"A light-filled cleft in the clouds divides the image in two; its impact is made the greater by the blue-grey mass to its left. This is the true subject of the study, one of the 'large climbing Clouds under the Sun' Constable noted in his inscription. Beyond its dark shadowy underside, which dominates the image, can be glimpsed its white fringes, illuminated by clear, intense sunlight. Even the sense of upward motion is captured by the solid highlight at the very top of the sheet, and the little curls of white paint, more vertical than horizontal, which Constable added as the final touches" (Wilcox 81).
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Sir Michael Sadler (1861-1943) originally owned the painting and sold it to Dr. H.A.C. Gregory, who placed it up for auction at Sotheby's on 20 July 1949. Gilbert Davis then possessed the work until selling it to Colnaghi, who sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (1901-1999) in 1965. The Mellons then gave the painting to Yale in 1981 (Reynolds 104).
According to Kurt Badt, "Constable undertook these studies as preparatory to his 'big' pictures--the 'six-feet canvas' as he called them, because of the difficulties which he had found in the 'composition and execution' of skies" (42). This study was done en plein air, before noon, and attempted to capture a specific set of meteorological conditions.
1952 Guildhall, no. 46
1956 Manchester, no. 54
1959 "The Romantic Movement," London, The Tate Gallery and the Arts Council Gallery, no. 65
1961 Huntington Art Gallery, no. 28
1969 Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, no. 51
1983 New York, no. 43
2000 "Constable's Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable" National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, no. 51
Rosenthal, Michael. "Liverpool and Edinburgh: Constable's Clouds" The Burlington Magazine 142.1170 (September 2000): 584-6.
Frame: 17 x 24 1/2 x 2 in. (43.2 x 62.2 x 5.1 cm)
A label fixed to the stretcher is inscribed in ink by the artist: Augt. 1 1822 11 o clock A.M. very hot with large climbing Clouds under the Sun. wind westerly (Reynolds 104).
"The death of Constable's old friend and mentor Joseph Farington on 30 December 1821 had a considerable influence on Constable's career in 1822. It may have tipped the scales in his failure to gain election as a full Royal Academician; the successful candidates were Richard Cook, who never exhibited after 1819, and William Daniell, nephew of Thomas Daniell. It also led to him moving into Farington's former house, No. 35 Charlotte Street; he leased it in time to move in by mid-June. He had settled his family again at No. 2 Lower Terrace, Hampstead, for the summer. Moving into the Charlotte Street house, where he had far more space, occupied a lot of his time, but he was able to pay a brief visit to Bergholt in May" (Reynolds 99).
"It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment. . . .The sky is the source of light in nature, and governs everything; even our common observations of the weather of everyday are altogether suggested by it," writes John Constable in an 1822 letter (quoted in Badt 55). Constable initiated an emphasis on the sky in his landscapes that did not exist in the great landscapes of Claude, Salvator, or Titian, which subordinated the sky to other features of the scene (Badt 56). Constable's interest in clouds was not only increasingly shared by scientists of his time, such as Luke Howard who created the cloud classification system we still use today, but also figures such as Goethe, for whom, argues John Gage, clouds "were the ideal subject for an investigation into the relationship between objective and subjective, between science and art" (Gage 133). Clouds also held great significance for English Romantic poets, and Badt quotes Percy Shelley's 1820 poem "The Cloud" as an epigraph to his study of Constable's clouds, a poem written from a cloud's perspective that offers images of regeneration and immortality: "I silently laugh at my own cenotaph, / And out of the caverns of rain, / Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, / I arise and unbuild it again."
Clouds traditionally held religious meaning, but Constable did not evoke this iconography in his cloud studies, instead turning his attention to scientific accuracy, which he pursued for the rest of his career. Timothy Wilcox notes that in the same year that Constable painted this study, he "painted an altarpiece of the Resurrection of Christ for Manningtree Church in Essex . . . .The central figure rises up into a sky ringed with clouds illumined powerfully from above. The clouds in the altarpiece are formless and conventional in comparison with this study. We do not know whether the work was even begun, already finished or still in progress in August--or whether Constable would make any mental association between the supernatural event and his work as a student of nature. Certainly, it is the study which provides a far more compelling representation of the sense of movement upwards into the light" (Morris 81). Whatever the difference between the rendering of clouds in the altarpiece and in the studies, Constable did apply his new-found technique to his later, larger canvases such as Salisbury Cathedral Seen from the Meadows.
Badt, Kurt. John Constable's Clouds. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950.
Constable, John. John Constable: A Selection of Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1969.
Gage, John. “Clouds over Europe.” Constable's Clouds. Edward Morris, ed. Over Wallop: Printed for the National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 2000.
Hoozee, Robert. L'opera Completa di Constable. Milan: Rizzoli, 1979.
Morris, Edward, Ed. Constable's Clouds. Over Wallop: Printed for the National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 2000.
Reynolds, Graham. The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Wilcox, Timothy. “Study of Cumulus Clouds.” Edward Morris, ed. Constable's Clouds. Over Wallop: Printed for the National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 2000.
John Constable, British, 1776-1837, Study of Cumulus Clouds, 1822, Oil on paper laid on canvas, 30.5 x 50.8 cm. (12 x 20 in.), Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, B1981.25.144.