Skying: an introduction to a new series

John Constable (1776–1837), Weymouth Bay with a Storm Approaching (1818), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Most landscape paintings consist of two elements: air in the sky, and earth in the land below. For many landscape artists, the sky isn’t just that blue bit that tops off the rest, but often the real subject of the painting, a skyscape. Many great painters have been so obsessed with the sky that they keep sketching its ever-changing colours and forms – skying, so beloved of John Constable, for instance.

This new series looks at the history and styles of skying, from the first Dutch landscape masters who filled much of their views over near-flat topography with huge towering cumulus clouds, to the twentieth century when those clouds transformed into surrealist flowers. It includes skies which were finely crafted in the studio over a period of several weeks, and those which were sketched in roughly in a matter of a few minutes before the storm broke and the painter had to run for cover.

Early landscape vignettes gave only brief glimpses of the distant sky, through windows. It was perhaps the Brueghels who first started to take the sky more seriously, a trend which bore first fruit in the wonderful landscapes which Peter Paul Rubens painted during his retirement in the 1630s.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c 1636), oil on oak, 131.2 x 229.2 cm, The National Gallery (Sir George Beaumont Gift, 1823/8), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c 1636) is one of the larger of these, capturing the light as the sun is rising off to the right.

Salomon van Ruysdael (c 1600/1603–1670), View of Alkmaar from the Sea (c 1650), oil on panel, 36 x 33 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, artists like Salomon van Ruysdael were filling their panels and canvases with the sky, as in this View of Alkmaar from the Sea from about 1650. Clouds are now subjects in their own right, and the differences in their texture worth getting right.

Alexander Cozens (1717-1786), Close of the Day: Sunset on the Coast (1768-75), oil and graphite on thick, moderately textured, laid paper, 24.4 x 31.1 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut. Wikimedia Commons.

Painters such as the British Alexander Cozens experimented with transient effects of light, shown so well in his wonderful Close of the Day: Sunset on the Coast which remarkably dates from 1768-75. This is one of his few surviving oil paintings too, and like many by later plein air painters was made on paper.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Rome: Study of Clouds (1780s), oil on paper mounted on board, 24 x 39 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The decisive advance was to paint skies in front of the motif, a technique pioneered by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in the Roman Campagna during the 1780s, again in oils on paper or cardboard. Some of his many sketches have survived, notably in the collection of the Louvre (above), and in some other fortunate galleries such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (below).

Valenciennes amassed a huge library of these sketches which he used for reference in his studio paintings. Most importantly he advocated the technique in his teaching, and in his book published in 1800. The latter remained a standard work, and copies were owned and used by French Impressionists including Paul Cézanne.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Study of Clouds over the Roman Campagna (1782 or later), oil on paper on cardboard, 19 x 32.1 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Skying became most popular in the nineteenth century, with a succession of major artists devoting their attention upwards.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), Moonrise over the Sea (c 1821), oil on canvas, 135 x 170 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1820s, Caspar David Friedrich painted several coastal nocturnes with enigmatic figures, such as this Moonrise over the Sea from about 1821.

John Constable (1776–1837), Weymouth Bay with a Storm Approaching (1818), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

John Constable seems to have developed his system of plein air oil sketching independently. Although never intended for the public eye, like Valenciennes he assembled his own library. After he had honeymooned on the south coast of England in 1816, he returned to paint around several of its resorts, including Weymouth and Brighton. Weymouth Bay with a Storm Approaching (1818) was most probably painted out of season, judging by the few people on the beach, and shows a storm coming up from the south-west.

John Constable (1776–1837), Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-28), oil on paper, 22.2 × 31.1 cm, Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Constable also sketched transient changes in weather, for example in this Seascape Study with Rain Cloud or Rainstorm over the Sea (1824-28), painted in oil on paper. This was a form of the skying which he maintained through much of his career, and demonstrates how painterly he could be in these private sketches.

JMW Turner (1775–1851), Bell Rock Lighthouse (1819), watercolour and gouache with scratching out on paper, 30.6 x 45.5 cm, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Although JMW Turner’s methods were quite different, he too took his skies seriously. This watercolour of the Bell Rock Lighthouse from 1819 is a wonderful example from his early career.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, View of the Convent of S. Onofrio on the Janiculum, Rome (1826), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 22 x 33 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. WikiArt.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), View of the Convent of S. Onofrio on the Janiculum, Rome (1826), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 22 x 33 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. WikiArt.

The first major landscape painter to adopt Valenciennes’ practice and to show his sketches was Camille Corot. During his first stay in Italy, between 1825-28, he developed his skills painting outdoors in the Campagna, producing classics such as his skyscape above.

Eugène Boudin (1824–1898), The Beach at Villerville (1864), oil on canvas, 45.7 × 76.3 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

The pre-Impressionist Eugène Boudin developed this with his paintings of the beaches of the north French coast. In his Beach at Villerville from 1864, a large group are sat together, as if waiting for an entertainment to start, as the sun sinks in the glowing sky.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Gust of Wind (c 1865), oil on canvas, 146.7 × 230.8 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Less well-known today for his landscapes, Gustave Courbet’s The Gust of Wind (c 1865) shows how a ‘leaning’ sky can amplify the effect of windswept branches.

For most of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, skies were an important part of any landscape painting, but were more integrated into the whole than dominant in the motif.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Stormy Day (1920), oil on canvas, 120 x 140 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Other landscape painters have since become obsessed with skying. Eugen Bracht’s Stormy Day from 1920 is a fine example of Impressionist skying, with a large bird, possibly a heron, in flight over the inky grey clouds near the horizon.

The twentieth century’s modernist and anti-realist schools generally moved away from traditions such as skying. One notable exception, though, is the British Surrealist Paul Nash.

Flight of the Magnolia 1944 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash (1892–1946), Flight of the Magnolia (1944), oil on canvas, 51.1 x 76.2 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased with assistance from donors 1999), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In Flight of the Magnolia (1944), a magnolia flower unfurls into the sky high above a low coastal landscape. Those vast, soft petals are set against a background of equally huge leaves, and beyond them a field of cumulus clouds so typical of an English summer. Those below the flower have heaped up to generate a shower in the far distance.

In an essay in 1945, Nash explained that the Second World War had changed his perception of the sky:
When the war came, suddenly the sky was upon us all like a huge hawk, hovering, threatening. Everyone was searching the sky, expecting the terror to fall: I among them scanned the low clouds … hunting the sky for what I most dreaded in my imagining. It was a white flower. Ever since the Spanish Civil War the idea of the Rose of Death, the name the Spaniards gave to the parachute, had haunted my mind, so that when the war overtook us I strained my eyes always to see that dreadful miracle of the sky blossoming with these floating flowers.

I hope that you will join me in exploring skying in the coming weeks.