Great Works: Cloud Study, 1821 (24.8cm x 30.2cm), John Constable

Yale Center for British Art

With John Constable, we often have to be a little wary of the set-piece ventures, those moments when he is evidently painting to impress. Some of his so called "six-footers" of the 1820s are such works. He seems to be measuring out his experiences by the ladleful, balancing this hedge against that gate, this band of soaring sky against that steeple. All feels too exquisitely composed and even controlled.

By contrast, he is often at his best, and most seemingly and passionately committed to the work in hand, when he is doing something almost for its own sake, and the subject itself feels to be scarcely much of a subject at all – that is how we often think about his cloud studies over Hampstead Heath, for example, that they are tiny notations, as much movements towards as finished works. And yet these studies are often so exquisite precisely because they look snatched, impromptu, unpremeditated, uncalculated to please the potential purchaser. The fact is that Constable seems to be forgetting himself even as he is painting them, so thoroughly absorbed is he into the spectacle.

This small, oil-on-paper cloud study of 1821, painted in the same year as The Hay Wain, is such a painting. It has a brilliant, carefully careless zestfulness about it. It is intemperate, almost rushing. It swings and blows and blusters in all directions at once. Constable's thrilled eye seems to suggest that the world has been reborn in a mood of rapture. The clouds are in state of constant movement, both receding from us and surging forward towards us, ever playfully refashioning themselves as they scud along. If we looked at an image of this painting, we would have no idea of its size. It could be enormous. Its subject matter – the heavens yawning wide – makes it feel enormous. In fact, it is less than one-foot square; its overreaching subject matter is contained, confined, within the narrowest of compasses. The painting is both light and insubstantial with its play of ever fleeting colours, and also robustly present – see how the greys and the yellows and the pinks seem to thicken it out, giving it body and substance, a kind of forcefulness and feistiness. Like a child staring up, we almost will these clouds, these sometimes lumpish and occasionally breathtakingly graceful maelstroms, to become recognisable shapes. There is a being up there somewhere, we idly speculate, among, behind, within all that reeling limitlessness, even if he is a creature of our fancy.

If the clouds are carelessly self-renewing, self-refashioning, this tiny handful of birds ranging around the skyways is quite the opposite. They are painted with a great attention to character and very particular movement. One appears to hang, idling, in the air, wind-buoyed; another makes a sudden diving, turning curve; yet another seems to float, almost effortlessly. The presence of these birds helps to give the painting some sense of a foreground and a background. We seem to be dealing – it is all a pretty illusion, of course – with near calculable depths of space. The narrow strip of landscape at the painting's foot also roots it in a particular, though fairly indeterminate (not so to Constable himself, of course) location. This is fairly unusual for the cloud studies of these years, which often consist of nothing but wheeling, vertigo-inducing voids of sky that seem to exist everywhere and nowhere all at once. The rhapsodic mood of it all, as the critic Michael Rosenthal once pointed out, puts us in mind of a moment in the sixth book of the Prelude, the long verse autobiography written by Constable's exact contemporary, William Wordsworth. Here is what Wordsworth wrote:

The unfettered clouds and regions of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light –
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree:
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity...

Yes, the spirit of Constable is in that description somewhere – but only to a point. We also feel that Constable wouldn't necessarily have welcomed the burden of this species of quasi-religiosity. It over-interprets the scene, we feel. By contrast, this is how Constable himself described this painting, on its verso, so humbly, so matter-of-factly: "Sep.r 28. 1821/Noon – looking. North. West./ Windy from the S.W./large bright clouds flying rather fast/very stormy night followed".

ABOUT THE ARTIST

John Constable (1776-1837) was hugely influential in the development of Realism in general and English landscape painting in particular at the turn of the 19th century. It is against the soporific backdrop of some of his most widely disseminated images – 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds', 'The Hay Wain' – that the fantasy of the benignly beauteous character of rural England has been gently nurtured.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world