The desperate bishop of Salisbury
“What the hell is this!”
“You asked me to bring it. The picture you asked me to paint!”
The bishop, crestfallen, looked long at the picture. One could read from his face how disappointed he was. At the end with a long sigh, he turned towards John Constable, his long time friend.
“This is not what I asked you to paint. Sorry, I cannot accept it. You have to do it again. And please…” The bishop took one last look at the picture before turning again, “keep those clouds out from the painting next time, understood?”
Poor John Constable. His face fell. How could a sky be, a painting be, without clouds!
The walls and roofs of all the churches across the Continent were adorned with the paintings of awe-inspiring incidents culled from the Holy Text. Pictures of divine characters – Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, the Heavenly Father and also an assortment of characters from Greek mythology. Shapes that could instil fear in hearts, evoke awe and faith in the minds of illiterate masses. Then how can you blame our Bishop of Salisbury for insisting on having such a painting to adorn the wall of his cathedral! Who would do it!
The answer came fast. Who else than his immensely highly talented friend, John Constable!
So he summoned his friend. “I need a great painting for my cathedral.” Constable nodded with a smile. Poor Bishop, he couldn’t see what was coming.
The picture Constable drew was indeed bewitching. You can see the distant cathedral built after the Gothic fashion framed by a couple of trees that stand in the foreground. The tall spire was pointing at the clouds! Stunning indeed! Even our artist felt ecstatic seeing the splendour of what he had just created. So he ran towards the cathedral to show the bishop the amazing work he gave birth to.
What a disappointment the bishop was! Coldly he brushed aside the work, and told his painter-friend that he wanted an unadulterated blue sky in the backdrop. No clouds please.
Constable shook his head. How can a sky be without clouds!
For John Constable, there were eminent artists in his field – both his predecessors and contemporaries – to guide him on how to cull characters from the Bible, myths and history for his paintings. All he had to do was to swim along with the current, stick on to that long tradition of portraying those mythic characters on to his canvas in order to impress influential men like the Bishop of Salisbury who could get him a lot of business. But our helpless artist, he could only answer to his calling, his interests were already oriented towards another direction where much was happening.
The Age of Enlightenment
Before you continue you must know a bit of the period in which Constable lived.
19th Century. The Age of Enlightenment. Scientific thinking along with technological advancements were taking giant leaps in various fields all at the cost of blind faith represented by the Church. It was the time travelling academics wandered around the Continent giving lectures and soon science became the new religion. How can an artist hide himself away in the dark and regressive comforts of myths and religion when the world was making heady progress towards light and new knowledge! Shouldn’t an artist’s works be a mirror to the society and times where he lives!
Like an eager child keen to know what is happening outside, Constable tried to catch up with a kaleidoscopic world that continued to change and renew itself in every turn as dazzling discoveries were continuously been made in almost every other day. He pored over books and somewhere on the way Constable might have got stuck with a name, Luke Howard (1772-1864).
Who was Howard?
Luke Howard was the first meteorologist who classified various kinds of clouds on a scientific basis. Not only did he contribute new terms like stratus, cirrus, cumulus etc, to meteorological science he also expanded the spectrum of what the human could see when he turned towards the once-barren sky.
With those remarkable remarkable discoveries, Howard could have knocked open the lid of a magical world to our artist, John Constable.
John Constable was baffled by the heavenly spectacle. Fervently, he began to depict on canvas whatever he saw up there – sky and kinds of clouds. In a short period he drew nearly a hundred paintings. Though many of them captured the rural beauty of his homeland, you won’t miss the main subject in those frames – the clouded sky. Clouds could not tire him out. He caught them in various shapes, sizes and levels of luminosity. But let me warn you here! Most of his paintings were huge – 6*6 feet!
If you look long into them from close range, you may loose your moorings, slip into the canvas, and tumble on to those puffy, lethargic clouds drifting along with them aimlessly in a timeless world. No wonder, the Bishop of Salisbury grew restless looking at what his friend brought him. He knew his Cathedral in the painting would cut a meek figure before the dramatic sky up there! The temple of God wouldn’t stand a chance before a viewer!
Question: What do the clouds in Constable’s represent? What do they stand for?
Answer: Nothing. They are clouds. Period.
The Artist as a truth-seeker.
Sorry, the clouds in Constable’s paintings are neither the messengers of your love nor are they mirrors to cast back your emotions. And they don’t care a hoot even if you misread them as harbingers of your miseries.
They are just clouds.
“Painting is science,” John Constable noted elsewhere, “and my works are experiments to find truth.” Means that it is futile to search his clouds for any silver lining – be it a symbol or a cryptic message.
The unfortunate artist who walked ahead of his times
Going outside the studio to paint directly from nature was a revolutionary idea in the 19th Century. (Constable called it ‘skying).’ But how many of you know that the credit for this innovative method later popularised as ‘en plain air’ goes to another artist who came 100 years later?
Claude Monet, renowned French painter was the lucky artist who reaped what Constable had sown a hundred years ago.
Why John Constable, Why this note.
You may still ask why this hype all about the sky, why this hullabuloo about an artist who celebrated the clouds! Aren’t they a sight, common, unexceptional, available on tap to everybody wherever they are on Planet Earth!
You only have to get outside your home and crane your neck. It’s there. Always there. Clouds too. Agree, man. But how many of you take your time off from your schedule to do that at least once in a while? When was the last time you appreciated the slow drift of clouds while sprawling on some beach or from the roof of your building? Remember?
The truth is that we never see or appreciate what is available to us 24/7. One of the chief functions of art and poetry is to recalibrate our vision in order to bring back to our focus what was lost or what had turned invisible or stale or bland due to too much familiarity or too much proximity. But alas, such magic, created by art and poetry, are so fleeting that they can last only for a fraction of a second as a million other digressions with wiggling tails swim frantically towards our one precarious egg of attention. But in that little gap, in that magical moment we see with fresh eyes, our parents, friends, neighbours, relatives and the other. We see them as if for the first time. We connect. We understand each other and even exchange our essences. In John Constable, we do the magic with the clouds. We truly see them.
John Constable was a failed artist. When he was alive, he could sell only a few of his paintings. But he stuck on to a path he only saw and walked alone after a drumbeat he only could hear. But that unflinching faith could have earned him some bliss we can perhaps never understand or live through in our lives.
The world was a bit late in catching up with what he saw, in appreciating it, and in showering the artist with recognition and accolades, which Constable hardly had time back then to regard.
Constable saw the clouds. And he spent a whole lifetime chasing them, patiently bringing them one by one down to his canvas.
You still call him a failure?