Study of Cirrus Clouds by John Constable

John Constable

Study of Cirrus Clouds, c.1822, Oil on paper, 114 mm x 178 mm (estimate), Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Given by Isabel Constable, 784-1888, V&A Images, London / Art Resource, NY

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An Off-Stage Sun

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In the nineteenth century, English artist John Constable took up the tradition of landscape painting. This genre had developed, along with seascapes, in seventeenth-century Holland. Constable is known for his particular attention to the habits and moods of the sky, and this sketch rehearses cloud forms that would find a place in later paintings.

It was painted a decade or so after William Wordsworth began his most famous poem with the line ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (written between 1804 and 1807; revised 1815). However, Constable’s approach to clouds was rather less Romantic than the poet’s, and was mixed with the scientific. Constable owned, and annotated, a copy of Thomas Forster’s influential Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena (1813), which included a series of engravings of clouds. Forster briefly outlined the history of meteorology and acknowledged that, whilst it may have been of use to ancient shepherds, it would be wrong to suppose the science’s origins lay in its utility alone (1813: vi–vii). The science of meteorology included pleasure in observing the heavens.

Clouds sometimes appear in the Bible as harbingers of doom; they cast darkness upon the land (e.g. Ezekiel 30:18; 32:7; Joel 2:2; Zephaniah 1:15). In Job, they form ‘a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder’ (28:26) as well as the ‘whirlwind’ source of God’s voice (38:1). Yet Constable’s gentle clouds are lit by an off-stage sun and seem like ‘swaddling-bands’ (38:9), which imply protection for creation as a new-born babe. Constable’s loving attention to detail suggests that the artist’s eye ‘sees every precious thing’ (28:10), like those in search of wisdom.

However, Job reminds us that study of the heavens holds no guarantees in the search for wisdom. After all, ‘[t]hat path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it’ (28:7). ‘It is hid from the eyes of all living, and concealed from the birds of the air’ (28:21)—creatures whose knowledge of clouds was surely superior to Wordsworth’s, Forster’s, or Constable’s.



Forster, Thomas. 1823. Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena, 3rd edn (London: Harding, Mavor, and Lepard)

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