Landscape and the architecture of light: John Constable’s clouds at the Yale Center for British Art

Landscape and the architecture of light: John Constable’s clouds at the Yale Center for British... Abstract The manner in which modern museum architecture can inflect the historical conditions of an object’s creation and display is explored in this personal response to the installation of John Constable’s cloud studies at the Yale Center for British Art. Constable created these studies outdoors, often noting the time of day, weather, and season on the verso, suggesting that he was interested in capturing nature’s most ephemeral atmospheric effects. The top-floor galleries of the ycba regularly undergo dramatic fluctuations of light, which are a product of the building’s skylight scheme, designed by Richard Kelly in consultation with Louis Kahn. These changes in natural light levels are often as fleeting as the effects Constable strove to record, reanimating the ephemeral conditions of his sketches’ making. I ground my discussion of this happy marriage between the modern museum and the historical work of art in artistic debates from Constable’s time over lighting effects in the museum and studio. Seated before a full-scale sketch of John Constable’s Stratford Mill (1819–20) (Fig. 1) in the Yale Center for British Art, I am struck by the artist’s ability to capture change and the passage of time. Through subtle suggestions of motion, modestly paced, Constable’s landscape reveals both life and the elements to be in a constant state of flux: the undershot wheel of the mill rotates, as suggested by glistening drops of water cascading over its blades; a boat drifts into pictorial space, propelled by the sluggish current of the river; the various figures engage in activities of both labour and leisure; a breeze rustles through the trees, subtly swaying their branches leftward; and a dead tree leaning over the river bank is juxtaposed with saplings and more mature trees to its left, signalling that nature has her own duration and history parallel to that of civilization. Most of all, though, it is Constable’s billowing clouds that simulate motion and temporality. The light seems to come from the left, illuminating the clouds from above. On the right the clouds are in shadow, and subtle white streaks suggest that rain is falling in the distance. This dense, opaque cluster of cloud cover suppresses the passage of light, but as my eye moves leftward across the canvas following the direction of the wind, the sky begins to clear, allowing the sun’s rays to illuminate the bucolic scene below. By representing an unfolding progression of atmospheric conditions in a single composition, Constable leaves his viewers with the sense that these effects are fugitive occurrences that would dissolve and reappear entirely anew if one were to look away for even a moment. Fig. 1. View largeDownload slide John Constable, Stratford Mill, 1819–20, oil on canvas, 130.8 x 184.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. Fig. 1. View largeDownload slide John Constable, Stratford Mill, 1819–20, oil on canvas, 130.8 x 184.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. The logic behind this sense of movement is deconstructed for the viewer in the same exhibition bay through a sequence of Constable’s pioneering cloud studies (Figs 2–3).1 The selection of cloud studies in the collection of the ycba reflects only a sample of over 100 that Constable created primarily in 1821–22 on Hampstead Heath. Constable recorded nature’s most ephemeral occurrences, often noting the season, time of day, wind direction, and other weather conditions on the back of the studies. Viewed in succession, Constable’s clouds have a proto-cinematic quality, suggesting diegesis. The eye can follow each ephemeral moment, reconstructing the clouds as they coalesce, dissipate, and reconstitute anew. Yet despite Constable’s remarkable achievement, his clouds remain stubbornly static, a limitation of the medium itself. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, May 2012, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, May 2012, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 3. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, January 2015, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 3. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, January 2015, Yale Center for British Art. Upon first viewing the ycba’s permanent collection, exhibited on the top (fourth) floor under natural light, I lingered in front of Constable’s sketch of Stratford Mill and the adjacent cloud studies. As I reflected on his expressive cloud formations, the rise of vapour, the condensation of water, and eventual precipitation, something remarkable occurred. The room suddenly darkened and the drama unfolding in Constable’s Suffolk landscape was cast in shadow, as if a stormy cloud had momentarily blocked the sun’s rays, but only for a moment. Within seconds the light in the galleries returned to its usual brightness and I was left with the impression that on Constable’s canvas too the sun was once again able to penetrate the cloud cover. Constable’s experience of observing and transcribing the fleeting effects of the atmosphere had been, belatedly, brought back to life. In this essay, the symbiotic relationship between Louis Kahn’s architecture for the ycba and Constable’s practice of painting skies are explored. Looking to Constable’s reflections on light in his correspondence and their relationship to new ideas and approaches to museum and studio lighting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is argued here that modern museums do not necessarily abstract works of art from the original contexts of their creation and display. Museums can, in fact, shed light on those conditions through the art object’s aesthetic interaction with the architectural space, even if those historical conditions were fundamentally different. Constable’s evocation of narrative through fleeting atmospheric effects has been studied extensively by scholars today, but it was already observed in the artist’s lifetime.2 In 1820, William Carey registered how the varied cloud formations and light levels in Stratford Mill serve as a narrative device: ‘We may suppose it a day after recent rain, and the sky is not yet wholly cleared up. The light upon the clouds is well diffused, and the general effect is powerful and commanding, but it would be still better if the penciling was not too busy and flickered in expressing the motion of the air, in some parts near the horizon.’3 The ephemeral light effects that Carey observes were at the heart of Constable’s project of ‘skying’, a term the latter coined for his practice of painting skyscapes. As the artist noted in a letter to his friend and champion, Archdeacon John Fisher, in 1821, ‘[t]he sky is the “source of light” in nature – and governs every thing. Even our common observations on the weather of every day, are suggested by [the sky] . . .’4 For Constable, the study of the sky was essentially the study of light – the changing appearance of nature in response to direct illumination, or the reflection, or the refraction of sunlight. His investigation of the sky and light involved both theory and practice. He owned and annotated the second edition of the pioneering meteorologist Thomas Forster’s Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena (1815), which discusses the lighting of clouds at length. One passage in Forster’s book, which Constable circled and underlined, particularly resonated with the artist: ‘All clouds are capable of becoming lighter or darker, according to their relative position with respect to the sun.’5 Constable noted in the margin of this passage, ‘as seen opposite or under the sun’.6 Through his researches, Constable became keenly aware of the fact that a cloud’s appearance reflects the observer’s position on the ground as well as the sun’s position in the sky, i.e. the time of day, the season, and the size, variety, and number of clouds, factors that are in constant flux.7 In his painting practice, he documented these changing conditions with particular attention to the effects of light. He created cloud studies at different times of day (although midday occurs with greater frequency) and in a broad spectrum of atmospheric conditions. Inscriptions on the verso point to both immediate and implied conditions, from the precise hour in which the study was made to past and future conditions.8 To the informed meteorological eye, the unstable form of each cloud also signals conditions forwards and backwards in time, as their shape has evolved and will continue to do so based on the wind and other weather factors. Constable’s cloud studies were not directly used for any specific compositions nor were they themselves intended to be framed or publicly displayed, but it is plausible that he conceived them as a sequence, as he sent a group of at least twenty to Fisher.9 To serve his own practice, he may have pinned a number of them to the wall of his studio in order to conceptualize the evolving conditions of the sky that, in compositions such as Stratford Mill, he strove to evoke within a single frame.10 The artist eloquently expressed the narrative element of his skies with the phrase, ‘the natural history – if the expression may be used – of the skies.’11 Although Constable’s ‘skying’ activities yielded an unfolding sequence of cloud and light variations, the viewer’s experience of this effect in the ycba is not, of course, the consequence of any agency on Constable’s part; it is a condition of the building itself. The fluctuations of light in the fourth-floor galleries are the result of Richard Kelly’s calculated lighting scheme – conceived in consultation with Louis Kahn but in its final version designed after the latter’s death – which was created to make the most of natural light. For both visual and philosophical reasons, natural light was a consideration from the building’s inception.12 Jules Prown, inaugural director of the ycba, pointed to the importance of natural light in his preliminary thoughts on the architecture: ‘Daylight is desirable in the exhibition galleries for paintings, curatorial offices, and conservation areas . . . Occasional views of the outside world, whether courtyard or city, add variety and refreshment.’13 Kahn’s design for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, with its vaulted skylights and courtyards, was an important precedent. In his preliminary designs for the ycba, Kahn’s proposal for the roof was comparable, consisting of two longitudinal tunnel vaults with skylights to admit northern light on the fourth-floor galleries, while open courtyards would allow natural light to reach the lower levels.14 As the