Sunlight, Storms, and Shadows

I have done a good deal of skying.

— John Constable

Painting clouds may seem like an quaint and old-fashioned business, but for a handful of 19th century artists, it was a powerful means of expression that explored new artistic territory. In a time when painting was thought of in terms of established schools and traditions that emphasized literal associations, the purely aesthetic merit of landscape was questionable. Clouds gave the use of paint itself new meaning, as their painters paved the way for a more modern artistic perspective.

Constable was ardent in his beliefs when it came to painting, but he expressed them in a more subtle manner than may be apparent from first inspection. Although he had to please a market that was enamored of historic and mythological references, he continued to advocate critical attention to nature as a primary source of inspiration. He immersed himself in the delicate nuances of color and light, and sought to portray them in the most authentic way possible. He was one of the first painters who produced oil sketches, such as the one pictured, from direct observation, creating a body of work that was devoted solely to the study of clouds. His utmost reverence for nature is manifested in each delicate and conscious brushstroke.

Turner, on the other hand, used the ambiguity of cloud formations to express his own wild imagination. Although he did paint preliminary studies such as Heavy Dark Clouds where his understanding of their realistic depiction is apparent, he is best known for his fierce layers of thick paint. In works such as Stormy Sea with Blazing Wreck, the sky is seemingly indistinguishable from the sea, as the intense emotion of the scene transcends into a more abstract representation.