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Constable’s fingerprints found on painting in Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition



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A sky painting by John Constable, the pioneer of open-air painting in Britain, has been found to bear his fingerprints made when the artist pinned the paper to his easel to prevent it from being blown away by the wind.

Pin holes can also be seen at the top outer edges of Constable’s composition Sky study with a shaft of sunlight, 1822, which will go on show as part of True to Nature, a new exhibition revealing the evolution of open-air painting across Europe in the 19th century at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from Tuesday, May 3.

Sky study with a shaft of sunlight. Constable, John (British, 1776-1837). Oil on paper, height 13.3cm, width 14.9cm, 1822. (56397365)
Sky study with a shaft of sunlight. Constable, John (British, 1776-1837). Oil on paper, height 13.3cm, width 14.9cm, 1822. (56397365)

The exhibition unites, for the first time, more than 120 open-air paintings from The National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Fondation Custodia in Paris, and The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, together with a distinguished private collection of oil sketches, never before seen in public.

Jane Munro co-curator of the exhibition and keeper of paintings, drawings and prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, said: “One of the few activities that remained a constant throughout the pandemic was the ability to go outside.

Sky study with a shaft of sunlight. Constable, John (British, 1776-1837). Oil on paper, height 13.3cm, width 14.9cm, 1822. (56397367)
Sky study with a shaft of sunlight. Constable, John (British, 1776-1837). Oil on paper, height 13.3cm, width 14.9cm, 1822. (56397367)

“We were drawn closer to the natural world, reawakening an appreciation of beauty too often overlooked in our busy lives. Nature on our doorstep became a reassurance, a salve. In these jewel- like paintings, the thrill of artists’ first-hand encounter with nature is palpable. Visitors will see through their eyes, feel their wonder as they record storm-torn skies, limpid rockpools, the dappled shade of a tree canopy or the awe-inspiring sight of an erupting volcano, admiring their endeavour to be true to nature.”

John Constable (1776-1837) is one of Great Britain’s best loved landscape painters, with works such as The Hay Wain, 1821, being one of the most iconic paintings in the history of British art.

John Constable (British, 1776 - 1837), Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset, 1821-1822, oil on paper on canvas, Gift of Louise Mellon in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1998.20.1 (56398256)
John Constable (British, 1776 - 1837), Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset, 1821-1822, oil on paper on canvas, Gift of Louise Mellon in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1998.20.1 (56398256)

During 1821 and 1822, Constable produced a large number of oil sketches of clouds and skies, making notes for each one relating to weather conditions and the time of day he painted them.

He painted quickly but with precision, to capture as closely as possible the detail he observed.

Some of the pictures included reminders of the earth below; treetops and birds in flight, but Constable’s focus was on the sky and, more importantly, the cloud formations as they drifted or blew over him.

Corot à son chevalet, Crècy-en-Brie. Decan, Eugène (French, 1829-aft.1894). Oil on canvas, height 30.7 cm, width, 40 cm. (56398254)
Corot à son chevalet, Crècy-en-Brie. Decan, Eugène (French, 1829-aft.1894). Oil on canvas, height 30.7 cm, width, 40 cm. (56398254)

Constable referred to the time he spent painting the skies as ‘skying’, he recognised the emotional power of the sky, describing it as ‘the chief organ of sentiment.’

Paintings in the exhibition are presented thematically, according to natural phenomena they depict: skies and atmospheric effects, rocks and grottoes, volcanoes, trees, and shape-shifting bodies of water - crashing waves, waterfalls and the still reflective surface of lakes and rock pools.

André Giroux (French, 1801 - 1879), Forest Interior with a Painter, Civita Castellana, 1825/1830, oil on paper, Gift of Mrs. John Jay Ide in memory of Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Donner 1994.52.3 (56398272)
André Giroux (French, 1801 - 1879), Forest Interior with a Painter, Civita Castellana, 1825/1830, oil on paper, Gift of Mrs. John Jay Ide in memory of Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Donner 1994.52.3 (56398272)

The exhibition examines what it means to be ‘true’ to nature, through a wide range of complementary material that includes rare field notebooks by Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of modern geology; a dazzling group of minerals on loan from the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, named after him; scoriae (lava rock) collected after the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1794; and an extraordinary group of volcanic rock specimens, collected on field trips around the world, from Hawaii to Java and Mount Erebus in Antarctica.

Pascal Faligot (56398276)
Pascal Faligot (56398276)

The fashion for painting out-of-doors meant using materials that were small, lightweight, and easily transported on foot. Camille Corot’s small wooden paintbox, on special loan to the exhibition, is typical of the portable equipment that became available to plein air artists of the period. Small enough to be packed up and carried from site to site, paintboxes could be balanced on the knees at a moment’s notice to sketch the fleeting effects of nature onto small sheets of paper slotted inside the lid.

Jules Coignet. View of Bozen with a Painter, 1837. Oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 31 × 39 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (56398270)
Jules Coignet. View of Bozen with a Painter, 1837. Oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 31 × 39 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (56398270)

Italy was at the centre of this tradition. Artists from all over Europe travelled south to paint the monuments of Rome and the landscapes of the Campagna, the countryside around the city. Spectacular monuments testified to the great classical civilisations of the past, but the city itself had a unique picturesque appeal. Buildings and rooftops, extended over time, formed higgeldy-piggeldy assemblages of ‘irregularity and symmetry, incoherence and harmony, madness and reason’ which fascinated painters like Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes.

Capri, on the Sorrentine peninsula, rapidly became a magnet for artists with its dramatic coastal scenery of towering limestone cliffs pierced atsea level by underground caverns carved by the action of the water. The ‘discovery’ in 1826 of the ‘Blue Grotto’ by August Kopisch and Ernst Fries further fuelled painters’ imaginations as they sought to capture the iridescent azure reflections that illuminate the cavern.

Pascal Faligot (56398266)
Pascal Faligot (56398266)

A bespoke short film, made specially for the exhibition by volcanologist and filmmaker, Clive Oppenheimer (Into the Inferno; Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, both with Werner Herzog), reveals the cinematic ‘truths’ of volcanic activity, recorded at first hand. Through it, we glimpse the wonders of the ‘Living Earth’.

David Hockney’s video installation of Woldgate Woods in winter concludes the exhibition. It takes us on a journey through a luminous snowscape in Yorkshire, swathed in silence, the installation is also part of Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Depiction which runs concurrently to True to Nature and complements the exhibition.

  • True to Nature Open-air Painting in Europe 1780-1870 is at the Fitzwilliam Museum from May 3 to August 29, 2022.

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