Clouds

Chairman of European Paintings Keith Christiansen shares his obsession with clouds.

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My children would say, 'Oh, look, Dad, it's God!'

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  • Keith Christiansen
    1280852
  • Sky as canvas: Abstraction out the Prado, Spain  |  Photography by Keith Christiansen
    1280960
  • Measuring the sky over The Beresford, Upper West Side, New York  |  Photography by Keith Christiansen
    1280960
  • Baroque sky over Southampton, New York  |  Photography by Keith Christiansen
    1280960
  • Expressionist sunset over New Jersey, from my apartment, Upper West Side, New York  |  Photography by Keith Christiansen
    1280960
  • View of Toledo at 103rd and Broadway, Upper West Side, New York  |  Photography by Keith Christiansen
    1280960
  • View of Toledo  |  ca. 1597  |  El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek)  |  Oil on canvas  |  H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.6)
    9141024
  • Wheat Fields  |  ca. 1670  |  Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.623)
    1280981
  • The Calm Sea  |  1869  |  Gustave Courbet (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.566)
    12631024
  • The Glorification of the Royal Hungarian Saints  |  ca. 1772  |  Franz Anton Maulbertsch (Austrian)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Purchase, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, 2007 (2007.28)
    7321024
  • A Mountainous Landscape with a Waterfall  |  probably ca. 1600  |  Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Flemish)  |  Oil on wood  |  Purchase, Anonymous Gift, L. H. P. Klotz and George T. Delacorte Jr. Gifts; Rogers, Marquand, Charles B. Curtis, and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds; and Gift of Eugen Boross and Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, by exchange, 1983 (1983.452)
    1280727
  • Samson Captured by the Philistines  |  1619  |  Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, Ferrarese)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1984 (1984.459.2)
    12711024
  • Allegory of the Planets and Continents  |  1752  |  Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, Venetian)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Inscribed (sides): EVROPA / AFRICÆ / AMERICA / ASIA
      |  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977 (1977.1.3)
    7701024
  • Virgin and Child with Angels  |  ca. 1515  |  Bernard van Orley (Netherlandish)  |  Oil on wood  |  Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.632)
    8351024
  • Virgin and Child with Angels  |  ca. 1515  |  Bernard van Orley (Netherlandish)  |  Oil on wood  |  Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.632)
    1280579
  • Passing Rains, Stonington, Maine  |  1919  |  John Marin (American)  |  Watercolor and graphite on paper  |  Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.70.119a, b)  |  © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    11731024
  • Sunset Sky  |  ca. 1872  |  John Frederick Kensett (American)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Gift of Thomas Kensett, 1874 (74.30)
    1280794
  • The Coronation of the Virgin  |  after 1595  |  Annibale Carracci (Italian, Bolognese)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Purchase, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), by exchange, and Dr. and Mrs. Manuel Porter and sons Gift, in honor of Mrs. Sarah Porter, 1971 (1971.155)
    12331024
  • Wheat Field with Cypresses  |  1889  |  Vincent van Gogh (Dutch)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1993 (1993.132)
    12801015
  • Mountain Landscape  |  n.d.  |  Camille Corot (French)  |  Oil on paper laid down on canvas  |  Thaw Collection, Jointly Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009 (2009.400.28)
    1280652
  • Keith Christiansen
    1280852
  • My name is Keith Christiansen. I'm the chairman of the department of European paintings, but basically just a frustrated curator. And my topic is "Clouds" because I've become crazy about clouds. When I see a

  • spectacular sky, something that really grabs me and takes me out of myself, I feel compelled to take a photograph of it. It's not

  • a record of a place I've been to, rather an emotion that I've felt, standing before it. I've

  • always loved to lie on my back and stare up at the sky. And you get these constant shifts of light, forms moving, different perceptions of space.

  • Even the greatest coloristic aberrations could not surpass the aberration that nature wreaked on herself. One day

  • when I arrived a few blocks away from where I live, between the cornices of the buildings was this extraordinary sky and it was a true El Greco experience. And I realized

  • how real that sky behind the View of Toledo is. That it's not simply an arbitrary expressionist sky, but it's a particular moment that El Greco had internalized.

  • Artists use clouds to give a different emotional tone to their pictures, like Ruisdael, when he painted his Wheat Fields. And one of the things that strikes me in that is the kind of ordinary stillness of the lower part and then the extraordinary event taking place overhead. The

  • great beauty of painting is we can return and recapture a particular feeling, a particular idea. In a cloud formation, two minutes later, it's gone.

