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)
28“Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold which they refine.
2Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from the ore.
3Men put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
4They open shafts in a valley away from where men live;
they are forgotten by travelers,
they hang afar from men, they swing to and fro.
5As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and it has dust of gold.
7“That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
8The proud beasts have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.
9“Man puts his hand to the flinty rock,
and overturns mountains by the roots.
10He cuts out channels in the rocks,
and his eye sees every precious thing.
11He binds up the streams so that they do not trickle,
and the thing that is hid he brings forth to light.
12“But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
13Man does not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
14The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
15It cannot be gotten for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
16It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
17Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
18No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
19The topaz of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
20“Whence then comes wisdom?
21It is hid from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
22Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
23“God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
24For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
25When he gave to the wind its weight,
and meted out the waters by measure;
26when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning of the thunder;
27then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
28And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ”