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Writing to his friend the Revd John Fisher on 23 October 1821, John Constable famously observed that, ‘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’. Inspired by Constable’s statement, Skyscape focuses on aerial rather than terrestrial landscapes in art, selected from the outstanding collection of the Ashmolean Museum.

The exhibition begins with examples of the sky as a stage for allegorical figures, classical and Christian narratives of judgement and divine glory, including superb prints by Dürer and Rembrandt. Subsequently, landscape gained recognition as a discrete artistic genre and with the emergence of meteorology as a scientific discipline in the late eighteenth century, the sky became a subject in its own right. Artists such as J. M. W. Turner and Constable developed innovatory techniques to capture fleeting effects of light and weather with greater precision and apparent spontaneity. Yet the sky retained its capacity for heavenly symbolism and increasingly became a vehicle for emotional expression. Clouds could suggest transience or magnificence, storms might embody threat or drama, while sunrises and sunsets often evoked meditations upon death and renewal. The spiritual and emotive aspect of skies persisted in the work of artists as diverse as Samuel Palmer and John Ruskin in the nineteenth century, and Paul Nash and John Piper in the twentieth.

This is an exciting opportunity to view the art of landscape from a new perspective through a succession of masterpieces that span 500 years of European art.

Image: John Ruskin, Study of Dawn © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford