Like Valenciennes before him, the British landscape master John Constable (1776–1837) started skying (his term) to produce studies which he could then use when composing finished paintings. Although he had studied the paintings and writing of Alexander Cozens (1717-1786), I’ve been unable to find any evidence that Constable was aware of the work of Valenciennes, and he was almost certainly unaware of the latter’s book on landscape painting published in 1800. Constable therefore appears to have evolved his skying and oil sketching independently.
Unfortunately, some of the claims made about Constable’s oil sketching are incorrect hyperbole, such as Wikipedia’s “The sketches themselves were the first ever done in oils directly from the subject in the open air.” Although he may not have been aware of it at the time, Constable’s plein air oil paintings were part of a developing tradition which dates back at least to Velázquez in 1630.
Constable’s attention seems to have shifted skywards during the early 1810s, as shown in this oil sketch of Coastal Scene with Cliffs from about 1814. He here adopts the low horizon of the Dutch Golden Age, and fills the paper with clouds which are formed from coarse brushstrokes with a facture more typical of Impressionism. This was painted using oils, not watercolour, onto a small sheet of paper just 12 by 23 cm (5 by 9 inches), choices which set the distinctive pattern for much of his future sky studies.
His commissioned painting of the house and estate at Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816) is unusual to say the least. Instead of depicting the grandeur of Major-General Francis Slater-Rebow’s country seat, Constable shows it in the distance, its fine architecture almost concealed by trees. His horizon is also low, and draws the eye up to the cumulus clouds of an English summer sky, which compete with the lake and meadows of the lower half of his composition.
It was Constable’s marriage in October 1816 which really opened up his skies. The couple honeymooned on the south coast of England, where he painted Weymouth Bay: Bowleaze Cove and Jordon Hill (c 1816). Unlike his oil sketches, this is painted on canvas, and is larger at 53 by 75 cm (21 by 30 inches). It’s still far more sketchy than his finished paintings, though, and is generally accepted as an advanced study in preparation for the painting below.
This version, Weymouth Bay with a Storm Approaching (1818), with its more extensive staffage, was completed later and exhibited, although it is still surprisngly sketchy. This storm is coming up from the south-west.
Constable went full Golden Age with his low horizon in Harwich: The Low Lighthouse and Beacon Hill, a finished landscape which he completed in about 1820 on a larger canvas of 33 by 50.8 cm. Harwich (in Essex) is on the coast to the east of Constable’s family home in Suffolk. The land here is monotonously flat, and far to the east on the opposite coast of the North Sea are the Netherlands, home of the low horizon and piled up cumulus clouds.
It was when Constable was working on his ‘six-footers’ and living in London in the 1820s that his skying was most developed. He walked up to Hampstead Heath, with its fine views over the distant city, and made oil sketches like Hampstead Heath, with Pond and Bathers, painted in 1821. Compared against the later definition of an ‘Impression’, this depicts a transient effect of light in a painterly style. It was made in front of the motif, and appears to have been completed quickly. If he had only exhibited it, it would surely have qualified as the first Impressionist painting.
The horizon then fell almost to the foot of his paper, and he sketched Cloud Study, Sunset in about 1821.
Constable also made detailed written records of the weather conditions at the time that he painted sketches like this Study of a Cloudy Sky from about 1825. Sadly, as most of these have since been mounted on millboard or canvas, his descriptions can’t appear alongside each painting. Constable took considerable interest in the developing science of meteorology, but still used regular lay terms rather than classifying the clouds using contemporary scientific terminology.
He painted this Summer – Evening Landscape in about 1825.
Constable sketched avidly when he visited the south coast of England too, producing dramatic studies such as Seascape Study with Rain Cloud or Rainstorm over the Sea from the period 1824-28.
Two of his favourite coastal resorts are shown in Hove Beach (1824-1828), above, and Stormy Sea, Brighton (c 1828), below.
These sketches formed the basis of the skies which he painted in finished works, such as Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night, the penultimate of his late ‘six-footers’ completed in 1829.
Constable’s obsession with skies didn’t work out as well in some of his later finished paintings. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), one of his series of the cathedral, was perhaps over-egged with its storm clouds, rainbow and bolt of lightning. Despite being exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831, this remained unsold at the time of the artist’s death.
He was also less successful with his watercolours. The double rainbow in this 1835 view of Stonehenge is confused with its clouds.
Less well-known but superior is this late oil painting of Stonehenge at Sunset from 1836, the year before Constable’s death.
In a period of just over twenty years, when his art and career were at their peak, John Constable quietly pushed painting forward towards the changes now associated with Impressionism. His skying was a crucial part of his painting, even if most of his oil sketches remained in his studio until after his death.