layout of the top-floor galleries evolved into a series of individual bays, the lighting system changed to separate skylights that recall the lantern skylights of Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, to which we shall return below.15 But the skylights were redesigned once again into a far more complex programme before the building was constructed. In order to maximize the light on cloudy days and equalize the light on sunny days, while avoiding direct sunlight on the walls, Kahn and Kelly arrived at a rectangular grid of skylights with an exterior shading device. The system consists of a combination of fixed louvres, plexi domes, and translucent plastic ‘cassettes’. The louvres are variously spaced and angled in order to regulate the degree of light diffused through each skylight and guarantee a relatively consistent level of light throughout the day and with the change of seasons.16 Kelly’s louvres limit the transmission of northern light – originally advocated by Prown but which Kelly argued has a higher ultraviolet content – and admit eastern, western, and, above all, warm-coloured southern light in order to realize a full spectrum of colour.17 As light is admitted through the louvres, a pattern of sunlight and shadows is created on a diffusing cassette, which then serves as the source of illumination for the paintings.18 Although Kahn died before the lighting system was completed, he had approved the basic structure of the skylights and Kelly’s general concept for diffusing light.19 Kahn and Kelly’s calculated approach to admitting daylight was certainly novel for its day, but skylights were not new to museum architecture. Architects of the earliest art museums were deeply concerned with the effects of natural light on the appearance and reception of paintings. Complex forms of ceiling illumination in museum design and construction date to the late eighteenth century. Debates raged over whether viewing conditions were most favourable when paintings were illuminated from the side (usually from the left) or from above. Most museum keepers agreed that works of art are best displayed in the same lighting conditions under which they were created. In his Mémoire sur la manière d’éclairer la galerie du Louvre (1796), the architect Charles-Axel Guillaumot cited the most common studio lighting as a high northern window, positioned so that light would stream down on to the canvas at an angle of forty-five degrees.20 This model of studio practice is visible in Georg Friedrich Kersting’s portrait of Caspar David Friedrich in his atelier (1812) (Fig. 4). Kersting depicts the artist painting with illumination from the left above eye level. Based on how artists tended to orient themselves while painting in their studios, a number of museum directors and founders advocated side-lit galleries. Aloys Hirt, an archaeologist and professor at the Berlin Academy of the Arts and Sciences, proposed a design in 1798 for the Königliches Museum in Berlin (now the Altes Museum) that called for galleries furnished with ceiling-high windows and a complex shutter system, divided into four sections. The shutters would ensure that the rooms were not only fully illuminated but also that the light could be manipulated and directed to mimic the artist’s studio.21 Gustav Friedrich Waagen, the inaugural director of the museum, likewise advocated for illumination from the left to mirror the working conditions of the artist’s studio, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the eventual architect of the Altes Museum, adhered to this aspect of Hirt’s proposal.22 Schinkel designed the exhibition space so that the collection was displayed in long, narrow galleries, surrounding a rotunda. The rooms were illuminated by windows on the left and had screens projecting from the walls with pictures hanging on either side. Fig. 4. View largeDownload slide Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1812, Oil on canvas, 51 x 40 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Fig. 4. View largeDownload slide Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1812, Oil on canvas, 51 x 40 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Not all museum officials agreed that side illumination was optimal, and some made a case for top lighting. Waagen attempted to persuade Charles Lock Eastlake, an early director of the National Gallery in London, to refurbish the building with side illumination, but Eastlake felt that this lighting scheme did not account for the fact that different paintings might be optimized by different lighting conditions.23 He also held that if side illumination were to be used, the light source should not be in the viewer’s sightline. Eastlake was not alone in his objections. Already in the eighteenth century some collection keepers favoured ceiling illumination. This preference depended in part on the fact that certain major artists designed their studios or galleries to admit light from above, Peter Paul Rubens being an early example, but it was also a strategy to increase wall-space and reduce the problems associated with direct sunlight. Under Louis XVI’s reign, the French minister of fine arts, the Comte d’Angiviller, initiated the conversion of the GrandeGalerie of the Palais du Louvre into an art museum, the plans for which involved installing glazed lanterns. The large windows that lined both sides of the long gallery were deemed to disrupt the continuity of the hang, to take up too much space, and to create glare, shadows, and reflections.24 The cost of the skylights was prohibitive and, initially, the programme for the GrandeGalerie was put on hold and only a lantern for the adjacent Salon Carré was installed in 1789.25 A painting from around 1785 by Hubert Robert, one of the curators put in charge of the space, shows one of the proposed designs for the refurbishment of the GrandeGalerie (Fig. 5). Robert depicts a wide-open gallery filled with light diffused evenly through the space, although in practice, when the lanterns were later built, the light effects were not so consistent. Fig. 5. View largeDownload slide Hubert Robert, The Project for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, 1796, oil on canvas, 112 x 143 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre. Fig. 5. View largeDownload slide Hubert Robert, The Project for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, 1796, oil on canvas, 112 x 143 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre. Among the most important early proponents of top lighting in England was the architect Sir John Soane. Soane is known for his innovative means of admitting daylight into some of the earliest museum spaces. In his own home, left to the nation as Sir John Soane’s Museum, he designed a sophisticated system of lantern and other forms of top lighting.26 Soane constructed a picture gallery in the space that makes especially creative use of top illumination. On the south wall of the gallery, the space opens up into an additional rectangular bay that extends to the lowest level of the house, illuminated by a coloured-glass lantern. In addition to illuminating the sculptural antiquities on display down to the lowest level, the yellow tint of the glass simulates the famous amber light of the Tuscan sun and heightens this effect as it is represented in a series of Italianate paintings that line the walls of the vertical bay. Soane was also enlisted as the architect of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which opened in 1814 and is often identified as the first structure built specifically for the purpose of exhibiting art. His building included a vertical glazed lantern in each room, connected to the gallery walls by a sloped ceiling vault with an opaque top, which was eventually top-glazed to admit more light. In some later galleries, such as those designed by John Taylor in 1886 for the National Gallery in London, light-level issues associated with Soane’s lanterns were resolved with larger monitors and canted glazing. A problem linked with lanterns or monitors was that not enough light reached the walls. Benjamin West’s gallery in Newman Street in 1821, likely designed by J. B. Papworth, avoided this shortcoming with hidden skylights around the perimeter of the ceiling that directed light on to the walls, perhaps inspired by the light effects of panoramas.27 Despite their limitations, Soane’s creative solutions for ceiling illumination became a benchmark for museums across Europe and North America. Leo von Klenze, for instance, proposed similar daylight effects in his design for the Munich Pinakothek, but he went further, striving to reconcile the disagreements over side- and top-lit galleries. He maximized the visual impact of the collection by using skylights to illuminate large paintings displayed in lofty rooms and side lighting for sculpture and cabinet pictures hung in smaller spaces flanking the main galleries.28 In his design for the ycba, Kahn probably took into account the original lighting conditions under which the works of art had been created and exhibited, complementing the scheme of skylights with natural light from side windows, which could be controlled through oak shutters. Prown recounts, ‘the first aim in [Kahn’s] exhibit spaces was that paintings and drawings be seen in natural light in the true color seen by the artist. The mood and color of the sky, the time of day, season of the year will be seen.’29 Although Kahn and Kelly’s lighting system was meant to make the viewer conscious of natural light fluctuations out-of-doors, the exterior louvre system was also designed to ensure that the light remains even. Indeed, the architectural historian Dietrich Neumann has noted that Kelly’s crowning achievement in modern architecture was his ability to render ‘the light source itself invisible’.30 While the shading offered by Kelly’s louvres and the diffusion of light through his cassettes certainly obscures the position of the sun and limits direct sunlight, the intermittent rise and fall of light levels within the fourth-floor galleries serve as an abrupt reminder that the light is coming from a natural source, that the sun’s movement across the sky, its changing arc with the passing of each season, and the drifting, coalescing, and dissipating clouds obstruct, reflect, and diffuse the light as it illuminates the gallery space and the paintings on the walls. The architectural lighting consultant Matthew Tanteri has noted that not just weather patterns but also factors such as latitude, the colour and size of surrounding buildings, and even local flora affect the viewer’s experience.31 Given that New Haven is a coastal town, in which overcast or cloudy skies are common, clouds are perhaps the single most important variable that