Friday, August 27, 2010

Constable: Head in the Clouds

Here is an oil sketch (painted as a study, thus not intended as a finished work) by the 18th/19th century English landscapist John Constable. It’s not a masterpiece of Western art, but it’s a lovely thing, and it’s a chance for us to consider what painting is all about in the first place.

Our last painter, Corot (“ka-ROH”), was among a group of artists who were the first to regularly go outside and pitch their easels in front of nature. Like Constable, they used the oil sketches they made outdoors to paint larger works in the studio, and it wasn’t until the impressionists who followed them a little later in the nineteenth century (just when an abundance of synthetic pre-mixed colors was becoming available in portable tubes) that oil paintings executed on the spot were valued and exhibited as finished paintings in their own right.

The earlier Old Master painters usually minimized their personal presence in the work by erasing their brushstrokes and finishing their paintings with a seamless, sometimes enamel-like surface. For these traditional landscape artists, it was important to be more classical and fanciful than realistic. They often incorporated highly structured compositions, clearly defined details, and “grand” and elevating subject matter referring to stories from Greek and Roman mythology or the Bible.

All that changed with the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists who followed them. Impressionists like Monet, Renoir, and Sisely applied to the festive, modern life of Paris Barbizon’s spontaneity and fidelity to nature, its rapid, rough-and-ready brushstrokes, and its embrace of "everyday” subject matter. But some definite first steps in this direction were taken by our Englishman.

At the same time that Corot was making oil sketches en plein air (in the outdoors) in the French Barbizon countryside, English painter John Constable (1776-1837) was doing the same thing in England, but it wasn’t only the momentary effects of light on water or wind in the trees he was after (though he loved everything rural, from weathered brickwork to old rotten posts). What really mattered to Constable was the clouds.

Constable so loved the clouds that he executed dozens (if not hundreds?) of these meticulously observed and accurately rendered cloud studies. The finished landscapes his clouds adorned forever changed the course of art, but because the sketches are so fresh, so full of varied light, texture, and motion, not to mention so freely painted, they hold for us moderns a special charm. Constable devoured the work of pioneering meteorologist Luke Howard, the first to classify the various types of clouds, and his cloud paintings today would sell for tens (and possibly hundreds) of thousands of dollars. Per the usual cliches, Constable's parents opposed his career choice, the public didn't buy his pictures, and the artist remained a pauper all his life, however professedly happily so (he turned down a chance to promote his work in France saying he’d rather remain “a poor man [in England] than a rich man abroad”).

But hey, who wouldn’t be happy spending a life painting clouds!?

Paintings, then, are supposed to “ennoble our sensibilities” (Old Master), quicken our sense of the true (Barbizon), ground us in the beauty of the simple (Constable), awaken us to the life and color of the ordinary (Impressionism) …. So what’s the purpose of painting? What a silly question!

We'll surely revisit Constable's sketches and his famous finished paintings again. There's a great Web exhibit on the Australian National Gallery's Website, which is where I found the images and some of the information for this post.

Oh, and did you know there is an official "Cloud Appreciation Society" that you can join? Check out their fun (if you read it carefully) website for some really awesome images.


  1. Thanks for that postChristopher- a thousand years ago I was in the MFA program in painting at Indiana University and had the good luck to stumble into a shy art historian who taught there, Louis Hawes. Hawes apparently wrote his PhD thesis on Constable's cloud studies (I confess I never looked it up). But I did benefit enormously from his passion for 19th century painting and especially from a knockout show he organized on Am. 19th century landscape in 1970 for the IU Art Museum. While I never saw the show (missed it my a couple of months) they still were selling the exhibition catalogue in their Museum Shop. I have to say it was THE formative event in my development as a landscape painter. Your post on Constable's clouds would have warmed old Louie Hawe's heart.

  2. That's high praise - I thank you! I think the spirit of old Professor Hawes is smiling from some place beyond the clouds at the wonderful effect his passion and scholarship had on your own work and life and that of countless others. What a marvelous thing is a passion shared.

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