Theater & art

Sebastian Smee | Frame by Frame

Meaning and nothingness in ‘Study of a Cloudy Sky’

Yale Center for British Art

NEW HAVEN — Constable’s cloud studies are more or less like Monet’s haystacks. Everybody loves them, and for good reason. But there’s a bit of poison in them that is often overlooked.

You can see this particularly fine example, which was painted around 1825, amid a bunch of others on a wall at the newly reopened Yale Center for British Art.

They really were just studies — Constable never intended them for public display. But that scarcely matters now.

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With (to modern eyes) just the right combination of loving attentiveness and wristy nonchalance, Constable conveyed the unadorned beauty of nature, the transience of light, the continuous, shifting mystery of atmosphere. But he was also painting phenomena we might as easily associate with meaninglessness.

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Constable painted this study on paper laid on millboard. There are parts of the cloud where you see how individual bristles in his brush, applied with pressure, left furrows in the paint that reveal the white paper beneath. The effect is a certain aeration that makes the whole image more credible.

Adjacent passages — the central bright white part of the cloud above the part that is streaky and gray, for instance — appear more massy. And they actually are: Constable has applied white paint with a technique known as “impasto.” It stands out, that is from the surface.

The first volume of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” includes an extended discussion of the emotional effect of Constable’s cloud studies, one of which, in the moment he describes, has just reduced him to tears.

The narrator returns to the subject of clouds later in the volume. But this time he articulates a very different idea. He looks up at the sky and determines that the “various cloud shapes and hues meant nothing.”

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Their forms, he goes on, are determined purely by chance. “If there was anything the clouds suggested it was meaningless in its purest form.”

I’m inclined, in my ungodly way, to see things the same way, I’m afraid. So why do Constable’s cloud studies — and why, on occasion, do clouds themselves — fill me with so much emotion?

There is not much I can think of to say by way of explanation. But I would guess that it has something to do with the tension they suggest between fullness and emptiness; between specific presence (which is always somehow miraculous) and endless, futile flux.

On the one hand, the roiling elements, the roar of deep space, the void of deep time. On the other, the truly incredible sensation of something — you, me, Constable, a cloud — being “all there, just then, at that moment” (Knausgaard again).

STUDY OF A CLOUDY SKY

By John Constable. At Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven. 203-432-2800, britishart.yale.edu

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.