Constable’s oil sketches: atmosphere and light

Brighton Beach, 1824

Brighton Beach, 1824

John Constable perhaps suffers from over-familiarity: countless reproductions, from postcards to biscuit tins, of The Hay Wain or Dedham Vale. Those large, highly polished oil paintings were produced for the ‘finished’ picture market of patrons and Royal Academy exhibitions and, to our modern eyes that prefer suggestion to representation, they can appear just a shade too formal and conservative.

But Constable was far from being a traditionalist, quietly rebelling in his work methods against a culture that preferred landscapes to be oil paintings executed in the studio, rather than impressions from nature captured in the open air.  In London a fortnight ago, we had a look at the exhibition of Constable’s oil sketches at the V&A,  The Art of Seeing Nature. The rooms in which they are displayed shimmer with their freshness and vitality, revealing how Constable captured ‘one brief moment caught from fleeting time’ in his free and vigorous brushwork.

Constable told his biographer CR Leslie, ‘When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture’.  Working outdoors was essential, he said, and he wasn’t satisfied simply to follow a formula:

The world is wide.  No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other. … In a sketch, there is nothing but the one state of mind – that which you were in at the time.

What’s on show at the V&A are oil sketches that were Constable’s equivalent to a diary entry.  They were usually done outdoors, in a sketchbook (a facsimile of one is on display).  These sketchbooks were his storehouse of images. Often he made a sketch for its own sake, with no finished painting in mind.

In his sketches, Constable sought the truth of nature in the fleeting effects of light and shadow, the subtly shifting hues of seemingly plain surfaces and simple areas of greenery. He captured these effects, ‘impressions’, on small pieces of canvas, board or prepared paper. 49 of them are on display here, oil sketches that trace the development of his style from early depictions of his native Suffolk (roughly, 1809-21) to the atmospheric studies of trees, clouds and seascapes painted around Hampstead and Brighton between 1820 and 1834.

Autumnal Sunset

Autumnal Sunset, 1812

Autumnal Sunset (1812) is one of the early sketches.  Constable had lived in London since 1799, but continued to regard his birthplace, East Bergholt House (built by his father, a wealthy corn merchant, when Flatford Mill became too small for his growing family) as his home. He painted views from the front and back of the house on many occasions and once wrote,‘This place was the origin of my Fame’.  Increasingly, he sought to capture the transient effects of light or weather at different seasons or times of day.  This scene looks westwards from East Bergholt. When the mezzotint of this sketch was published in 1812, Constable complained to the engraver, ‘The Evening… is spoiled owing to your having fooled with the rooks – they were the chief features.’

There’s an oil sketch of the house (below) in the Tate collection – done in 1809, even at this early stage the brushwork delineating the clouds and the hedge in the foreground is wonderfully free and expressive.

East Bergholt House c.1809

East Bergholt House, c.1809

A Hayfield near East Bergholt at Sunset

A Hayfield near East Bergholt at Sunset, 1812

A Hayfield near East Bergholt at Sunset is another sketch made in 1812.  Constable explained his choice of an evening subject: ‘I do not study much abroad in the middle of these very hot bright days…last year I almost put my eyes out by that pastime’.

Barges on the Stour

Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance,1811

Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance (1811), with its bold brush strokes, is one of the earliest oil sketches to demonstrate the vibrancy and originality of Constable’s mature style.

Landscape with Double Rainbow

Landscape with Double Rainbow, 1812

Landscape with a Double Rainbow (1812) is painted on a torn piece of paper laid on canvas, and reflects Constable’s fascination with rainbows, from a scientific as well as artistic point of view. He was highly knowledgeable about ‘this most beautiful Phenomenon of Light’, and rainbows frequently appear in his later works.

Of course, Constable wasn’t unique in making open air oil sketches.  As Mark Evans explains in the book that accompanies the V&A exhibition, by the 18th century oil sketching was widespread in Europe.  Before Constable, the most accomplished British exponent of the landscape oil sketch was Thomas Jones from Radnorshire in mid-Wales.  The Tate has a wonderful view of the hills around his home – Pencerrig – painted in oil on wrapping paper in 1772.  Best of all are the oil sketches he made in Naples.

Constable, Study of Foliage

Study of Foliage, 1828

Constable once advised a visitor to his studio, ‘never do anything without nature before you.  See those weeds and the dock leaves? I should not attempt to introduce them into a picture without having them before me’.  Study of Foliage (1828) is typical of studies that Constable made throughout his career, often as simply an exercise in observation.