influences the level of natural light in the ycba. For the work of an artist such as Constable, who was intent on capturing and representing changing atmospheric effects, the fluctuations of light on the fourth floor are the exhibition space’s most remarkable feature. Yet in Constable’s landscapes there is a hierarchy of light at play that is not repeated in Kahn’s architecture because, even as the light varies, it is equalized by Kelly’s louvres and cassettes. The building’s democratization of light is, however, complementary in an important way. At the heart of Constable’s approach to landscape was the ‘chiaroscuro of nature’, which he understood as ‘the influence of light and shadow upon Landscape’, effects that are not fixed in time and space.32 Clouds played a fundamental role in Constable’s approach to chiaroscuro because the degree to which they block the sun determines how light falls and shadows are cast.33Stratford Mill shows his concern for how different cloud formations affect the chiaroscuro of nature through the variable contrast between light and shade in the vegetation and reflections on the water. In the ycba galleries, light fluctuations draw attention to and enhance what would otherwise be a mediated experience of these dynamic atmospheric effects as they are represented on canvas, without competing with or contradicting Constable’s highly calculated distribution of light. The amount of cloud cover above, varying over the course of the day, affects the light levels and shadows in the paintings on display and animates conditions that are otherwise left static by the medium of paint. One could conceive of Constable designing the fourth-floor galleries himself in an effort to remind the viewer of the ephemeral moments of his paintings’ conception. Constable thought a great deal about light in the process of painting, above and beyond the issue of chiaroscuro. Natural light was of such importance to him that he made a point of painting only during the day, reserving the evenings for drawing and reading, and he lamented the smoggy skies of his urban environs, longing for the pristine light of the English countryside: ‘I paint by all the daylight we have, and that is little enough’, he declared around 1801, further grumbling ‘I sometimes see the sky, but imagine to yourself how a pearl must look through a burnt glass.’34 In turn, Constable always selected his studios based on the light source. In his studio at 50 Rathbone Place in London, where he moved in 1800, he painted by ‘the light from the upper part of the middle window’ in order to get his ‘easel in a good situation.’35 Or in his studio at 35 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, where he moved in 1822, the light source was a high window facing north.36 In 1825 Constable had new shutters installed, noting that they ‘add very much to [the painting room] in the evening – and I can accommodate my light a great deal better.’37 Constable’s concern with natural light levels probably stemmed from his practice of painting out-of-doors in his native Suffolk with an acute attention to time of day and atmospheric conditions.38 He abhorred painting by candlelight, and, as conservator Sarah Cove has proposed, he probably went so far as to work on each painting at the same time of day so as to maintain a certain consistency with light and shadow.39 His attention to studio lighting surely also reflects his deep interest in capturing light naturalistically on canvas. In a letter to Fisher from 1824, Constable wrote of one of his landscapes on exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘its light cannot be put out, because it is the light of nature, the mother of all that is valuable in poetry, painting, or any thing else where an appeal to the soul is required . . . Perhaps the sacrifices I make for lightness and brightness are too great, but these things are the essence of landscape . . .’40 Constable prided himself on his ability to represent light as it appears in nature, which he held to be the ultimate objective of landscape painting, and he was acutely aware that its faithful representation was dependent on a good natural light source. Constable was equally concerned with the source of light in the display of his work. Cove has noted that he was conscious of the positive and negative effects brought by different lighting on the appearance of his work and, in keeping with his generation, he wished for his paintings to be viewed in the same light conditions under which they were created.41 In 1826 he wrote to a potential client, ‘You see my little picture to a disadvantage, as the day is dark.’42 In his correspondence with Constable, Fisher pointed to the variable appearance of Constable’s work depending on the light in which it was displayed: ‘The Cathedral looks splendidly over the chimney piece. The picture requires a room full of light. Its internal splendor comes out in all its power . . . The only criticism I pass on it, is, that it does not go out well with the day. The light is of an unpleasant shape [sic] by dusk.’43 Fisher also spoke specifically about the effects of light on the display of Constable’s six-footers. The White Horse (1819, Frick Collection, New York) landed in Fisher’s collection, a painting that he ‘hung on a level with the eye . . . in a western side light, right for the light in the picture.’44 In 1822, Fisher comparably noted of Stratford Mill, which he saw on display in John Tinney’s drawing room in Salisbury, ‘The light on your picture is excellent, it receives the South sun, standing on the Western wall . . . it puts out all the other pictures & attracts general attention & will do you much service.’45 Both paintings were installed with side lighting, which Fisher viewed as optimal: for The White Horse the window’s position is not explicitly indicated, but it allegedly followed the light in the picture, whereas Stratford Mill was illuminated from the left, also the source of daylight in the painting. Whether or not these lighting conditions replicate the light source under which the paintings were created cannot be ascertained, for Constable was working out of his studio at No. 1 Keppel Street, Russell Square, at this time and there are no records of how he situated his easel in this space. Nonetheless, Constable expressed a preference for side lighting from the north, so it is probable that he would have painted from this angle if the studio layout permitted. Constable’s sketch for Stratford Mill has only once been installed with illumination from the left in the ycba, namely, when it took the place usually occupied by J. M. W. Turner’s Dort (1818) upon the latter’s loan to an exhibition in London in 2007 (Fig. 6). In both the current and preceding installations of Constable’s work in the ycba, the sketch was not displayed adjacent to a window and its illumination came primarily from a skylight. When this work was created Constable was producing some finished pictures on Hampstead Heath in open air with light from above, but his full-size sketches created in preparation for his six-foot canvases of Suffolk scenery were more likely studio pieces executed in London. Moreover, the installation of Stratford Mill in New Haven generally does not follow the original context of the sketch’s creation or the finished picture’s display. But the composition is based on another small oil sketch executed ‘on the spot’ on 17 August 1811 (oil on board, 18.3 x 14.5 cm, private collection).46 The loose, expressive brushwork of the full-size sketch maintains the aesthetic of his swift transcription of nature, particularly through its flickering light effects, an aesthetic that he hoped would carry over in the final painting. Kahn’s architecture implicitly calls attention to the work’s conceptual origins out-of-doors amidst fugitive atmospheric conditions through the constant presence of the sky in the fourth floor, of which the viewer is made aware through fluctuations of light and subtle colour variation. Fig. 6. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill, August 2007, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 6. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill, August 2007, Yale Center for British Art. In Constable’s case, the compelling relationship between Kahn’s architecture and his cloud formations is serendipitous. Although Kahn was surely conscious of the interplay between the source of light in the museum and that in the pictures themselves, whether he thought specifically about landscape is speculative. Nonetheless, historical lighting conditions have informed the installation of at least one work at the ycba. Since the building’s inception, Turner’s Dort (Fig. 7) has been strategically placed in the north-eastern corner adjacent to a large window, in part to mimic its illumination from the left as it was placed above the fireplace in the drawing room of its original owner, Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, from 1818 until its purchase by Paul Mellon in 1966. A watercolour by Turner documents the placement of his painting at Farnley Hall (Fig. 8). Dort’s position in the ycba has since become the stuff of legend, and in the 2016 reinstallation its position remains unchanged. Although there are no records that suggest the space was conceived to accommodate specific works of art, but rather the collection as a whole, the building and Dort have almost evolved a causal relationship, rewriting the institution’s history back in time.47 Turner’s personal gallery in fact had top lighting,48 suggesting that he would have preferred Dort to be illuminated from above. Nonetheless, capitalizing on the building’s natural light in Dort’s installation directly enhances the effects of the painting. Dort’s placement by the window not only mimics its original display context at Farnley Hall but also Turner’s light source in the painting, which appears to come from the left. The whole painting is essentially a study in the expressive properties of light. Reflecting off of the still, specular surface of the water, this light ‘almost puts your eyes out’, as Henry Thomson related to Farington in 1818.49 No other painting in the collection has evolved such a mythical status in relation to Kahn’s architecture, yet the way that changes in natural light transform the space from moment to moment has an equally compelling effect on other works in the collection. Fig. 7. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed, 1818, oil on canvas, 157.5 x 233.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Fig. 7. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed, 1818, oil on canvas, 157.5 x 233.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Fig. 8. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Farnley Hall: The Drawing Room, 1818, watercolour, private collection. Fig. 8. