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Our Plein Air Heritage
John Constable (British, 1776-1837)
A student of the sky, John Constable felt that a thorough understanding of the formation of clouds, their influence on the quality of light, and their contribution to atmospheric effects would give his landscapes greater truth.
In the early 1820s, he lived in Hampstead, a village situated just north of London on an open, hilly heathland that gave him the perfect vantage point to study the sky and its ever-changing effects. It was during his residence there that he made many oil sketches of the sky, working on paper en plein air.
Typical of his Hampstead sky sketches, “Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset” (above) vividly conveys the effects of light, atmosphere, and movement on a cloudy evening after a stormy day. Working quickly to capture his subject, the artist brushed on color with gusto, wet into wet.
Although he considered these studies research material gathered in service of exhibition pieces to be completed in the studio, they took on added significance as his art became more emotionally charged toward the end of his life.
He increasingly regarded the sky as “the chief organ of sentiment” in landscape painting, and likely looked to his cloud studies more for their expressiveness than for their empirical or scientific content.
He referred to the exercise as “skying,” often annotating the studies with the date, time of day, wind direction, and scientific description of the cloud formation depicted.