Plants by a Wall

Plants by a Wall, 1825

Central to Constable’s practice was drawing and painting directly from nature. As well as making outdoor sketches like this one – Plants by a Wall (1830) – he copied from plant cuttings that he kept in his studio. Such studies would sometimes be incorporated into the foreground of finished landscape paintings.

These sketches strike the modern viewer as more than studies – we are used to the unvarnished, inconclusive truth now, more than a century after Impressionism.  Perceptively, the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe wrote in 1908 that Constable’s oil sketches are:

Free from the utilitarianism which the thought of his future picture imposes on the artist. [They are] made for their own sakes. … Their technique is peculiarly their own.  Their form does not permit of completion.  … He is never greater than here, and I say greater advisedly, for the particles of paint are much more roughly treated than in the pictures.  The sketches were a kind of journal … painted records of events which turned on atmosphere and light.

The painter John Piper stressed Constable’s modernity writing in 1937, on the centenary of the artist’s death:

His sketches mean more to us today than his big paintings in the end; they are so complete, vivid and timeless. … Constable … deeply affected the course of the [landscape] tradition and made the Impressionist movement, and ultimately the whole of the modern movement, possible and necessary.

From 1819 until 1826, Constable and his wife Maria rented summer accommodation in the village of Hampstead, living there permanently from 1827.  This was still a rural location at the time, and high above the city, Constable took to the open landscape of Hampstead Heath, which provided the subject for several large paintings, including Trees at Hampstead, The Path to Church (1821), a study of a stand of trees – largely elm – each one as distinctively defined as in a group portrait.  Constable described the view as ‘a natural (but highly elegant) group of trees, ashes, elms, & oak &c – which will be of quite as much service as if I had bought the field and hedge row’.

Trees at Hampstead, The Path to Church, 1821

Trees at Hampstead, The Path to Church, 1821

Study of Tree Trunks (1821) is an outdoor sketch that brilliantly captures the effect of broken sunlight falling through foliage. In May 1817 Constable expressed his delight in such subjects: ‘Every tree seems full of blossom of some kind & the surface of the ground seems quite lovely’.  The figure at the right may be the artist’s wife, with one of their children.

Study of Tree Trunks, 1821

Study of Tree Trunks, 1821

Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree

Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, 1824

For some time now, one of my favourite Constable paintings has been Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, painted in 1824 – and here I am, standing before it in this exhibition. Constable made many studies of trees in the early 1820s, mainly around Hampstead.  This is so realistic that it has an almost photographic quality. When William Blake saw a drawing of some trees by Constable, he announced ‘Why, this is not drawing, but inspiration!’  Lucian Freud was certainly inspired by it, and had admired it since the age of 17.  He made an etching after Constable’s sketch in 2003, and wrote that year in his book on Constable:

I’d seen the little painting of the tree-trunk, close-up in the V&A … and I thought what a good idea.  That’s the thing, I thought.  Trees.  They are everywhere.  Do one of those. A close-up.  Real bark.  So I took my easel out and put it down in front of a tree and found it completely impossible.

Study of Sky and Trees with a Red House at Hampstead

Study of Sky and Trees with a Red House at Hampstead, 1821

Constable wrote that his art was ‘to be found under every hedge and in every lane’, and that ‘the landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind – no arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty’. Constable’s friend and biographer C. R. Leslie recalled: ‘I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’.

Study of Sky and Trees with a Red House at Hampstead dates from 1821, and is one of a series of studies of the sky painted that September. In a letter of 20 September 1821, Constable explains what induced him to undertake this series of sky and tree studies.  He says:

I have likewise made many skies and effects- for I wish it could be said of me as Fuselli says of Rembrandt, ‘he followed nature in her calmest abodes and could pluck a flower on every hedge- yet he was born to cast a stedfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature’. We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & colour- as is always the case in such seasons as the present.

Study of Clouds and Trees

Study of Clouds and Trees, 1821

Study of Sky and Trees 1821

Study of Sky and Trees, 1821

In a letter in October 1821, Constable wrote of the importance of skies in his paintings:

I have done a good deal of skying- I am determined to conquer all difficulties and that most arduous one among the rest. And now talking of skies … that Landscape painter who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids.