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Farnley Hall: The Drawing Room, 1818, watercolour, private collection. Architecturally, the ycba offers an important corrective to the hackneyed idea that museums institutionalize art. The white cube is often accused of alienating the work of art from its original context of display and, respectively, distancing it from the artist’s intended meaning. Museum sceptics, as art historian and critic David Carrier calls them, argue that works of art are displaced and ultimately destroyed by the museum.50 With this reasoning, museums cause works of art to lose their power rather than providing unmediated access to the past. As early as 1861, the French art critic Théophile Thoré lamented that ‘Museums are no more than cemeteries of art, catacombs in which the remains of what were once living things are arranged in sepulchral promiscuity.’51 However, there are powerful moments in which the modern museum can in fact inflect the historical context of a work’s display and even draw attention to the original conditions of its making. Museums are never neutral spaces, and thinking in terms of disinterested and detached viewing makes it impossible to comprehend them. The architecture of the museum, as the container of art objects, plays an essential role in how they are perceived and understood. To use Michaela Giebelhausen’s words, ‘the architecture is the museum: it is precisely the architectural configuration that gives the museum meaning. The architecture determines the viewing conditions both conceptually and physically. It not only frames the exhibits but also shapes our visitor experience.’52 In the case of the ycba, the architecture links the visitor to the outside world, to the time of day, the change of seasons, and the weather, viewing conditions that are particularly suited to the experience of landscape. Spontaneous fluctuations in natural light leave visitors with the impression that, in paintings such as Stratford Mill, the sun is flickering through the clouds. These clouds envelop the viewer: they are not only before you as they are represented in the landscape, or beside you in the sequence of cloud studies, but also above you. They cast shadows upon Constable’s England and upon every museum patron. Constable surely would have been pleased with the immersive effect of the ycba’s installation, even if he did not intend his sketches to be exhibited. Absorption was an effect to which landscape painters generally aspired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.53 Traditionally, artists transported viewers imaginatively into the depicted scene by simulating depth through a meandering path or river, or, in Constable’s and Turner’s cases, by exploiting large-scale canvases that distract from anything beyond their frames.54 The ycba contributes to this imperative, offering an instance in which modern architecture strengthens, even facilitates, the viewer’s absorption into the painted landscape. With its canvas walls, open sight lines, and variable light effects, Kahn’s modern structure enters into a meaningful dialogue with Constable’s skies. The space accents the origins of his skies in open-air sketching and recording fluctuations of atmosphere and light, and offers conditions in which those effects subtly transgress the picture’s frame. The protean viewing experience offered by the ycba opens up new ways of understanding the shifting practices of major landscape painters in the early nineteenth century and, more broadly, the history of museum display. Acknowledgements I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to the staff at the Yale Center for British Art for listening to a version of this paper and offering feedback during a research lunch held in December 2014. I am particularly indebted to Jules Prown, Cassandra Albinson, and the external reviewer for reading drafts of this essay, and to Amy Meyers, Matthew Hargraves, Mark Aronson, Eleanor Hughes, and Damian Taylor for sharing their ideas and expertise on the subject. Notes and references 1 The installation has changed since this essay was written. The collection was rehung in 2016, but Constable’s Stratford Mill remains in a bay with a selection of cloud studies on the fourth floor and the visual effect is similar. 2 See, for instance, T. Wilcox, ‘Keeping time: clouds and chronometry in Constable’s major landscapes’, in E. Morris (ed.), Constable’s Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (Edinburgh; Liverpool, 2000), pp. 161–9; J. E. Thornes, John Constable’s Skies: A Fusion of Art and Science (Birmingham, 1999). 3 As cited in Wilcox, op. cit. (note 2), p. 164. 4 R. B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. vi: The Fishers (Ipswich, 1968), p. 77. 5 T. Forster, Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena (London, 1815), p. 19. 6 As cited in Thornes, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 39, 72. 7 Thornes, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 39, 72–3; G. Reynolds, Constable: The Natural Painter (St Albans, 1976), p. 83. 8 Wilcox, op. cit. (note 2), p. 166. 9 C. R. Leslie (ed.), Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, composed Chiefly of his Letters (London, 1951), p. 94. 10 Based on the notations on the reverse of Constable’s sky studies, Thornes has suggested that their chief purpose was to perfect the specific effects of the noon sky for the artist’s six-footers. J. E. Thornes, ‘Constable’s meteorological understanding and his painting of skies’, in E. Morris (ed.), Constable’s Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (Edinburgh; Liverpool, 2000), p. 157. 11 R. B. Beckett, ed., John Constable’s Discourses (Ipswich, 1970), p. 14. 12 P. C. Loud, The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn (Durham and London, 1989), p. 179. 13 J. D. Prown, The Architecture of the Yale Center for British Art: Published on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Yale Center for British Art, 2nd edn (New Haven, 1982), p. 15. 14 Loud, op. cit. (note 12), p. 183. 15 Loud, op. cit. (note 12), p. 199. 16 M. Tanteri, ‘Two skylights’, in D. Neumann (ed.), The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture (New Haven, 2010), p. 110; Prown, op. cit. (note 13), p. 42. 17 Tanteri, op. cit. (note 16), p. 113; Prown, op. cit. (note 13), p. 42. 18 On the make-up of this diffusive material see Tanteri, op. cit. (note 16), pp. 113–14, and Prown, op. cit. (note 13), p. 44. 19 Loud, op. cit. (note 12), pp. 206–7. 20 M. Compton, ‘The architecture of daylight’, in G. Waterfield (ed.), Palaces of Art: Art Galleries in Britain, 1790–1990, exh. cat. Dulwich Picture Gallery (London, 1991), pp. 37, 47 note 2. 21 For Hirt’s remarks see C. M. Vogtherr, ‘Kunstgenuss versus Kunstwissenschaft: Berliner Museumskonzeptionen bis 1830’, in A. Joachimides et al. (eds.), Museumsinszenierungen: zur Geschichte der Institution des Kunstmuseums (Dresden, 1995), pp. 41–2. 22 Ibid., p. 45. 23 C. Eastlake, The National Gallery: Observation on the Unfitness of the Present Building for its Purpose. In a Letter to the Right Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart (London, 1845), pp. 8–14; see also C. Klonk, Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800–2000 (New Haven, 2009), pp. 36–7. 24 A. McClellan, ‘Musée du Louvre, Paris: Palace of the people, art for all’, in C. Paul (ed.), The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and early-19th-century Europe (Los Angeles, 2012), pp. 217–8. 25 A. McClellan, Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley; Los Angeles, 1994), p. 60. 26 C. Cuttle, Light for Art’s Sake: Lighting for Artworks and Museum Displays (Amsterdam and Boston, 2007), pp. 64–5. 27 On the lighting problems with Dulwich and different solutions implemented in the nineteenth century, see Compton, op. cit. (note 20), pp. 40–2. 28 Klonk, op. cit. (note 23), p. 37. 29 As cited in Loud, op. cit. (note 12), p. 215. 30 Neumann, op. cit. (note 16), p. 3. 31 Tanteri, op. cit. (note 16), p. 108. 32 Beckett, op. cit. (note 11), p. 9. 33 E. Morris, ‘Introduction: Constable’s clouds and the chiaroscuro of nature’, in E. Morris (ed.), Constable’s Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (Edinburgh and Liverpool, 2000), p. 10. 34 Leslie, op. cit. (note 9), p. 9. 35 R. B. Beckett, ed., John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. ii: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Ipswich, 1964), p. 25. 36 S. Cove, ‘The painting techniques of Constable’s “Six-Footers”’, in A. Lyles (ed.), Constable: The Great Landscapes (London, 2006), pp. 53–4. 37 Beckett, op. cit. (note 35), p. 402. 38 S. Cove, ‘Constable’s oil painting materials and techniques’, in L. Parris and I. Fleming-Williams (eds), Constable (London, 1991), p. 510. 39 Ibid., p. 510. 40 Leslie, op. cit. (note 9), p. 121. 41 Cove, op. cit. (note 36), p. 54; Cove, op. cit. (note 38), p. 510. 42 R. B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. iv: Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists (Ipswich, 1966), p. 137. 43 Beckett, op. cit. (note 4), p. 222. 44 Leslie, op. cit. (note 9), p. 75. 45 Beckett, op. cit. (note 4), p. 84. 46 On Constable’s preliminary sketches for Stratford Mill, see M. Cormack, ‘Constable’s Stratford Mill’, in J. Wilmerding (ed.), Essays in Honor of Paul Mellon, Collector and Benefactor (Washington, 1986), pp. 74–8. 47 On the relationship between the building and specific works of art see P. Inskip and S. Gee, in association with C. Clement, Louis I. Kahn and the Yale Center for British Art: A Conservation Plan (New Haven, 2011), p. 56. 48 Compton, op. cit. (note 20), p. 47 note 2. 49 J. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. K. Garlick and A. Macintyre (New Haven, 1978–84), vol. 15, p. 5191. 50 See D. Carrier, Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Durham, nc, 2006). 51 As cited in ibid., p. 58. 52 M. Giebelhausen, ‘The architecture is the museum’, in J. Marstine (ed.), New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (Malden, ma, 2006), p. 42. 53 See M. Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1980), pp. 118–32. 54 On the strategic use of scale in the early nineteenth century, particularly for exhibiting landscapes at the Royal Academy, see A. Bermingham, ‘Landscape-o-rama: the exhibition landscape at Somerset House and the rise of popular landscape entertainments’, in D. H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibition at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven and London, 2001), pp. 127–43. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of the History of Collections Oxford University Press

Landscape and the architecture of light: John Constable’s clouds at the Yale Center for British Art