  • Another day, a storm gathered up, and the clouds that I looked up in that day I thought, "It's a Maulbertsch sky!" Absolute baroque sky. The forms of the clouds, the manipulation of light and the way that light took you out, deep into the depths of space.

  • There are also the sublime skies, when the clouds open up and the rays shine down and it's like heaven. My children--we used to ride in the car--would say, "Oh, look, Dad, it's God!" And it actually has some unearthly visionary quality.

  • I've begun to wonder about how many figurative artists have actually taken inspiration from what they've seen in clouds. The Guercino "Blinding of Sampson" has large forms, colliding together, illuminated by light. And this to me is something very similar to the experience I have with clouds.

  • I like to think of clouds as at the very heart of the creative experience of artists.

  • If you look at Bernard van Orley, it looks very conventional, but if you go up into the sky,

  • you see that the clouds have taken the formation of angels hovering over the Virgin, and the artist is playing his own creative imagination against the infinite creative powers of nature.

  • Rain's a downer, I find. It usually kills the drama. It destroys the sense of depth. It covers any variety of light. And a gray wash is not my idea of beauty.

  • My kids used to always get embarrassed because whenever I'd go out to the playground, as soon as I saw them in the sandbox, I would go lie on a park bench and stare up at the sky. So there's a long history of this. Maybe it's idleness. Or maybe it is age.

  • There is always that association of clouds with heaven, with the divine.

  • Of belonging in some fundamental important way to nature. And I think that

  • reminds us of how much a part of nature we are, that in the end

  • nature does control us.

  • 29.100.6
    View of Toledo, ca. 1597, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek), Oil on canvas H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.6)
  • 14.40.623
    Wheat Fields, ca. 1670, Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch), Oil on canvas Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.623)
  • 29.100.566
    The Calm Sea, 1869, Gustave Courbet (French), Oil on canvas H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.566)
  • 2007.28
    The Glorification of the Royal Hungarian Saints, ca. 1772, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (Austrian), Oil on canvas Purchase, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, 2007 (2007.28)
  • 1983.452
    A Mountainous Landscape with a Waterfall, probably ca. 1600, Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Flemish), Oil on wood Purchase, Anonymous Gift, L. H. P. Klotz and George T. Delacorte Jr. Gifts; Rogers, Marquand, Charles B. Curtis, and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds; and Gift of Eugen Boross and Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, by exchange, 1983 (1983.452)
  • 1984.459.2
    Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, Ferrarese), Oil on canvas Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1984 (1984.459.2)
  • 1977.1.3
    Allegory of the Planets and Continents, 1752, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, Venetian), Oil on canvas, Inscribed (sides): EVROPA / AFRICÆ / AMERICA / ASIA
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977 (1977.1.3)
  • 14.40.632
    Virgin and Child with Angels, ca. 1515, Bernard van Orley (Netherlandish), Oil on wood Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.632)
  • 49.70.119a,b
    Passing Rains, Stonington, Maine, 1919, John Marin (American), Watercolor and graphite on paper Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.70.119a, b) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • 74.30
    Sunset Sky, ca. 1872, John Frederick Kensett (American), Oil on canvas Gift of Thomas Kensett, 1874 (74.30)
  • 1971.155
    The Coronation of the Virgin, after 1595, Annibale Carracci (Italian, Bolognese), Oil on canvas Purchase, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), by exchange, and Dr. and Mrs. Manuel Porter and sons Gift, in honor of Mrs. Sarah Porter, 1971 (1971.155)
  • 1993.132
    Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889, Vincent van Gogh (Dutch), Oil on canvas Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1993 (1993.132)
  • 2009.400.28
    Mountain Landscape, n.d., Camille Corot (French), Oil on paper laid down on canvas Thaw Collection, Jointly Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009 (2009.400.28)
  • View of Toledo, ca. 1597, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek), Oil on canvas H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.6)
    Wheat Fields, ca. 1670, Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch), Oil on canvas Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.623)
    The Calm Sea, 1869, Gustave Courbet (French), Oil on canvas H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.566)
    The Glorification of the Royal Hungarian Saints, ca. 1772, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (Austrian), Oil on canvas Purchase, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, 2007 (2007.28)
    A Mountainous Landscape with a Waterfall, probably ca. 1600, Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Flemish), Oil on wood Purchase, Anonymous Gift, L. H. P. Klotz and George T. Delacorte Jr. Gifts; Rogers, Marquand, Charles B. Curtis, and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds; and Gift of Eugen Boross and Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, by exchange, 1983 (1983.452)
    Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, Ferrarese), Oil on canvas Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1984 (1984.459.2)
    Allegory of the Planets and Continents, 1752, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, Venetian), Oil on canvas, Inscribed (sides): EVROPA / AFRICÆ / AMERICA / ASIA
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977 (1977.1.3)
    Virgin and Child with Angels, ca. 1515, Bernard van Orley (Netherlandish), Oil on wood Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.632)
    Passing Rains, Stonington, Maine, 1919, John Marin (American), Watercolor and graphite on paper Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.70.119a, b) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Sunset Sky, ca. 1872, John Frederick Kensett (American), Oil on canvas Gift of Thomas Kensett, 1874 (74.30)
    The Coronation of the Virgin, after 1595, Annibale Carracci (Italian, Bolognese), Oil on canvas Purchase, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), by exchange, and Dr. and Mrs. Manuel Porter and sons Gift, in honor of Mrs. Sarah Porter, 1971 (1971.155)
    Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889, Vincent van Gogh (Dutch), Oil on canvas Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1993 (1993.132)
    Mountain Landscape, n.d., Camille Corot (French), Oil on paper laid down on canvas Thaw Collection, Jointly Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009 (2009.400.28)
    8000–2000 B.C.
    2000–1000 B.C.
    1000 B.C.–1 A.D.
    1–500 A.D.
    500–1000 A.D.
    1000–1400 A.D.
    1400–1600 A.D.
    1600–1800 A.D.
    1800–1900 A.D.
    1900–Present