Constable’s aim in making these studies was to depict the sky at a particular moment in time, and under certain weather conditions, just as a portrait-painter might try and capture some fleeting but characteristic expression on a sitter’s face. Often these studies are annotated with precise details of the time and weather conditions in which they were painted. So, for example, Study of Sky and Trees, with its broad, sweeping brushstrokes,  is annotated, ‘Sepr. 24th . . 10 o’clock morning wind S.W. warm & fine till afternoon, when it rained & wind got more to the north’.  The day before, we had been to the Redfern Gallery to see a display of recent works by Kurt Jackson – in my view, the greatest contemporary landscape artist in Britain – and reading Constable’s meticulous notes of the weather conditions at the time he painted reminded me reminded me that Kurt Jackson does exactly the same thing – often including the observation in the title of a painting, and sometimes inscribing the annotation on the painting itself. (More about the Kurt Jackson exhibition in the next post.)

Study of a House Amid Trees, Evening

Study of a House Amid Trees, Evening, 1823

Study of a House Amid Trees, Evening (1823) is a view of Judges Walk, an avenue of lime trees overlooking the west end of Hampstead Heath. Constable was fascinated by the last gleams of the setting sun shining through the trees and casting pools of light across the grass in front of the house.

Interestingly, though Constable’s interest in landscape painting was a deeply felt response to the beauty and variety of nature, he was also deeply interested in the science that explained what he was seeing. ‘Painting is with me but another word for feeling’ he wrote to his friend John Fisher, but, he continued, ‘In such an age as this painting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered only as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific and mechanical.’

Howard Coutts filled in some detail about Constable’s scientific interests in a V&A publication:

The most striking example of his ‘scientific’ analysis of nature is the group of cloud studies that he executed at Hampstead in the years 1821-2. They depict the sky at a particular moment in time, and under certain weather conditions, just as a portrait-painter might try and capture some fleeting but particularly characteristic expression on a sitter’s face. Often these studies are annotated with precise details of the time and weather conditions in which they were painted. The immediate stimulus to this group of cloud studies may have been the work of the meteorologist Luke Howard, whose two volumes on The Climate of London were published in 1818-20. They contained a reprint of his paper of 1802 ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ in which he divided cloud formations into three categories that are still used today; cirrus, cumulus, and stratus. Constable certainly knew of these categories; since he owned a copy of Thomas Forster’s Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena in which they are described, and moreover one of his cloud studies in the museum seems to be inscribed with the word ‘cirrus’. However, Constable’s cloud studies should not be seen simply as illustrations of these categories, but as parallel investigations of his own. He is particularly concerned to show not just the appearance of the sky at any particular moment, but its effect on the scene and the way in which other objects on the sky-line, such as the trees, respond to it. For Constable the landscape was an organic unity, no part of which could be studied in isolation from another.

Constable’s aim in producing these studies was to improve his understanding of a hitherto neglected part of the landscape, the sky, which he felt had an expressive value of its own. He told Fisher that he had often been advised to consider the sky as ‘a white sheet drawn behind the objects’ but for him it was ‘the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment in a landscape. These studies were not intended for any particular landscape by Constable, but the understanding of the structure of the sky that he gained from them was put to good use in the dramatic backgrounds of Hadleigh Castle (1829) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) of his later years.

Study of Clouds, 1822

Study of Clouds, 1822

In October 1822 Constable wrote that he had made ‘about 50 carefull studies of skies tolerably large’. This one is inscribed on the reverse: ‘looking S.E. noon. Wind very brisk. & effect bright & fresh. Clouds. moving very fast. With occasional very bright openings to the blue’.

Study of Cirrus Clouds

Study of Cirrus Clouds, 1822

This is one of Constable’s best-known cloud studies.  Unusually, he painted the sheet blue first and then  added the clouds. It shows the wispy cirrus clouds  above 7,000 metres and the denser cumulus below  2,000 metres. Constable owned a copy of Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena by Thomas Forster (published in 1815), and his use of the word ‘cirrus’ suggests that he was acquainted with the new terminology of meteorology.

A View at Hampstead, Evening

A View at Hampstead, Evening, 1822

Another sketch that reflects Constable’s growing interest in different skies is A View at Hampstead: Evening (1822) which depicts an approaching storm over Hampstead Heath.

Garden with Shed at Hampstead, 1821

Garden with Shed at Hampstead, 1821

Although now entitled A Garden with a Shed at Hampstead, it seems more consistent to treat this 1821 sketch as one of the series of sky studies made by Constable at Hampstead. With its free brushwork, the intention of the sketch is evidently to portray a dark stormy effect of sky. This informal view of a back yard may depict the shed at 2 Lower Terrace, Hampstead. Constable described it in August 1821: ‘I have cleared a small shed in the garden, which held sand, coal, mops & brooms & that is literally a coal hole, and have made it a workshop and a place of refuge’.