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Abstract

Abstract The manner in which modern museum architecture can inflect the historical conditions of an object’s creation and display is explored in this personal response to the installation of John Constable’s cloud studies at the Yale Center for British Art. Constable created these studies outdoors, often noting the time of day, weather, and season on the verso, suggesting that he was interested in capturing nature’s most ephemeral atmospheric effects. The top-floor galleries of the ycba regularly undergo dramatic fluctuations of light, which are a product of the building’s skylight scheme, designed by Richard Kelly in consultation with Louis Kahn. These changes in natural light levels are often as fleeting as the effects Constable strove to record, reanimating the ephemeral conditions of his sketches’ making. I ground my discussion of this happy marriage between the modern museum and the historical work of art in artistic debates from Constable’s time over lighting effects in the museum and studio. Seated before a full-scale sketch of John Constable’s Stratford Mill (1819–20) (Fig. 1) in the Yale Center for British Art, I am struck by the artist’s ability to capture change and the passage of time. Through subtle suggestions of motion, modestly paced, Constable’s landscape reveals both life and the elements to be in a constant state of flux: the undershot wheel of the mill rotates, as suggested by glistening drops of water cascading over its blades; a boat drifts into pictorial space, propelled by the sluggish current of the river; the various figures engage in activities of both labour and leisure; a breeze rustles through the trees, subtly swaying their branches leftward; and a dead tree leaning over the river bank is juxtaposed with saplings and more mature trees to its left, signalling that nature has her own duration and history parallel to that of civilization. Most of all, though, it is Constable’s billowing clouds that simulate motion and temporality. The light seems to come from the left, illuminating the clouds from above. On the right the clouds are in shadow, and subtle white streaks suggest that rain is falling in the distance. This dense, opaque cluster of cloud cover suppresses the passage of light, but as my eye moves leftward across the canvas following the direction of the wind, the sky begins to clear, allowing the sun’s rays to illuminate the bucolic scene below. By representing an unfolding progression of atmospheric conditions in a single composition, Constable leaves his viewers with the sense that these effects are fugitive occurrences that would dissolve and reappear entirely anew if one were to look away for even a moment. Fig. 1. View largeDownload slide John Constable, Stratford Mill, 1819–20, oil on canvas, 130.8 x 184.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. Fig. 1. View largeDownload slide John Constable, Stratford Mill, 1819–20, oil on canvas, 130.8 x 184.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. The logic behind this sense of movement is deconstructed for the viewer in the same exhibition bay through a sequence of Constable’s pioneering cloud studies (Figs 2–3).1 The selection of cloud studies in the collection of the ycba reflects only a sample of over 100 that Constable created primarily in 1821–22 on Hampstead Heath. Constable recorded nature’s most ephemeral occurrences, often noting the season, time of day, wind direction, and other weather conditions on the back of the studies. Viewed in succession, Constable’s clouds have a proto-cinematic quality, suggesting diegesis. The eye can follow each ephemeral moment, reconstructing the clouds as they coalesce, dissipate, and reconstitute anew. Yet despite Constable’s remarkable achievement, his clouds remain stubbornly static, a limitation of the medium itself. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, May 2012, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, May 2012, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 3. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, January 2015, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 3. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill and various cloud studies, January 2015, Yale Center for British Art. Upon first viewing the ycba’s permanent collection, exhibited on the top (fourth) floor under natural light, I lingered in front of Constable’s sketch of Stratford Mill and the adjacent cloud studies. As I reflected on his expressive cloud formations, the rise of vapour, the condensation of water, and eventual precipitation, something remarkable occurred. The room suddenly darkened and the drama unfolding in Constable’s Suffolk landscape was cast in shadow, as if a stormy cloud had momentarily blocked the sun’s rays, but only for a moment. Within seconds the light in the galleries returned to its usual brightness and I was left with the impression that on Constable’s canvas too the sun was once again able to penetrate the cloud cover. Constable’s experience of observing and transcribing the fleeting effects of the atmosphere had been, belatedly, brought back to life. In this essay, the symbiotic relationship between Louis Kahn’s architecture for the ycba and Constable’s practice of painting skies are explored. Looking to Constable’s reflections on light in his correspondence and their relationship to new ideas and approaches to museum and studio lighting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is argued here that modern museums do not necessarily abstract works of art from the original contexts of their creation and display. Museums can, in fact, shed light on those conditions through the art object’s aesthetic interaction with the architectural space, even if those historical conditions were fundamentally different. Constable’s evocation of narrative through fleeting atmospheric effects has been studied extensively by scholars today, but it was already observed in the artist’s lifetime.2 In 1820, William Carey registered how the varied cloud formations and light levels in Stratford Mill serve as a narrative device: ‘We may suppose it a day after recent rain, and the sky is not yet wholly cleared up. The light upon the clouds is well diffused, and the general effect is powerful and commanding, but it would be still better if the penciling was not too busy and flickered in expressing the motion of the air, in some parts near the horizon.’3 The ephemeral light effects that Carey observes were at the heart of Constable’s project of ‘skying’, a term the latter coined for his practice of painting skyscapes. As the artist noted in a letter to his friend and champion, Archdeacon John Fisher, in 1821, ‘[t]he sky is the “source of light” in nature – and governs every thing. Even our common observations on the weather of every day, are suggested by [the sky] . . .’4 For Constable, the study of the sky was essentially the study of light – the changing appearance of nature in response to direct illumination, or the reflection, or the refraction of sunlight. His investigation of the sky and light involved both theory and practice. He owned and annotated the second edition of the pioneering meteorologist Thomas Forster’s Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena (1815), which discusses the lighting of clouds at length. One passage in Forster’s book, which Constable circled and underlined, particularly resonated with the artist: ‘All clouds are capable of becoming lighter or darker, according to their relative position with respect to the sun.’5 Constable noted in the margin of this passage, ‘as seen opposite or under the sun’.6 Through his researches, Constable became keenly aware of the fact that a cloud’s appearance reflects the observer’s position on the ground as well as the sun’s position in the sky, i.e. the time of day, the season, and the size, variety, and number of clouds, factors that are in constant flux.7 In his painting practice, he documented these changing conditions with particular attention to the effects of light. He created cloud studies at different times of day (although midday occurs with greater frequency) and in a broad spectrum of atmospheric conditions. Inscriptions on the verso point to both immediate and implied conditions, from the precise hour in which the study was made to past and future conditions.8 To the informed meteorological eye, the unstable form of each cloud also signals conditions forwards and backwards in time, as their shape has evolved and will continue to do so based on the wind and other weather factors. Constable’s cloud studies were not directly used for any specific compositions nor were they themselves intended to be framed or publicly displayed, but it is plausible that he conceived them as a sequence, as he sent a group of at least twenty to Fisher.9 To serve his own practice, he may have pinned a number of them to the wall of his studio in order to conceptualize the evolving conditions of the sky that, in compositions such as Stratford Mill, he strove to evoke within a single frame.10 The artist eloquently expressed the narrative element of his skies with the phrase, ‘the natural history – if the expression may be used – of the skies.’11 Although Constable’s ‘skying’ activities yielded an unfolding sequence of cloud and light variations, the viewer’s experience of this effect in the ycba is not, of course, the consequence of any agency on Constable’s part; it is a condition of the building itself. The fluctuations of light in the fourth-floor galleries are the result of Richard Kelly’s calculated lighting scheme – conceived in consultation with Louis Kahn but in its final version designed after the latter’s death – which was created to make the most of natural light. For both visual and philosophical reasons, natural light was a consideration from the building’s inception.12 Jules Prown, inaugural director of the ycba, pointed to the importance of natural light in his preliminary thoughts on the architecture: ‘Daylight is desirable in the exhibition galleries for paintings, curatorial offices, and conservation areas . . . Occasional views of the outside world, whether courtyard or city, add variety and refreshment.’13 Kahn’s design for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, with its vaulted skylights and courtyards, was an important precedent. In his preliminary designs for the ycba, Kahn’s proposal for the roof was comparable, consisting of two longitudinal tunnel vaults with skylights to admit northern light on the fourth-floor galleries, while open courtyards would allow natural light to reach the lower levels.14 As the layout of the top-floor galleries evolved into a series of individual