“The sky is the source of light in nature – and governs everything”
John Constable

Constable’s pure cloud studies, sketched in Hampstead in 1821 and 1822, are unique in British art. The artist’s single minded concentration on this subject resulted in a series of masterpieces which flow naturally from that famous letter which he wrote to his friend John Fisher on 23rd September 1821, in which he set out his thoughts on the importance of studying skies: ‘The sky is the source of light in nature – and governs everything’.

Between 1819 and 1826, with the exception of 1824, Constable rented a house in Hampstead every summer. Until he moved there more permanently in 1827, he lived at houses in different parts of the village. In the years 1821 and 1822, when this beautiful cloud study was painted, he was staying at 2 Lower Terrace, near Judges Walk, a ridgeway which ran above the West Heath between Branch Hill and the Whitestone Pond. The main reason for the move to Hampstead was the health of Maria and the children, but Constable was also attracted by the landscape and by the fact that the area offered easy access to London. It did not take him long to identify attractive views in Hampstead and many of these were to become some of his favourite subjects. However, unlike his native Suffolk, Hampstead did not provide subject matter for his great six-foot canvases such as The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London; fig. 1) – the landscape lacked that striking conjunction of trees, water and buildings which was such a feature of his large Suffolk landscapes.

Fig. 1. John Constable, R.A., The Hay Wain, The National Gallery, London

The sky was undoubtedly the most distinctive feature of the landscape at Hampstead, and Constable at once appreciated this. The son of a mill owner, he already had some knowledge of the weather and of the varied formation of clouds from his experience with windmills in Suffolk, and had noted weather conditions whilst working in the Lake District. Hampstead, however, has been described as a ‘natural observatory’ and it gave Constable a unique opportunity to study clouds in detail and to meet criticism that in some of his larger compositions clouds had been considered to be over-dominant. It is astonishing to note how easily Constable was able to master the problems of painting such studies in the open air while having to contend with windy weather, paper which was pinned to his paint box, and slow drying oil. He learnt to differentiate between the different types of cloud formations, to suggest the direction in which the clouds were moving and at what pace, and to recreate their three-dimensional aspect. Many of these cloud studies have detailed notes on the weather conditions which emphasise the challenges that he faced. These observations have been shown to be remarkably accurate when compared with contemporary weather records.

Fig. 2. John Constable, R.A., Cloud Study, oil on board, Private Collection © Sotheby’s

The cloud studies which Constable produced in Hampstead were not commissions. He painted them for his own enjoyment and for what he could learn from them, and unlike his many plein air studies done in Suffolk they were not used specifically in any later paintings. These studies should be regarded as the artist’s way of better understanding the clouds and the sky, and this understanding was to bear fruit in many of his later compositions. Though the cloud studies themselves were only painted in the years 1821 and 1822, Constable continued to show an interest in the sky. He owned and annotated a copy of ‘Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena’ by Thomas Forster. Also in 1823, whilst staying with Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire, he copied and annotated twenty studies of skies from A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape, by Alexander Cozens.1 In his catalogue, Graham Reynolds pointed out that these skies were flat two-dimensional patterns unlike the three-dimensional forms of the earlier Hampstead cloud studies. They are evidence, however, of his continued interest in clouds and skies.

As with so much of Constable’s art, these cloud studies are without precedent in the history of art and stem from his determination to find truth directly in nature. It was this rejection of the academic tradition and first-hand study of the world that was so revolutionary in his work and caused such a sensation with contemporaries, particularly a group of young French artists when a selection of his paintings were exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1824. Constable transformed landscape painting in Europe and his natural effects of light, in particular, inspired an entire generation of artists. His work was strongly influential on the landscape paintings Gustav Courbet and the French realists of the Barbizon School, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet.

“I may be quite wrong, but I can’t see Van Gogh’s Boots without Constable behind them”
Lucien Freud

Eugène Boudin too, the man who taught Monet to paint landscape, was heavily informed by Constable’s work and during the 1870s both Monet and Picasso studied Constable’s work in London directly. In 1873 Van Gogh acknowledged his debt to the English artist in a letter to his brother Theo, written from London. Even today Constable’s art continues to inspire and influence, as was acknowledged by the late Lucien Freud who was both directly inspired by Constable’s work and saw his influence in the work of earlier 19th and 20th century painters – ‘I may be quite wrong’, he said, ‘but I can’t see Van Gogh’s Boots without Constable behind them’. Indeed, the artist’s Hampstead cloud studies can be seen as the direct progenitor of Gerhard Richter’s own work in the same vein from the 1970s (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Gerhard Richter, Study for Clouds, oil on canvas, 1970, Sotheby’s, London, Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction, 29 June 2022, lot 5.

Note on Provenance

This cloud study passed from the artist to his grandson Hugh Constable, who inherited it either from his aunt Isabel or his father Charles. It formed part of a large collection of paintings and drawings sold by Leggatt’s in 1899, having been exhibited in their gallery in November of that year.

1 Courtauld Institute Galleries, Reynolds numbers 23.55–74