Clouds is one of around fifty extant paintings of the sky that Constable made in Hampstead between 1821 and 1822, and it has been estimated that he produced over one hundred such studies at the time. Constable made this kind of intense examination, which he called ‘skying’, to precisely record different weather conditions, in preparation for his grand landscapes. He considered the sky of paramount importance to landscape painting. In 1821 he wrote a letter to his close friend John Fisher in which he stated...
It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment … The sky is the source of light in Nature, and governs everything.
Skying was so critical to Constable that he ensured that his approach to it was scientifically methodical. The nature of his observations is exemplified by his inscription on the back of Clouds:
5 September 1822. 10 o clock. Morning, looking South-East, very brisk wind at West. Very bright & fresh grey clouds running very fast over a yellow bed about half-way in the sky. Very appropriate for the coast at Osmington.
The reference here to the small town of Osmington, on the Dorset coast, was to a large painting that the artist was planning. Constable sketched in and around this area during his honeymoon there in 1816, and in 1824 he painted a number of works based on the Osmington sketches. This particular Hampstead cloud study was not, however, used for any known Osmington painting. Constable did not make his cloud studies purely so as to copy each of them into later paintings – it was the overall experience gained through concentrated observation and documentation that was ultimately of immense benefit to him.
Text by Laurie Benson from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 19.