bays, the lighting system changed to separate skylights that recall the lantern skylights of Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, to which we shall return below.15 But the skylights were redesigned once again into a far more complex programme before the building was constructed. In order to maximize the light on cloudy days and equalize the light on sunny days, while avoiding direct sunlight on the walls, Kahn and Kelly arrived at a rectangular grid of skylights with an exterior shading device. The system consists of a combination of fixed louvres, plexi domes, and translucent plastic ‘cassettes’. The louvres are variously spaced and angled in order to regulate the degree of light diffused through each skylight and guarantee a relatively consistent level of light throughout the day and with the change of seasons.16 Kelly’s louvres limit the transmission of northern light – originally advocated by Prown but which Kelly argued has a higher ultraviolet content – and admit eastern, western, and, above all, warm-coloured southern light in order to realize a full spectrum of colour.17 As light is admitted through the louvres, a pattern of sunlight and shadows is created on a diffusing cassette, which then serves as the source of illumination for the paintings.18 Although Kahn died before the lighting system was completed, he had approved the basic structure of the skylights and Kelly’s general concept for diffusing light.19 Kahn and Kelly’s calculated approach to admitting daylight was certainly novel for its day, but skylights were not new to museum architecture. Architects of the earliest art museums were deeply concerned with the effects of natural light on the appearance and reception of paintings. Complex forms of ceiling illumination in museum design and construction date to the late eighteenth century. Debates raged over whether viewing conditions were most favourable when paintings were illuminated from the side (usually from the left) or from above. Most museum keepers agreed that works of art are best displayed in the same lighting conditions under which they were created. In his Mémoire sur la manière d’éclairer la galerie du Louvre (1796), the architect Charles-Axel Guillaumot cited the most common studio lighting as a high northern window, positioned so that light would stream down on to the canvas at an angle of forty-five degrees.20 This model of studio practice is visible in Georg Friedrich Kersting’s portrait of Caspar David Friedrich in his atelier (1812) (Fig. 4). Kersting depicts the artist painting with illumination from the left above eye level. Based on how artists tended to orient themselves while painting in their studios, a number of museum directors and founders advocated side-lit galleries. Aloys Hirt, an archaeologist and professor at the Berlin Academy of the Arts and Sciences, proposed a design in 1798 for the Königliches Museum in Berlin (now the Altes Museum) that called for galleries furnished with ceiling-high windows and a complex shutter system, divided into four sections. The shutters would ensure that the rooms were not only fully illuminated but also that the light could be manipulated and directed to mimic the artist’s studio.21 Gustav Friedrich Waagen, the inaugural director of the museum, likewise advocated for illumination from the left to mirror the working conditions of the artist’s studio, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the eventual architect of the Altes Museum, adhered to this aspect of Hirt’s proposal.22 Schinkel designed the exhibition space so that the collection was displayed in long, narrow galleries, surrounding a rotunda. The rooms were illuminated by windows on the left and had screens projecting from the walls with pictures hanging on either side. Fig. 4. View largeDownload slide Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1812, Oil on canvas, 51 x 40 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Fig. 4. View largeDownload slide Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1812, Oil on canvas, 51 x 40 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Not all museum officials agreed that side illumination was optimal, and some made a case for top lighting. Waagen attempted to persuade Charles Lock Eastlake, an early director of the National Gallery in London, to refurbish the building with side illumination, but Eastlake felt that this lighting scheme did not account for the fact that different paintings might be optimized by different lighting conditions.23 He also held that if side illumination were to be used, the light source should not be in the viewer’s sightline. Eastlake was not alone in his objections. Already in the eighteenth century some collection keepers favoured ceiling illumination. This preference depended in part on the fact that certain major artists designed their studios or galleries to admit light from above, Peter Paul Rubens being an early example, but it was also a strategy to increase wall-space and reduce the problems associated with direct sunlight. Under Louis XVI’s reign, the French minister of fine arts, the Comte d’Angiviller, initiated the conversion of the GrandeGalerie of the Palais du Louvre into an art museum, the plans for which involved installing glazed lanterns. The large windows that lined both sides of the long gallery were deemed to disrupt the continuity of the hang, to take up too much space, and to create glare, shadows, and reflections.24 The cost of the skylights was prohibitive and, initially, the programme for the GrandeGalerie was put on hold and only a lantern for the adjacent Salon Carré was installed in 1789.25 A painting from around 1785 by Hubert Robert, one of the curators put in charge of the space, shows one of the proposed designs for the refurbishment of the GrandeGalerie (Fig. 5). Robert depicts a wide-open gallery filled with light diffused evenly through the space, although in practice, when the lanterns were later built, the light effects were not so consistent. Fig. 5. View largeDownload slide Hubert Robert, The Project for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, 1796, oil on canvas, 112 x 143 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre. Fig. 5. View largeDownload slide Hubert Robert, The Project for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, 1796, oil on canvas, 112 x 143 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre. Among the most important early proponents of top lighting in England was the architect Sir John Soane. Soane is known for his innovative means of admitting daylight into some of the earliest museum spaces. In his own home, left to the nation as Sir John Soane’s Museum, he designed a sophisticated system of lantern and other forms of top lighting.26 Soane constructed a picture gallery in the space that makes especially creative use of top illumination. On the south wall of the gallery, the space opens up into an additional rectangular bay that extends to the lowest level of the house, illuminated by a coloured-glass lantern. In addition to illuminating the sculptural antiquities on display down to the lowest level, the yellow tint of the glass simulates the famous amber light of the Tuscan sun and heightens this effect as it is represented in a series of Italianate paintings that line the walls of the vertical bay. Soane was also enlisted as the architect of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which opened in 1814 and is often identified as the first structure built specifically for the purpose of exhibiting art. His building included a vertical glazed lantern in each room, connected to the gallery walls by a sloped ceiling vault with an opaque top, which was eventually top-glazed to admit more light. In some later galleries, such as those designed by John Taylor in 1886 for the National Gallery in London, light-level issues associated with Soane’s lanterns were resolved with larger monitors and canted glazing. A problem linked with lanterns or monitors was that not enough light reached the walls. Benjamin West’s gallery in Newman Street in 1821, likely designed by J. B. Papworth, avoided this shortcoming with hidden skylights around the perimeter of the ceiling that directed light on to the walls, perhaps inspired by the light effects of panoramas.27 Despite their limitations, Soane’s creative solutions for ceiling illumination became a benchmark for museums across Europe and North America. Leo von Klenze, for instance, proposed similar daylight effects in his design for the Munich Pinakothek, but he went further, striving to reconcile the disagreements over side- and top-lit galleries. He maximized the visual impact of the collection by using skylights to illuminate large paintings displayed in lofty rooms and side lighting for sculpture and cabinet pictures hung in smaller spaces flanking the main galleries.28 In his design for the ycba, Kahn probably took into account the original lighting conditions under which the works of art had been created and exhibited, complementing the scheme of skylights with natural light from side windows, which could be controlled through oak shutters. Prown recounts, ‘the first aim in [Kahn’s] exhibit spaces was that paintings and drawings be seen in natural light in the true color seen by the artist. The mood and color of the sky, the time of day, season of the year will be seen.’29 Although Kahn and Kelly’s lighting system was meant to make the viewer conscious of natural light fluctuations out-of-doors, the exterior louvre system was also designed to ensure that the light remains even. Indeed, the architectural historian Dietrich Neumann has noted that Kelly’s crowning achievement in modern architecture was his ability to render ‘the light source itself invisible’.30 While the shading offered by Kelly’s louvres and the diffusion of light through his cassettes certainly obscures the position of the sun and limits direct sunlight, the intermittent rise and fall of light levels within the fourth-floor galleries serve as an abrupt reminder that the light is coming from a natural source, that the sun’s movement across the sky, its changing arc with the passing of each season, and the drifting, coalescing, and dissipating clouds obstruct, reflect, and diffuse the light as it illuminates the gallery space and the paintings on the walls. The architectural lighting consultant Matthew Tanteri has noted that not just weather patterns but also factors such as latitude, the colour and size of surrounding buildings, and even local flora affect the viewer’s experience.31 Given that New Haven is a coastal town, in which overcast or cloudy skies are common, clouds are perhaps the single most important variable that influences the level of natural light in the ycba. For the work of an artist