WILLIAMSTOWN — John Constable, the veritable dean of elegiac British Romantic painting, had a delightfully somber side practice between 1821 and 1822 that he called “skying”: Constable would sit outdoors and observe the shifting bulk of the clouds overhead and quickly capture what he saw on stiff postcard-size paper with slashes of oil from his brush. Set against his meticulously composed major paintings, the cloud studies are a rare spontaneous departure for a painter so measured and deliberate; they’re astonishing flashes of lightning in a bottle, and among my very favorite things he ever did.
“High Clouds,” 1821-22, one of those little studies, is tucked in a corner of “On the Horizon: Art and Atmosphere in the Nineteenth Century,” a new exhibition of works on paper at the Clark Art Institute that opened in November. A softly gorgeous haze of purple, pink, and blue, it would be the absolute showstopper if not for the small piece by J.M.W. Turner, Constable’s career nemesis, hung right alongside it. In Turner’s “Sea and Sky,” circa 1826-29, a torrent of gray-black heaves with stark white sea foam, crowding out a pinkish sky forced into a corner of the frame. “High Clouds” is pure contemplative melancholy; “Sky and Sea” is its furiously explosive antithesis.
Where Turner and Constable converge is in the growing early-19th-century fascination with atmospherics, a scientific examination of air and sky that seeped into the popular culture of the day. “On the Horizon” embraces the moment, if a little too fully. Among the dozens of prints, paintings, and drawings here, some feel like padding, stepping stones between the next great thing (Constable and Turner pop up only in the exhibition’s second space, a head-slapper). But whatever its meanderings, the show sketches the contours of an era of wonder and discovery, and a society keen to have its feet leave the ground.
The early 19th century was an era of tumultuous change; global exploration was deepening European awareness of radically different cultures and climates, and science was advancing rapidly to define an expanding world far outside the simple, long-relied-on explanation of divine providence.
Sir Issac Newton, the preeminent natural philosopher of the previous era, had more than a century before put forward the theory that air was not simply nothing, but instead a complex system to be negotiated. In 1718, he was the first to describe the “aether,” positing that what appeared to be empty space was in fact filled with “compact and dense Bodies” that could shift and change dramatically with force exerted upon them. A little more than a century later, Constable, a revered cultural figure, had embraced the idea; his “skying” interlude is believed to have been informed not by divine inspiration but by the meteorological theories of the British scientist Luke Howard.
Turner, being Turner, is a little easier to explain: Sturm und Drang, man’s struggle against nature, was his typical mode. But don’t discount the role of science in his turbulent imagery, the show seems to suggest. Its opening gallery features a sharp, shadowy etching from 1799 by Jean Jacques de Boisseau, of a man and his son blowing soap bubbles.
It depicts not just a whimsical endeavor, but the space where science and philosophy met. Bubbles contained the uncontainable, an empirical experiment that proved the materiality of the air; they also symbolized ephemeral notions, like beauty and youth.
The image crystallizes the art/science confluence more clearly than any other here, and there are, indeed, stretches: I dearly loved Auguste-Xavier Leprince’s delicate watercolors, circa 1816-26, of people sketching and reading in nature; what they have to do with the show’s nominal thesis I couldn’t say.
At its worst, “On the Horizon” is a decent excuse for the Clark to put on view rarely seen wonders from its own collection, which is a far from bad thing. And while it meanders into odd territory — there’s a departure into the fascination with hot air balloon travel, which, while surely of the era, seems a far tangent — the show balances its wanderings with some truly worthwhile works. A triptych of David Lucas mezzotints from the early 1830s — lush, dark, brooding — shoulder up against Turner with breathy aplomb. They pay homage to Constable with skies and low-rolling hills rendered in deep grayscale tones cascading to black. In an 1877 etching by Auguste Delatre, the moon crests the black horizon of a marsh in an inky haze.
A ballooning interlude follows, with a string of pieces that look on cityscapes from above, aerial views from an imagined ascent into the ether. When the show touches down again, it’s grounded with a view of the dense pollution that attended any observation, scientific or otherwise, of 19th-century air in industrializing Europe. Coal smoke could be choking; I can’t help but think of Claude Monet’s dozens of paintings of Waterloo Bridge, all from the same vantage point, but radically different, depending on the thickness of London smog.
A pair of Félix Thiollier photographs, rare in this show, capture the painter Émile Noirot, with brushes and canvas, perched above the billowing smokestacks of Saint-Etienne; and I love that the show has included a fiery watercolor of an ironworks belching molten metal and smoke by an unknown artist whose frank depiction, I’d guess, never found an audience.
But the last word for me belongs to James McNeill Whistler, the American painter best known for a portrait of his mother, whose brooding nocturnes capture the creeping anxiety of a world trundling into the fog of modernity like no other painter I know. Here, the stark, gorgeous dolor of his “Nocturne: The River at Battersea,” 1878, does the job; a steel-blue murk envelops a lone figure standing upright and hunched over in a skiff on London’s grimy Thames. (The Gardner Museum has a permanently installed major oil painting by Whistler of much the same scene, even more ominous and obscure.)
It’s an image of tragic beauty, portending the world to come: ours, where the atmosphere is less something to contemplate and examine than it is a diminishing resource we’re running out of time to preserve. It leaves me to anxiously wonder what’s on our horizon — and how close?
ON THE HORIZON: ART AND ATMOSPHERE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Through Feb. 12. Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu