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John Constable, 1776–1837, British

Sky Study with Rainbow

Former Title(s):

Sky Study with A Rainbow

Watercolor on medium, smooth, blued white wove paper
8 7/8 x 7 1/4 inches (22.5 x 18.4 cm)

Inscribed in graphite, upper right: "May 20th 1827"

G & R Turner watermark

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
landscape | meteorology | rain | rainbow | science | sky | studies
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IIIF Manifest:

By the time Constable made his Sky Study with Rainbow in 1827, he was an established and admired landscapist. In 1820 he had moved to Hampstead and the following year began making oil sketches of the skies overhead. It is probable that George Beaumont introduced Constable to the studies of skies made by Alexander Cozens in the 1770s. Cozens, however, was more concerned with schematizing skies to create pictorial effects rather than representing the sky with meteorological accuracy. Constable, by contrast, had grown up observing skies; as a miller's son, the importance of weather can hardly have escaped him. He believed that an artist could not neglect a sky or treat it as subordinate in a painting since "the sky is the 'source of light in nature - and governs everything." he claimed. He even wondered why a landscape painter "should not ... be considered rather as a student in any branch of Natural Philosophy" and dedicated himself to studying natural phenomena, especially skies. The link between landscape painting and natural philosophy was conventional by Constable's day, but he took the connection seriously. There is even some evidence that he acquainted himself with the latest scientific investigations in meteorology, including reading and annotating texts such as Thomas Forster's Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena [sic] of 1815. Despite his desire to catch fleeting effects, Constable seems rarely to have used watercolor outdoors after around 1806, despite the portability of watercolor pigments. It is likely that he preferred to sketch skies from nature in pencil and then color his drawings once back in the studio. Here, Constable attempted to capture something as transitory and insubstantial as a rainbow. The impression of intense luminescence is created by contrasting a series of thin arcing washes with a heavily washed blue sky. Nevertheless, Constable's scientific interests can be overstated. He was not averse to sacrificing strict observation to pictorial effect, as this watercolor proves. Commentators have been disturbed by the way Constable has darkened the inner side of the rainbow, when strictly speaking it would appear much lighter to the naked eye. But these meteorological studies should not be divorced from his broader artistic interests, as if his primary concern was the recording of natural phenomena rather than painting landscapes. After all, this was the artist who declared that a sky should be "the chief organ of sentiment" in a painting, and he was open to the symbolic possibilities of the weather in his later years when this watercolor was made. This was an unsettling period for Constable. His mentor George Beaumont died in 1827, his wife Maria was succumbing to tuberculosis, and one of his young children became seriously ill. These private anxieties were compounded by public concerns, as the political map of Britain was changing with the campaign for Parliamentary Reform and Catholic Emancipation. Even the family business in East Bergholt was hit by striking workers during the postwar agricultural depression. When Constable suggested sending his children there for a holiday, his brother warned him "a more dangerous place for children could not be found upon earth." In these troubled times, rainbows took on a particular resonance for Constable. By 1830 he could assert that "Nature, in all the varied aspects of her beauty exhibits no feature more lovely nor any that awaken a more soothing reflection than the Rainbow." The soothing aspect of rainbows made them a comforting political emblem for Constable. The most prominent of Constable's late rainbows is found in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (fig. 8) of 1831, in which a great rainbow is painted arcing across a stormy sky. Sky Study with Rainbow was unlikely to have been made with this painting in mind; the earliest sketches for it date from 1829, and the rainbow seems to have been a late addition. Nevertheless, he would have drawn on such meteorological studies when completing his canvases for exhibition. In the case of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, the weather is symbolic of radical attacks on the established Church of England, of which Constable was a committed member. The tag from James Thomson's Seasons (1735) exhibited with the painting captures the moment when "Nature from the storm Shines out afresh" with a rainbow, the "glittering robe of joy" and "sign of danger past."

John Constable (The Yomiuri Shimbun, 1986-01 - 1986-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism (New York Public Library, 1987-10 - 1988-01) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

John Constable: The Late work (Royal Academy of Arts, 2021-10-30 - 2022-02-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism (Chicago Historical Society, 1988-04-06 - 1988-06-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism (Indiana University Art Museum, 1988-01-27 - 1988-03-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Art of a Changing Society - British Watercolors & Drawings 1775-1950 (Wichita Art Museum, 1983-10-23 - 1983-12-04) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

English Landscape (Paul Mellon Collection) 1630-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1977-04-19 - 1977-07-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

A loan exhibition of English drawings and watercolours from the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon of Upperville, Virginia, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London, 1964, cat. no. 41, N5247.M385 L62 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Late Constable, Royal Academy of Arts, London, p. 110, no. 42, NJ18.C74 A12 2021+ (YCBA) [YCBA]

Graham Reynolds, The later paintings and drawings of John Constable, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1984, 27.11, NJ18 C74 R485 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

The Yomiuri Shimbun, John Constable, The Yomiuri Shimbun, Tokyo, 1986, pp. 101, 159, no. 55, NJ18 .C74 R47 +Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

John E. Thornes, John Constable's skies, a fusion of art and science , University of Birmingham Press, Birmingham, UK, 1999, pp. 135-36, pl. 52, NJ18 C74 T56 1999 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Christopher White, English landscape, 1630-1850, drawings, prints & books from the Paul Mellon Collection , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1977, pp. 89-90, no. 161, pl. XXVIII, NC228 W45 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Howard E. Wooden, Art of a changing society : British watercolors and drawings, 1775-1900, Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, KS, 1983, pp. 48, 82, fig. 56, ND1928 .W65 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Jonathan Wordsworth, William Wordsworth and the age of English romanticism, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick Grasmere, UK, 1987, pp. 66, 215, no. 132, fig. 61, PR5885 W67 1987 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 122-23, no. 52, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale University Art Gallery, English drawings and watercolors, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, April 15 - June 20, 1965 , New Haven, 1965, cat. no. 41, NC228 Y34 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Mahonri Sharp Young, The Mellon Drawings at the Morgan, Apollo, vo. 95, no. 122, April, 1972, pp. 332, 334, fig. 8, N1 A54 + (YCBA) Another copy available in Vertical File - V 2330 [YCBA]

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