such as Constable, who was intent on capturing and representing changing atmospheric effects, the fluctuations of light on the fourth floor are the exhibition space’s most remarkable feature. Yet in Constable’s landscapes there is a hierarchy of light at play that is not repeated in Kahn’s architecture because, even as the light varies, it is equalized by Kelly’s louvres and cassettes. The building’s democratization of light is, however, complementary in an important way. At the heart of Constable’s approach to landscape was the ‘chiaroscuro of nature’, which he understood as ‘the influence of light and shadow upon Landscape’, effects that are not fixed in time and space.32 Clouds played a fundamental role in Constable’s approach to chiaroscuro because the degree to which they block the sun determines how light falls and shadows are cast.33Stratford Mill shows his concern for how different cloud formations affect the chiaroscuro of nature through the variable contrast between light and shade in the vegetation and reflections on the water. In the ycba galleries, light fluctuations draw attention to and enhance what would otherwise be a mediated experience of these dynamic atmospheric effects as they are represented on canvas, without competing with or contradicting Constable’s highly calculated distribution of light. The amount of cloud cover above, varying over the course of the day, affects the light levels and shadows in the paintings on display and animates conditions that are otherwise left static by the medium of paint. One could conceive of Constable designing the fourth-floor galleries himself in an effort to remind the viewer of the ephemeral moments of his paintings’ conception. Constable thought a great deal about light in the process of painting, above and beyond the issue of chiaroscuro. Natural light was of such importance to him that he made a point of painting only during the day, reserving the evenings for drawing and reading, and he lamented the smoggy skies of his urban environs, longing for the pristine light of the English countryside: ‘I paint by all the daylight we have, and that is little enough’, he declared around 1801, further grumbling ‘I sometimes see the sky, but imagine to yourself how a pearl must look through a burnt glass.’34 In turn, Constable always selected his studios based on the light source. In his studio at 50 Rathbone Place in London, where he moved in 1800, he painted by ‘the light from the upper part of the middle window’ in order to get his ‘easel in a good situation.’35 Or in his studio at 35 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, where he moved in 1822, the light source was a high window facing north.36 In 1825 Constable had new shutters installed, noting that they ‘add very much to [the painting room] in the evening – and I can accommodate my light a great deal better.’37 Constable’s concern with natural light levels probably stemmed from his practice of painting out-of-doors in his native Suffolk with an acute attention to time of day and atmospheric conditions.38 He abhorred painting by candlelight, and, as conservator Sarah Cove has proposed, he probably went so far as to work on each painting at the same time of day so as to maintain a certain consistency with light and shadow.39 His attention to studio lighting surely also reflects his deep interest in capturing light naturalistically on canvas. In a letter to Fisher from 1824, Constable wrote of one of his landscapes on exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘its light cannot be put out, because it is the light of nature, the mother of all that is valuable in poetry, painting, or any thing else where an appeal to the soul is required . . . Perhaps the sacrifices I make for lightness and brightness are too great, but these things are the essence of landscape . . .’40 Constable prided himself on his ability to represent light as it appears in nature, which he held to be the ultimate objective of landscape painting, and he was acutely aware that its faithful representation was dependent on a good natural light source. Constable was equally concerned with the source of light in the display of his work. Cove has noted that he was conscious of the positive and negative effects brought by different lighting on the appearance of his work and, in keeping with his generation, he wished for his paintings to be viewed in the same light conditions under which they were created.41 In 1826 he wrote to a potential client, ‘You see my little picture to a disadvantage, as the day is dark.’42 In his correspondence with Constable, Fisher pointed to the variable appearance of Constable’s work depending on the light in which it was displayed: ‘The Cathedral looks splendidly over the chimney piece. The picture requires a room full of light. Its internal splendor comes out in all its power . . . The only criticism I pass on it, is, that it does not go out well with the day. The light is of an unpleasant shape [sic] by dusk.’43 Fisher also spoke specifically about the effects of light on the display of Constable’s six-footers. The White Horse (1819, Frick Collection, New York) landed in Fisher’s collection, a painting that he ‘hung on a level with the eye . . . in a western side light, right for the light in the picture.’44 In 1822, Fisher comparably noted of Stratford Mill, which he saw on display in John Tinney’s drawing room in Salisbury, ‘The light on your picture is excellent, it receives the South sun, standing on the Western wall . . . it puts out all the other pictures & attracts general attention & will do you much service.’45 Both paintings were installed with side lighting, which Fisher viewed as optimal: for The White Horse the window’s position is not explicitly indicated, but it allegedly followed the light in the picture, whereas Stratford Mill was illuminated from the left, also the source of daylight in the painting. Whether or not these lighting conditions replicate the light source under which the paintings were created cannot be ascertained, for Constable was working out of his studio at No. 1 Keppel Street, Russell Square, at this time and there are no records of how he situated his easel in this space. Nonetheless, Constable expressed a preference for side lighting from the north, so it is probable that he would have painted from this angle if the studio layout permitted. Constable’s sketch for Stratford Mill has only once been installed with illumination from the left in the ycba, namely, when it took the place usually occupied by J. M. W. Turner’s Dort (1818) upon the latter’s loan to an exhibition in London in 2007 (Fig. 6). In both the current and preceding installations of Constable’s work in the ycba, the sketch was not displayed adjacent to a window and its illumination came primarily from a skylight. When this work was created Constable was producing some finished pictures on Hampstead Heath in open air with light from above, but his full-size sketches created in preparation for his six-foot canvases of Suffolk scenery were more likely studio pieces executed in London. Moreover, the installation of Stratford Mill in New Haven generally does not follow the original context of the sketch’s creation or the finished picture’s display. But the composition is based on another small oil sketch executed ‘on the spot’ on 17 August 1811 (oil on board, 18.3 x 14.5 cm, private collection).46 The loose, expressive brushwork of the full-size sketch maintains the aesthetic of his swift transcription of nature, particularly through its flickering light effects, an aesthetic that he hoped would carry over in the final painting. Kahn’s architecture implicitly calls attention to the work’s conceptual origins out-of-doors amidst fugitive atmospheric conditions through the constant presence of the sky in the fourth floor, of which the viewer is made aware through fluctuations of light and subtle colour variation. Fig. 6. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill, August 2007, Yale Center for British Art. Fig. 6. View largeDownload slide Installation of John Constable’s Stratford Mill, August 2007, Yale Center for British Art. In Constable’s case, the compelling relationship between Kahn’s architecture and his cloud formations is serendipitous. Although Kahn was surely conscious of the interplay between the source of light in the museum and that in the pictures themselves, whether he thought specifically about landscape is speculative. Nonetheless, historical lighting conditions have informed the installation of at least one work at the ycba. Since the building’s inception, Turner’s Dort (Fig. 7) has been strategically placed in the north-eastern corner adjacent to a large window, in part to mimic its illumination from the left as it was placed above the fireplace in the drawing room of its original owner, Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, from 1818 until its purchase by Paul Mellon in 1966. A watercolour by Turner documents the placement of his painting at Farnley Hall (Fig. 8). Dort’s position in the ycba has since become the stuff of legend, and in the 2016 reinstallation its position remains unchanged. Although there are no records that suggest the space was conceived to accommodate specific works of art, but rather the collection as a whole, the building and Dort have almost evolved a causal relationship, rewriting the institution’s history back in time.47 Turner’s personal gallery in fact had top lighting,48 suggesting that he would have preferred Dort to be illuminated from above. Nonetheless, capitalizing on the building’s natural light in Dort’s installation directly enhances the effects of the painting. Dort’s placement by the window not only mimics its original display context at Farnley Hall but also Turner’s light source in the painting, which appears to come from the left. The whole painting is essentially a study in the expressive properties of light. Reflecting off of the still, specular surface of the water, this light ‘almost puts your eyes out’, as Henry Thomson related to Farington in 1818.49 No other painting in the collection has evolved such a mythical status in relation to Kahn’s architecture, yet the way that changes in natural light transform the space from moment to moment has an equally compelling effect on other works in the collection. Fig. 7. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed, 1818, oil on canvas, 157.5 x 233.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Fig. 7. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed, 1818, oil on canvas, 157.5 x 233.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Fig. 8. