes with sharply circumscribed means.

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.

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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.

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