    Works of art in order of appearance

    Last Updated: August 19, 2013. Not all works of art in the Museum's collection may be on view on a particular day. For the most accurate location information, please check this page on the day of your visit.

    View of Toledo
    ca. 1597
    El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek)
    Oil on canvas
    H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.6)
    On view: Gallery 611
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Wheat Fields
    ca. 1670
    Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch)
    Oil on canvas
    Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.623)
    On view: Gallery 634
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    The Calm Sea
    1869
    Gustave Courbet (French)
    Oil on canvas
    H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.566)
    On view: Gallery 812
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    The Glorification of the Royal Hungarian Saints
    ca. 1772
    Franz Anton Maulbertsch (Austrian)
    Oil on canvas
    Purchase, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, 2007 (2007.28)
    On view: Gallery 622
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    A Mountainous Landscape with a Waterfall
    probably ca. 1600
    Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Flemish)
    Oil on wood
    Purchase, Anonymous Gift, L. H. P. Klotz and George T. Delacorte Jr. Gifts; Rogers, Marquand, Charles B. Curtis, and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds; and Gift of Eugen Boross and Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, by exchange, 1983 (1983.452)
    On view: Gallery 642
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Samson Captured by the Philistines
    1619
    Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, Ferrarese)
    Oil on canvas
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1984 (1984.459.2)
    On view: Gallery 601
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Allegory of the Planets and Continents
    1752
    Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, Venetian)
    Oil on canvas
    Inscribed (sides): EVROPA / AFRICÆ / AMERICA / ASIA
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977 (1977.1.3)
    On view: Gallery 622
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Virgin and Child with Angels
    ca. 1515
    Bernard van Orley (Netherlandish)
    Oil on wood
    Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.632)
    On view: Gallery 639
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Passing Rains, Stonington, Maine
    1919
    John Marin (American)
    Watercolor and graphite on paper
    Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.70.119a, b)
    © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Not on view
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    Sunset Sky
    ca. 1872
    John Frederick Kensett (American)
    Oil on canvas
    Gift of Thomas Kensett, 1874 (74.30)
    Not on view
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    The Coronation of the Virgin
    after 1595
    Annibale Carracci (Italian, Bolognese)
    Oil on canvas
    Purchase, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), by exchange, and Dr. and Mrs. Manuel Porter and sons Gift, in honor of Mrs. Sarah Porter, 1971 (1971.155)
    On view: Gallery 623
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Wheat Field with Cypresses
    1889
    Vincent van Gogh (Dutch)
    Oil on canvas
    Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1993 (1993.132)
    On view: Gallery 823
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Mountain Landscape
    n.d.
    Camille Corot (French)
    Oil on paper laid down on canvas
    Thaw Collection, Jointly Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009 (2009.400.28)
    On view: Gallery 803
    European PaintingsSecond Floor

    © 2011 The Metropolitan Museum of Art