Brighton Beach, 1824

Brighton Beach, 1824

In May 1824, Constable arranged for his wife to spend some time by the sea in Brighton.  She had been suffering from ill-health, and the doctor advised sea air. Constable stayed in Brighton with his family between July and October, before the whole family returned to London in November.  It was during those months that Constable painted the exquisite oil sketches that are, perhaps, the jewels of this exhibition.

By this time, Brighton was  a large and fashionable resort, due to the growing popularity of bathing and belief in the therapeutic qualities of sea air. Constable, however, was not impressed, writing in a letter: ‘In short there is nothing here for a painter but the breakers-& sky-which have been lovely indeed and always varying’.

In Brighton Beach, painted on the fifth birthday of his eldest daughter Maria, Constable portrays a strong easterly breeze propelling sailing boats across the sea, and dispersing the last traces of dark cloud disappearing at the extreme right.

Brighton Beach, 1824

Brighton Beach, 1824

In this remarkably  minimal and impressionistic companion sketch, Constable uses the long and thin format (widescreen, we might say) to show the extent of the beach and the expanse of sea and sky. Two solitary women trek its length. Their bent backs suggest the squad blowing from the sea on a wet and windy summer’s day.

Shoreham Bay, 1828

Shoreham Bay, 1828

On a later visit to the south coast, probably in 1828, Constable painted the sun setting over Shoreham Bay, west of Brighton. The location was praised as ‘one of the most pleasant and rural situations in the vicinity’.  The sketch is inscribed ’22 May’ – so it was painted at a time when the health of his wife was declining.  Maria died six months later.

After 1829, Constable stopped using oils for outdoor sketching, instead resorting to the more spontaneous medium of watercolour.  So, how did these oil sketches come into the possession of the V&A?  In 1900 full-size oil sketches for the paintings The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse were bequeathed to the V&A.  Earlier, in 1888, Constable’s daughter Isabel made a major gift of his work that included 92 smaller oil sketches. It is these two bequests that form the basis of this display.

The large oil sketches for The Leaping Horse and The Hay Wain are on display in an adjacent room and are of considerable interest. Their rapid, forceful brush strokes convey a vigour and expressiveness that missing from the finished paintings. Their vigour is even more apparent following recent cleaning that has revealed the original colours and tonalities. The finished pictures  differ hardly at all in composition, but it is the sketches, with their rapid brush strokes and broader treatment that better suits modern taste.

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, 1824

I’m going to finish with another oil sketch made at Brighton, probably in 1824.  Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, is not in the V&A exhibition (I think it belongs to the Royal Academy collection) but with its slashing dark brushstrokes it captures the immediacy of an exploding cumulus shower at sea, and is a supreme example of the modernity of his oil sketches.  Clive Bell, who organised the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London in 1910, considered Constable’s oil sketches ‘perhaps the most brilliant and characteristic part of his output’.  Sir Kenneth Clark was of the same mind, asserting that the sketches ‘are Constable’s supreme achievement’.

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8 thoughts on “Constable’s oil sketches: atmosphere and light

  1. Wonderful, thanks for this and for info I had not read before. He really was a gifted man , and it is such a pity he is remembered in such a limited and simplistic way.
    We English seem to have an innate ability to belittle some of our greatest artists.
    revisionist histories are so easy to use something we want to discredit.
    I love the picture of Brighton Beach and the tree trunks too.
    Lovely post and great pictures, thank you.

  2. I like the absence of the usual formal, gilded frames as the torn edges take you further into the picture than the confines of a picture frame. It seems to liberate them.

  3. Reblogged this on Etherial Glue and commented:
    I am researching Constable as I am intensley interested in his ability to capture meteorological events. I came across this excellent blog which concentrates on atmospher and light, the most important elements within my own work.

  4. Hi Gerry, I really enjoyed reading this informative post. It has been of great help to my research of Constable and in particular his interest in capturing fleeting mereorological events. I was pleased to be able to reblog. Thank you Annemarie

    • Thanks,Anne-Marie.Glad you found the post helpful and interesting.Close-up at the V&A these sketches take you well beyond the chocolate box image of Constable to understand an artist concerned to truthfully represent natural forms and forces

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