Contributor: Clare Brant
Location: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London
Description: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’: the first line (and proper title) of Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils (pub.1807) has epitomised Romantic poetry for generations of English schoolchildren (and for some, created resistance to it.) What made clouds Romantic? Why did poets and artists across Europe follow William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and John Constable (1776-1837) in making them subjects of Romantic poems and paintings?
To aeronauts venturing to the skies for the first time in balloons in 1783, clouds signified the grandeur of nature – its splendour and sometimes its menace. Thomas Baldwin (fl.1780s) searched for images to describe them in Airopaidia (1786): massing clouds were like solidified gun-smoke, he suggested. Fitting both the Burkean sublime in their ‘awful Grandeur,’ and the beautiful, as a dazzling sea of white cotton tufted by the breeze, the volatility of clouds fascinated Baldwin. In a chapter describing thunderclouds, he proposed their mutability stood for imaginative possibility, for he saw them ‘at Times, assuming EVERY ORGANIZED SHAPE that Fancy could suggest’.
Viewing clouds up close was reserved for the few; for most people, clouds were seen from the ground below. In 1802, Luke Howard, a young chemist and meteorologist, gave a paper to the philosophical Askesian Society (published in 1803) which classified clouds, using Latin names which have stuck ever since: cirrus, cumulus, stratus, cumulonimbus and so on, although the lexis of clouds in literature continued to be simple and vernacular rather than scientific: thus, cloud, nuage, Wolke, nube.
Howard himself made sketches of clouds but the great practitioner was John Constable, whose oeuvre established a new genre of cloudscapes. Constable became aware of Howard’s system through Thomas Forster’s Researches About Atmospheric Phenomenae – he owned a copy of the second edition of 1815. (This is the book which may also have inspired J.W.M. Turner (1771-1851) to paint his cloud studies from 1817 onwards.)
Skies and their variable cloudscapes shaped Constable’s artistic world view. In 1821 he wrote: ‘Skies must and always shall with me make an effectual part of the composition. 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”.’ In 1821 and 1822 Constable took to the high ground of Hampstead Heath in London to produce a series of cloud studies, painted rapidly and dated precisely, as if to counter – or perhaps dramatise – their impermanence. On the back of each sketch he noted climactic conditions: ‘Hampstead, Sept 11, 1821, 10 to 11. Morning under the sun – Clouds silvery grey on warm ground. Sultry. Light wind to SW, fine all day – but rain in the night following.’
Constable’s influence on French painters like Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) made loose but precise handling of clouds a Romantic legacy. That extended to America, where painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848) declared in his Essay on Scenery (1836) that ‘the sky is the soul of all scenery’, a soul shown by the animation of clouds. Perhaps the genre found its apogee in ‘The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ (c.1818) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Friedrich romantically positioned a viewer looking out over fog, mountains and clouds, a viewer whose expression and look we cannot see, but whose point of view we almost share. The landscape’s cloudiness here becomes a metaphor for the impenetrable, a symbol of unknowable destiny. Friedrich had been influenced by Howard’s work through the agency of Johan von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe sent the young chemist a fan letter and begged for an account of his life. Besides an admiring essay, ‘Wolkengestalt nach Howard’ (‘Cloud-shapes According to Howard’), Goethe composed a series of poems, one for each major type of cloud, entitled Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honour of Howard) (1817). He also commissioned artists to try cloud studies – one being Caspar David Friedrich, who declined the commission but who paid fresh attention to clouds thereafter. The Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857) accepted, and experimented with painting clouds by different lights, especially moonlight, for instance, his ‘View of Dresden by Moonlight’ (1839).
Clouds also became important to English poets. John Keats (1795-1821), John Clare (1793-1864) and many others wrote poems celebrating clouds. Changeable, distant, mysterious and carriers of moods, clouds also manifested metaphysics. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) saw them as Nature’s halfway between soul and sky, representing ‘A type of her capacious self and all/Her restless progeny’ (‘The Clouds’, 1842). They were important to Romantic poetry of the night: clouds acted as shadows in the sky, providing visual and emotional chiaroscuro, usually gloom and doom. ‘The dismal gleaming of the clouded moon/Shew’d the dire peril’, wrote Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) in ‘Beachy Head’(1807). A moon might be veiled by clouds or shine brightly in a night sky specifically described as ‘cloudless’. ‘Dejection: An Ode’ (1802) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) featured ‘thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,/That give away their motion to the stars’. By day, clouds linked earth and air, and water and air. For Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), the free movement of clouds, like the wind, materialised liberty and enduring spirit: ‘I change but I cannot die’ (‘The Cloud,’ 1820). The shapeshifting restlessness of clouds was an exultant energy, an image for the infinity of recreation, even the immortality of poetry itself:
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
Romantic skies were made possible by a synergy of ideas, which began with the naming of clouds in a scientific typology which inspired artists. Clouds inspired Romantic painters to see the sky as landscape and Romantic poets to materialise lofty vision. Most of all, Romantic painters and poets were drawn to clouds as ideas – as we might say, word clouds.
Date: 11 September 1821
Creator: John Constable
Subject: Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right
Media rights: Royal Academy of Arts, London
Object type: painting
Format: oil on paper laid on board, red ground, 241 mm x 299 mm
Language: description in English on reverse
Publisher: Royal Academy of Arts, London, given by Isabel Constable (the artist’s daughter) in 1888
Catalogue number: 03/455
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