John Constable Liked Painting Landscape, But Looked to Sky

About the English landscape painter John Constable (1776-1837), whose work is currently to be seen in a thrilling exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, it has sometimes been said that he was less an interpreter of nature than a part of it. So profound was his attachment to the Suffolk countryside-he came from a family of farmers and mill-owners-that it became, in effect, the principal romance of his life as an artist. As he was fond of saying, it was the scenes of his boyhood that made him a painter.

From such parochial beginnings it was scarcely to be expected, especially in England, that Constable would one day emerge as one of the giants of 19th-century European painting-the artist whom the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe, writing at the dawn of the 20th century, would characterize as “the father of modern painting.” It was to Constable’s oil sketches in particular that Meier-Graefe was alluding: “In his sketches,” he wrote, “Constable ventured upon things which we can readily believe required a new generation to make them into pictures.”

In his full-scale landscape paintings, Constable always devoted a great deal of thought to the skies. They became for him an emotional obsession and a subject of scientific curiosity as well as an object of pictorial analysis, and his obsession received a triumphant vindication when, in 1824, Eugène Delacroix repainted the sky in his The Massacre at Chios after encountering Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821) in the Paris Salon. As a consequence of that encounter, it can truly be said that Constable’s sky changed the course of European painting.

So great was Constable’s interest in this subject that from around 1821, he began to create a series of paintings and oil sketches entirely devoted to it, shifting the focus of his art from the earthbound English landscape to the unbounded space of the heavens. This in itself constituted one of the most radical innovations in the history of modern painting. Constable called this practice “skying,” and it is now the subject of the exhibition called Constable’s Skies at Salander-O’Reilly.

To this “skying” project, Constable brought a remarkable constellation of talents and affinities: a naturalist’s close study of meteorological shifts and portents; a native son’s “overweening affection,” as Constable himself called it, for the countryside and the skies under which he was born; an art student’s comprehensive knowledge of the skies of the masters; and a painter’s total command of both his medium and the artistic challenges inherent in so volatile a subject. He was also remarkably articulate in defending the radical course he had embarked upon.

“I have done a good deal of skying-I am determined to conquer all difficulties,” he wrote, “and that most arduous one among the rest …. 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. Sir Joshua Reynolds speaking of the ‘landscape’ of Titian & Salvator & Claude-says ‘Even their skies seems to sympathize with the subject’ …. It will be difficult to name a class of Landscape, in which the sky is not the ‘key note’, the standard of ‘Scale’, and the chief ‘Organ of sentiment’ …. The sky is the ‘source of light’ in nature-and governs everything. Even our common observations on the weather of every day, are suggested by them …. Their difficulty in painting both as to composition and execution is very great, because with all their brilliancy and consequence, they ought not to come forward or be hardly thought about in a picture-any more than extreme distances are.”

In the sky paintings, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that the sky’s visual dynamism is all there is to see.

To what extent the paintings in the Constable’s Skies exhibition are to be considered oil sketches or finished pictures is bound to remain a matter of argument and surmise. The fact that none of these sky paintings was ever used as a sketch for the sky in a full-scale landscape suggests that Constable himself considered his “skying” series to be completed pictures. But this, too, may remain speculation. What is not in doubt is that they’re not only very beautiful paintings, but must be counted among the most original works in their period-and, indeed, of ours.

It’s another remarkable feature of the “skying” paintings that, from our historical perspective, so many of them seem to have anticipated the pictorial syntax and emotional tenor of 20th-century Abstract Expressionist painting. They were not, of course, conceived as abstract paintings, yet to our 21st-century eyes, they often bear such a close resemblance to certain modalities of painterly abstraction that it’s sometimes difficult to “see” them as scrupulously faithful pictures of the natural world. My guess is that they will be an inspiration for our painters for a long time to come.

Constable’s Skies remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through June 25, and it’s accompanied by a hardcover, beautifully illustrated catalog that is itself a treasure.