The Yale Center for British Art closed for renovation in February. Locked away inside it is a series of John Constable’s cloud studies. Each painted sketch took him an hour, tops, and though they’re now clad in gilt frames, Constable dashed them off on inexpensive paper as simple exercises.
Two hundred years later, despite Constable’s disregard for their significance, they are radiant. The restraint of soft yellow, the purple underbelly of a languid cloud, the dusky blue applied so thinly that the paper is visible beneath it, gives way to triumphant dashes of white. They’re applied so thickly, so rapidly, that the brush skips across the surface of the paper. Some of the studies gesture toward a horizon or include a few swipes worth of a bird’s outstretched wings, but most are unadulterated. There are flakes of dried paint and brush hairs suspended on the surfaces like insects in amber. The paintings remind you they’re made of paint. As their cheap blue pigments (the expensive ultramarine being made from lapis lazuli and quite literally worth its weight in gold) continue to fade to grey over time, the studies only gain in moody richness.
There Constable sat, craning his neck to glimpse the clouds leaning over him. They bloomed and shriveled, strode on and faltered, bore down against the wind and rain. They made room for streams of sunlight or swaddled the horizon and rocked it to sleep. They whispered lullabies as they drifted on, scattering, then coming back together again.