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Farnley Hall: The Drawing Room, 1818, watercolour, private collection. Fig. 8. View largeDownload slide Joseph Mallord William Turner, Farnley Hall: The Drawing Room, 1818, watercolour, private collection. Architecturally, the ycba offers an important corrective to the hackneyed idea that museums institutionalize art. The white cube is often accused of alienating the work of art from its original context of display and, respectively, distancing it from the artist’s intended meaning. Museum sceptics, as art historian and critic David Carrier calls them, argue that works of art are displaced and ultimately destroyed by the museum.50 With this reasoning, museums cause works of art to lose their power rather than providing unmediated access to the past. As early as 1861, the French art critic Théophile Thoré lamented that ‘Museums are no more than cemeteries of art, catacombs in which the remains of what were once living things are arranged in sepulchral promiscuity.’51 However, there are powerful moments in which the modern museum can in fact inflect the historical context of a work’s display and even draw attention to the original conditions of its making. Museums are never neutral spaces, and thinking in terms of disinterested and detached viewing makes it impossible to comprehend them. The architecture of the museum, as the container of art objects, plays an essential role in how they are perceived and understood. To use Michaela Giebelhausen’s words, ‘the architecture is the museum: it is precisely the architectural configuration that gives the museum meaning. The architecture determines the viewing conditions both conceptually and physically. It not only frames the exhibits but also shapes our visitor experience.’52 In the case of the ycba, the architecture links the visitor to the outside world, to the time of day, the change of seasons, and the weather, viewing conditions that are particularly suited to the experience of landscape. Spontaneous fluctuations in natural light leave visitors with the impression that, in paintings such as Stratford Mill, the sun is flickering through the clouds. These clouds envelop the viewer: they are not only before you as they are represented in the landscape, or beside you in the sequence of cloud studies, but also above you. They cast shadows upon Constable’s England and upon every museum patron. Constable surely would have been pleased with the immersive effect of the ycba’s installation, even if he did not intend his sketches to be exhibited. Absorption was an effect to which landscape painters generally aspired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.53 Traditionally, artists transported viewers imaginatively into the depicted scene by simulating depth through a meandering path or river, or, in Constable’s and Turner’s cases, by exploiting large-scale canvases that distract from anything beyond their frames.54 The ycba contributes to this imperative, offering an instance in which modern architecture strengthens, even facilitates, the viewer’s absorption into the painted landscape. With its canvas walls, open sight lines, and variable light effects, Kahn’s modern structure enters into a meaningful dialogue with Constable’s skies. The space accents the origins of his skies in open-air sketching and recording fluctuations of atmosphere and light, and offers conditions in which those effects subtly transgress the picture’s frame. The protean viewing experience offered by the ycba opens up new ways of understanding the shifting practices of major landscape painters in the early nineteenth century and, more broadly, the history of museum display. Acknowledgements I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to the staff at the Yale Center for British Art for listening to a version of this paper and offering feedback during a research lunch held in December 2014. I am particularly indebted to Jules Prown, Cassandra Albinson, and the external reviewer for reading drafts of this essay, and to Amy Meyers, Matthew Hargraves, Mark Aronson, Eleanor Hughes, and Damian Taylor for sharing their ideas and expertise on the subject. Notes and references 1 The installation has changed since this essay was written. The collection was rehung in 2016, but Constable’s Stratford Mill remains in a bay with a selection of cloud studies on the fourth floor and the visual effect is similar. 2 See, for instance, T. Wilcox, ‘Keeping time: clouds and chronometry in Constable’s major landscapes’, in E. Morris (ed.), Constable’s Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (Edinburgh; Liverpool, 2000), pp. 161–9; J. E. Thornes, John Constable’s Skies: A Fusion of Art and Science (Birmingham, 1999). 3 As cited in Wilcox, op. cit. (note 2), p. 164. 4 R. B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. vi: The Fishers (Ipswich, 1968), p. 77. 5 T. Forster, Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena (London, 1815), p. 19. 6 As cited in Thornes, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 39, 72. 7 Thornes, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 39, 72–3; G. Reynolds, Constable: The Natural Painter (St Albans, 1976), p. 83. 8 Wilcox, op. cit. (note 2), p. 166. 9 C. R. Leslie (ed.), Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, composed Chiefly of his Letters (London, 1951), p. 94. 10 Based on the notations on the reverse of Constable’s sky studies, Thornes has suggested that their chief purpose was to perfect the specific effects of the noon sky for the artist’s six-footers. J. E. Thornes, ‘Constable’s meteorological understanding and his painting of skies’, in E. Morris (ed.), Constable’s Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (Edinburgh; Liverpool, 2000), p. 157. 11 R. B. Beckett, ed., John Constable’s Discourses (Ipswich, 1970), p. 14. 12 P. C. Loud, The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn (Durham and London, 1989), p. 179. 13 J. D. Prown, The Architecture of the Yale Center for British Art: Published on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Yale Center for British Art, 2nd edn (New Haven, 1982), p. 15. 14 Loud, op. cit. (note 12), p. 183. 15 Loud, op. cit. (note 12), p. 199. 16 M. Tanteri, ‘Two skylights’, in D. Neumann (ed.), The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture (New Haven, 2010), p. 110; Prown, op. cit. (note 13), p. 42. 17 Tanteri, op. cit. (note 16), p. 113; Prown, op. cit. (note 13), p. 42. 18 On the make-up of this diffusive material see Tanteri, op. cit. (note 16), pp. 113–14, and Prown, op. cit. (note 13), p. 44. 19 Loud, op. cit. (note 12), pp. 206–7. 20 M. Compton, ‘The architecture of daylight’, in G. Waterfield (ed.), Palaces of Art: Art Galleries in Britain, 1790–1990, exh. cat. Dulwich Picture Gallery (London, 1991), pp. 37, 47 note 2. 21 For Hirt’s remarks see C. M. Vogtherr, ‘Kunstgenuss versus Kunstwissenschaft: Berliner Museumskonzeptionen bis 1830’, in A. Joachimides et al. (eds.), Museumsinszenierungen: zur Geschichte der Institution des Kunstmuseums (Dresden, 1995), pp. 41–2. 22 Ibid., p. 45. 23 C. Eastlake, The National Gallery: Observation on the Unfitness of the Present Building for its Purpose. In a Letter to the Right Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart (London, 1845), pp. 8–14; see also C. Klonk, Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800–2000 (New Haven, 2009), pp. 36–7. 24 A. McClellan, ‘Musée du Louvre, Paris: Palace of the people, art for all’, in C. Paul (ed.), The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and early-19th-century Europe (Los Angeles, 2012), pp. 217–8. 25 A. McClellan, Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley; Los Angeles, 1994), p. 60. 26 C. Cuttle, Light for Art’s Sake: Lighting for Artworks and Museum Displays (Amsterdam and Boston, 2007), pp. 64–5. 27 On the lighting problems with Dulwich and different solutions implemented in the nineteenth century, see Compton, op. cit. (note 20), pp. 40–2. 28 Klonk, op. cit. (note 23), p. 37. 29 As cited in Loud, op. cit. (note 12), p. 215. 30 Neumann, op. cit. (note 16), p. 3. 31 Tanteri, op. cit. (note 16), p. 108. 32 Beckett, op. cit. (note 11), p. 9. 33 E. Morris, ‘Introduction: Constable’s clouds and the chiaroscuro of nature’, in E. Morris (ed.), Constable’s Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (Edinburgh and Liverpool, 2000), p. 10. 34 Leslie, op. cit. (note 9), p. 9. 35 R. B. Beckett, ed., John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. ii: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Ipswich, 1964), p. 25. 36 S. Cove, ‘The painting techniques of Constable’s “Six-Footers”’, in A. Lyles (ed.), Constable: The Great Landscapes (London, 2006), pp. 53–4. 37 Beckett, op. cit. (note 35), p. 402. 38 S. Cove, ‘Constable’s oil painting materials and techniques’, in L. Parris and I. Fleming-Williams (eds), Constable (London, 1991), p. 510. 39 Ibid., p. 510. 40 Leslie, op. cit. (note 9), p. 121. 41 Cove, op. cit. (note 36), p. 54; Cove, op. cit. (note 38), p. 510. 42 R. B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. iv: Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists (Ipswich, 1966), p. 137. 43 Beckett, op. cit. (note 4), p. 222. 44 Leslie, op. cit. (note 9), p. 75. 45 Beckett, op. cit. (note 4), p. 84. 46 On Constable’s preliminary sketches for Stratford Mill, see M. Cormack, ‘Constable’s Stratford Mill’, in J. Wilmerding (ed.), Essays in Honor of Paul Mellon, Collector and Benefactor (Washington, 1986), pp. 74–8. 47 On the relationship between the building and specific works of art see P. Inskip and S. Gee, in association with C. Clement, Louis I. Kahn and the Yale Center for British Art: A Conservation Plan (New Haven, 2011), p. 56. 48 Compton, op. cit. (note 20), p. 47 note 2. 49 J. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. K. Garlick and A. Macintyre (New Haven, 1978–84), vol. 15, p. 5191. 50 See D. Carrier, Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Durham, nc, 2006). 51 As cited in ibid., p. 58. 52 M. Giebelhausen, ‘The architecture is the museum’, in J. Marstine (ed.), New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (Malden, ma, 2006), p. 42. 53 See M. Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1980), pp. 118–32. 54 On the strategic use of scale in the early nineteenth century, particularly for exhibiting landscapes at the Royal Academy, see A. Bermingham, ‘Landscape-o-rama: the exhibition landscape at Somerset House and the rise of popular landscape entertainments’, in D. H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibition at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven and London, 2001), pp. 127–43. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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Journal of the History of CollectionsOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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