When early landscapes broke free from being small vignettes in figurative paintings and established themselves as a motif in their own right, the sky was important but a part of the whole.
Giorgione’s revolutionary painting of The Tempest from just after 1500 features an active and exciting sky which sets the tension in the scene. But it’s kept firmly back behind the trees and buildings.
Likewise Albrecht Altdorfer’s innovative World View of the Battle of Issus (1529), in which a dramatic dawn strengthens the painting’s deep recession.
It was perhaps the landscape painters of the ‘low countries’, modern Belgium and the Netherlands, who first turned their attention to the sky. Confronted by relatively flat terrain, even if they included a lot of foreground detail on a panoramic support, much of the motif was going to be sky.
When the great Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens retired to his estate outside Antwerp to paint landscapes, he demonstrated to successive generations that they could and should make more of the sky. In A Landscape with a Shepherd and his Flock (c 1638), his horizon has dropped to divide the view into halves, the upper being equally interesting and worthy of the painter’s close attention.
Over the following fifty years, landscape painting flourished in the Low Countries, and the richly varied skies were often the subject, shifting fields and churches down to a narrow strip at the foot of the view.
Among the early examples is Jan van Goyen’s View of Dordrecht with the Grote Kirk Across the Maas from 1644.
Even Rembrandt, who painted few non-narrative landscapes, gave the sky more than half his canvas in this dramatic view of The Mill (1645-48), seen in the rich rays of twilight.
At about the same time, Jacob van Ruisdael painted his first panoramic landscape, View of Naarden and the Church of Muiderberg (1647). Still working on a very wide support orientated conventionally in ‘landscape’ mode, his immense sky is no passive backdrop to the land, but the scene of intriguing cloud formations. Are there showers building in the distance?
Winter landscapes such as Aert van der Neer’s Sports on a Frozen River (c 1660) came into vogue. Although most winter skies were flat and grey, this dusk view features more interest in its sky, with the pink tinge of the setting sun and rolling banks of cloud to the left and right adding great depth.
Coastal views also became popular during the Dutch Golden Age. Unless backed with elevated dunes, there was no way that the artist could expand thin strips of beach and sea. The dominant towers of cumulus clouds in Adriaen van de Velde’s View of a Beach from 1663-65 became his subjects.
Some painters, including Jacob van Ruisdael, turned their canvases to make portraits of towering clouds, as in his View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields from about 1665. The distant town of Haarlem with its monumentally large church of Saint Bavo – works of man – are dwarfed by these high cumulus clouds, the works of God. This motif proved so popular that Van Ruisdael painted many variants of the same view, making it now one of the most widespread landscapes across the galleries of Europe.
At the right time of day, the sky is also the most subtly colourful part of the view. This is shown in Adriaen van de Velde’s Colf players on the Ice near Haarlem from 1668.
In The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede from about 1670 the artist plays upon the association between the sky and its weather and man’s harnessing the force of the wind to work for him.
Still artists like Philip de Koninck marvelled at cloud formations in his River Landscape from 1676.
With this long stream of skyscapes from the Low Countries, the sky came to feature more prominently in paintings in the rest of Europe.
Claude Lorrain didn’t usually allow his skies to overwhelm his landscapes, but in A Seaport at Sunrise from 1674 he seems almost to have relented.
Of course, none of these is likely to have been painted in front of the motif. Rather these finished oil paintings are the result of plein air sketches and visual memory, being made in the studio. Early experiments in landscape painting in front of the motif, such as those by Diego Velázquez in the grounds of the Villa Medici in Rome, in the summer of 1630, hadn’t attended so much to the sky. That was about to change.