The present study is a rare example of Constable working en plein air in the evening and as such provides an important counterpoint to his daytime sky and coast studies. Executed in fluid, rapidly applied oil, the atmospheric study demonstrates Constable’s extraordinary ability at capturing effects of light and climate. This boldly executed oil study was made in the early 1820s at the moment Constable was developing his distinctive and revolutionary approach to capturing weather effects and shifting light.
It was during his residence in Hampstead that the sky became the most crucial determinant of the character of his landscape painting. Writing to his friend and correspondent, John Fisher, from Hampstead in October 1821 Constable noted:
‘If the sky is obtrusive – (as mine are) it is bad, but if they are evaded (as mine are not) it is worse… It will be difficult to name a class of Landscape, in which the sky is not the ‘key note’, the standard of Scale, and chief ‘Organ of Sentiment’… The sky is the ‘source of Light’ in nature – and governs every thing.’
As a ‘chief Organ of Sentiment’ Constable’s sky studies have long been recognised as congruent with the emerging Romantic ideas expressed in poetry, indeed, Robert Bloomfield author of The Farmer’s Boy was his favourite poet. Michael Rosenthal highlighted an analogous response in the work of William Wordsworth. In 1821 Constable wrote to John Fisher on his responsiveness to rain and stormy weather in particular: ‘I have likewise made many skies and effects – for I wish it could be said of me as Fuselli says of Rembrandt, “he followed nature in her calmest abodes and could pluck a flower on every hedge – yet he was born to cast a steadfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature”. We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & colour.’ Constable was particularly susceptible to grand sunsets and the liminal moments of the day, although nocturnal views are rare.
Graham Reynolds, in a letter of 8th March 2003, confirmed the attribution to Constable and further suggested that the subject could be an estuary near Maningtree or Mistley in Suffolk and tentatively dates the picture to circa 1820. Anne Lyles has also pointed out the similarity in the handling of the paint to certain coastal as well as sea and sky studies of the early 1820s made in the Brighton area. Constable was evidently having to work very rapidly to capture the fast changing point at which dusk turns to night and to that end appears to have deliberately employed very heavily thinned oils, handling them much as one would watercolours: the unusual heavily textured paper compensating for the impasto which would normally be found in similar studies made during the day.
Using thinned paint and a monochrome palette of white and black, Constable has cleverly evoked the expansiveness of sky over sea. The restricted palette also evokes the sense of the gloaming scene, as sky and sea converge. This abbreviated style typifies Constable’s most atmospheric plein air sky studies of the 1820s. The present, informal sketch passed from Constable to his grandson, Hugh and was then acquired by the great educationalist and collector, Sir Michael Sadler.
- R. B. Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, Suffolk, 1968, vol. VI, 1968, p.228.
- R.B.Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, Suffolk, 1968, vol. VI, pp.76-77.
- Michael Rosenthal, Constable: The Painter and his Landscape, New Haven and London, 1983, p.167.
- R.B.Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, Suffolk, 1968, vol. VI, 1968, p.74.