"The soul of all scenery": Thomas Cole's Clouds
Thomas Cole—the subject of a recently closed exhibition at The Met, traveling soon to The National Gallery, London—studied, sketched, and painted clouds throughout his career. As early as 1825, he copied in his notebook the formula for painting skies found in William Oram's Precepts and Observations on the Art of Colouring in Landscape Painting (1810), and his notebooks are filled with written empirical observations as well as graphite on-site studies of clouds, such as Atmospheric Study with Notations, which he inscribed, "Thunderstorm after Sunset."
While in London from 1829 to 1831, Cole was exposed to the grand-scale canvases that included dramatic cloud effects as well as the on-site, or plein-air, cloud studies of Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable. On a visit to the Royal Academy on June 29, 1829, for example, Cole saw Constable's Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames—Morning after a Stormy Night, which he greatly admired and which features a dramatic cloud-filled sky.
Cole met Constable later that year and had the opportunity to view Constable's oil studies. Constable had studied meteorological treatises and, working directly from nature, produced a series of now-celebrated cloud studies in the 1820s, including such examples as Rainstorm over the Sea and Study of a Cloudy Sky.
In a famous letter penned October 1821, Constable wrote:
I have done a great deal of skying. . . . That landscape painter who does not make his sky a very material part of his composition, neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids. . . . It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key-note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment.
Cole, in his famous "Essay on American Scenery" of 1836, echoed Constable's sentiment, writing that the sky is "the soul of all scenery, in it are the fountains of light, and shade, and color," and declaring that "for variety and magnificence, American skies are unsurpassed."
As a keen observer of weather conditions, Cole used the sky in such major works as The Met's View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow to convey the central narrative and "soul" of the painting. His storm-filled sky, or swirling vortex of clouds, was directly inspired by Turner's Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, which he had greatly admired while visiting the artist's London studio in 1831.
Cole eventually mastered the pure cloud study, including the fine example Clouds from The Met collection. Here, the palpable brushstrokes suggest the immediacy of the artist's perceptions. His handling of color is subtle: the lower section of the towering cloud formation is gray, gray-purple, and gray-white, while the upper portion tends toward pure bright white. Inspired by Constable's cloud studies, Cole included a line of treetops at the lower edge of the composition to establish a sense of scale.
Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings was on view at The Met Fifth Avenue January 30–May 13, 2018.
Read a blog series about Thomas Cole on Now at The Met.
See more digital content related to Thomas Cole, including a walkthrough of the recent exhibition.
The exhibition catalogue is available for purchase in The Met Store.