Skying 9: A brief history

John Constable (1776–1837), A Cloud Study, Sunset (c 1821), oil on paper on millboard, 15.2 x 24.1 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last couple of months, I have been looking at paintings dominated by the sky, and what John Constable and others called skying. This final article in the series tries to draw them all together into a history.

From the outset, I didn’t know what to expect. I was already familiar with some of the better-known chapters, including the low horizons of the Dutch Golden Age, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’ brilliant plein air oil sketches, and John Constable’s skying on Hampstead Heath. Did those fragments fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or remain random shards?

When early landscapes broke free from being small vignettes in figurative paintings and established themselves as motifs in their own right, the sky was important but as just a part of the whole.

Giorgione (1477–1510), The Tempest (c 1504-8), oil on canvas, 83 × 73 cm, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Wikimedia Commons.

I started with Giorgione’s revolutionary painting of The Tempest from just after 1500, with a sky which sets the tension in the scene. But it’s kept firmly in its place.

Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/1629–1682), View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields (c 1665), oil on canvas, 62.2 x 55.2 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

It seems to have been the landscape painters of the ‘low countries’, modern Belgium and the Netherlands, who first turned their attention to the sky, during the Dutch Golden Age in the late seventeenth century. They had a topographic problem, in that wherever they painted, the land is flat and can’t fill a canvas vertically.

The solution, shown here so ably by Jacob van Ruisdael, was 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.

In Southern Europe, the idealised and classical landscapes of Poussin and Claude Lorrain featured many wonderful skies, but they were kept in balance and seldom became the main theme. After the Golden Age, innovative landscape painting moved south, where the climate is more reliable and conducive to painting in front of the motif. At the same time, painting materials became more portable, and oil paint was moved around in ‘bladders’, enabling outdoor oil sketching to replace studies previously made using pen and ink, or other water-based media.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, artists started to converge on Rome, where they went out into the countryside and made the first landscape oil sketches since pioneers such as Velázquez. As most were made on paper, few have survived.

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.

In the late eighteenth century, that trickle of landscape painters grew to include the greatest of all the plein air painters, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), who arrived in Rome in 1778. But he didn’t intend his works on paper, such as Rome: Study of Clouds (1780s), to be seen by the public, just to serve as a reference library for his finished studio paintings.

Like Valenciennes before him, the British landscape master John Constable (1776–1837) started skying to produce studies to use when composing finished paintings. He was almost certainly unaware of Valenciennes’ teaching, and appears to have evolved his skying and oil sketching independently.

John Constable (1776–1837), Coastal Scene with Cliffs (c 1814), oil on paper laid on canvas, 12.1 x 23.5 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Constable’s attention shifted skywards during the early 1810s, as shown in this oil sketch of Coastal Scene with Cliffs from about 1814. He adopted the low horizon of the Dutch Golden Age, and fills the paper with clouds formed from coarse brushstrokes more typical of Impressionism.

John Constable (1776–1837), A Cloud Study, Sunset (c 1821), oil on paper on millboard, 15.2 x 24.1 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Constable’s skying was best developed when he was working on his ‘six-footers’ and living in London in the 1820s. He walked up to Hampstead Heath, with its fine views over the distant city, and made oil sketches like this Cloud Study, Sunset, painted in about 1821.

JMW Turner’s approach to skies was different again.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), oil on canvas, 146 x 237.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Turner Bequest 1856), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Inspired by his own experience of crossing Alpine passes, Turner’s sky in his radical Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps from 1812 is among his most dramatic. He became so carried away by the towering indigo vortex of stormcloud that he almost forgot to show Hannibal’s famous elephants.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Approach to Venice (1844), oil on canvas, 62 x 94 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Turner may not have painted any ‘pure’ skies, and most like his Approach to Venice from 1844 were products of his studio rather than being made en plein air. Each is an integral part of a landscape view, in which there are foreground details and terrestrial objects in the middle distance. But each also features a sky which is rich in colour, full of light, and a good thirty or forty years ahead of anything else painted by a landscape artist in Europe.

Meanwhile, artists across the rest of Europe were in the throes of a revolution in landscape painting. Every aspiring landscape artist packed their brushes and easel and headed for the sunnier climes of southern Europe to paint outdoors, following the direction of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, whose 1800 textbook had become popular with aspiring landscape painters everywhere, except perhaps in Britain. Few of those sketches were exhibited outside the artists’ studios, though, and of those that did reach the hands of collectors, most have since disappeared.

Carl Eduard Ferdinand Blechen, (Stormy Weather over the Roman Campagna) (1823), oil on board, 28 x 45 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.
Carl Eduard Ferdinand Blechen (1798–1840), (Stormy Weather over the Roman Campagna) (1823), oil on board, 28 x 45 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Carl Blechen had studied in Berlin, and eventually travelled south to Italy, where he painted plein air in the Roman Campagna. His copious oil studies were in a similar style to those being painted in the early nineteenth century by others in the area, but were seen as being radically different back at the Academy.

While many headed south, a slower revolution started in the north, on the plains of the Low Countries, along the north French coast, and in the Île de France.

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.

Eugène Boudin lived in Le Havre, on the Channel coast, and it was there in the mid-1850s that he helped Claude Monet become a landscape artist. Boudin’s skies never disappoint, and attained their zenith in his beach paintings of 1864, including his Beach at Villerville.

Mainstream French Impressionism typically featured high horizons, though. Despite its strong culture of painting in oils outdoors, and the general availability of oil paint in tubes, skying seems to have become less popular after about 1850. Skies weren’t a strong part of the mainstream Impressionist agenda, with their limited scope for intensified chroma and lightness. As a result, the most prolific of the Impressionist sky painters were those at the edge of the movement.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1865), oil on canvas, 58.4 x 140 cm, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA. Wikimedia Commons.

In May 1864, Frédéric Bazille and Claude Monet travelled to the Channel coast, Monet’s home ground, but new to Bazille, who a year later painted The Beach at Sainte-Adresse.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Bridge at Moret, Morning Effect (1891), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 73.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the best Impressionist skies were painted by Alfred Sisley, who wrote that he always painted the sky first so as to set the scene and mood for the whole painting.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Evening Clouds (1911), oil on canvas, 65 x 57 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugen Bracht had a longstanding fascination with clouds, reflected in his Evening Clouds from 1911.

Those who followed the Impressionists with newer styles of painting seldom seem to have skied, but some painted the most radically innovative skies to be seen on canvas.

Vincent van Gogh, Road with Cypress and Star (1890), oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. WikiArt.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Road with Cypress and Star (1890), oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. WikiArt.

In the last two years of Vincent van Gogh’s life, he painted some truly unique skies, the like of which hadn’t been seen before, or since. In Road with Cypress and Star (1890), he integrates the swirling brushstrokes of the sky with those of the rest of the painting.

Paul Nash (1892–1946), Battle of Britain (1941), oil on canvas, 122.6 x 183.5 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. By courtesy of The Imperial War Museums © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1550).

The sky assumed even greater importance for some painters in the middle of the twentieth century, among them the Surrealist Paul Nash, whose wartime experiences gave it a more sinister significance. It was the place of aerial warfare, and most of all the source of ‘white flowers’, parachutists, “that dreadful miracle of the sky blossoming with these floating flowers.”

Skies have come and gone in popularity, moving from background to foreground, and back again. They’ve been intimately linked with oil sketching outdoors, and skying has been an activity expected of the best landscape painters. From cumulus clouds towering over Haarlem, to storms drenching the countryside near Rome, and the colours of a calm sunset, it’s so often the sky which sets the mood of a landscape.