"Painting should be understood...as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific and mechanical."
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John Constable Signature
"Painting is with me but another word for feeling"
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John Constable Signature
"There is room enough for a natural painter."
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John Constable Signature
"When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture."
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John Constable Signature
"I can only draw what I see."
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Claude Monet Signature
"I'm hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects (grain stacks), but at this time of the year the sun sets so fast that it's impossible to keep up with it..."
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Claude Monet Signature
"The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration."
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Claude Monet Signature
"If my painting depicts faithfully and without over-refinement the simple and true character of the place you have frequented, if I succeed....in giving its own life to that world of vegetation, then you will hear the trees moaning under the winter wind, the birds that call their young and cry after their dispersion..."
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Théodore Rousseau
"The tree which rustles and the heather which grows are for me the grand history, that which will not change. If I speak well their language, I shall have spoken well the language of all times."
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Théodore Rousseau
"I am hard at work, at least I work as much as the weather permits."
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Camille Pissarro Signature
"When painting, make a choice of subject, see what is lying at the right and what at the left, and work on everything simultaneously. Don't work bit by bit but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brushstrokes of the right color and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brushstrokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately."
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Camille Pissarro Signature

Summary of En Plein Air

En plein air, a French phrase meaning "in the open air," describes the process of painting a landscape outdoors, though the phrase has also been applied to the resulting works. The term defines both a simple technical approach and a whole artistic credo: of truth to sensory reality, a refusal to mythologize or fictionalize landscape, and a commitment to the idea of the artist as creative laborer rather than exulted master. Painting in the open air is recorded as far back as the Renaissance, but it was generally done in preparation for studio painting; only in the nineteenth century, through the cumulative efforts of artists such as John Constable, Camille Corot, and Claude Monet, did painting en plein air come to stand for the ethos of modernity and fidelity to nature which it still implies. More than any other movement, it was Impressionism that became synonymous with open air painting, which is thus also associated with the attention to light and atmosphere that defined that school. Today, en plein air painting, once considered an odd affectation, is what much of the public pictures when they imagine an artist at work, and is favored by many semi-professional and amateur artists.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Painting en plein air allowed artists to capture the emotional and sensory dimensions of a particular landscape at a particular moment in time. It thus expressed a new spirit of spontaneity and truth to personal impulse within art. The ongoing popularity of nineteenth-century plein air painting today - as compared to academic historical paintings from the same period, for example - shows how the technique allowed artists to communicate directly to viewers, without intellectual artifice.
  • Painting en plein air became particularly associated with the Impressionist movement, although it had been pioneered by earlier generations of artists, from English Romantic painters such as John Constable to the Barbizon School of central France. For that reason, en plein air painting often signifies a commitment to the loose, light, quick brushwork that marks out the Impressionist approach.
  • Considered as an ethos rather than a technique, plein air painting casts a huge shadow over modern art as a whole, because it signified the honest, unadorned depiction of reality, and was thus often bound up with radical formal or social commitments. In the work of Courbet and Cézanne, for example, painting en plein air stood for cultural and stylistic revolution respectively, though was the latter link that became more influential, given Cézanne's huge influence on Cubism.
  • The rise of painting en plein air across the nineteenth century was coextensive with the rise of landscape painting as a legitimate artistic genre. In the early nineteenth century, landscapes were only a worthy subject of attention if they provided the backdrop to a mythological or historical tableau. By the end of that century, it was a truism that landscapes. particularly natural landscapes, were worthy of attention in their own right.

Overview of En Plein Air

En Plein Air Photo

John Singer Sargent's oil painting An Out-of-Doors Study (1889) features the artist Paul Helleu relaxing with his wife, Alice. It shows how painting en plein air allowed painters to bring a new degree of intimacy and informality to their work, capturing their daily lives or those of their friends.

Key Artists

  • John Constable was an English Romantic painter chiefly known for his landscape paintings of the area surrounding his English home. His work remained largely unnoticed in England, but he was very influencial on the Barbizon School and the Impressionists in France.
  • Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was a nineteenth-century French painter and printmaker best known for his landscape paintings executed outside in the open air. He was highly influential to many of the French Impressionists.
  • Millet was the Realist co-founder of the Barbizon School near Paris. He is especially known for his depictions rural life and peasant labor that had a large influence on later modernists.
  • A leading member of the Barbizon School, Theodore Rousseau primarily painted landscapes, and the forest of Fontainbleau in particular. He was able to infuse with emotion and character into his canvases, leaving the viewer with the impression of the power and mystery of nature.
  • Claude Monet was a French artist who helped pioneer the painterly effects and emphasis on light, atmosphere, and plein air technique that became hallmarks of Impressionism. He is especially known for his series of haystacks and cathedrals at different times of day, and for his late Waterlilies.
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Do Not Miss

  • Named after the village of Barbizon, France where the artists gathered, the group of outdoor, Naturalist painters included Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-Francois Millet.
  • The Hudson River School was a nineteenth century American art movement that celebrated the wilderness and great outdoors. The Hudson River School artists were influenced by the Romantics, using dramatic scenes of nature to express the American ideals of their time: discovery and exploration.
  • The Russian "Itinerants" or "Wanderers" were a group of painters specializing in archetypal Russian views such as pine forests, wheat fields, and water meadows.
  • Naturalism is a movement within painting where the human subject is depicted in natural habitats and social milieus, with an emphasis on visual accuracy.

The Important Artists and Works of En Plein Air

The Hay Wain, Study (c. 1821)

Artist: John Constable

This landscape painting, depicting the lush countryside of south-east England, is focalized around the image of a hay wain - a horse-drawn cart for transporting hay - crossing a forded stream. A range of figures, including one on horseback accompanied by a black-and-white dog, populate the scene, but the emphasis is on the landscape as a whole, with human activity presented as integrated elements of the overall scene. Constable's approach to en plein air painting involved creating full-scale oil sketches such as this one, which has been compared favorably to the finished painting, The Hay Wain, which is based upon it . As the art historian C. K. Kauffmann puts it: "the finished picture in the National Gallery differs hardly at all in composition...It is by far the better known of the two, yet in some ways it is the sketch, with its rapid brush strokes, its flecks of white and green skimming the surface, and its generally broader treatment that accords more with modern taste."

Painting en plein air allowed Constable to cultivate a rapt attention to the natural world. This approach was influenced by Claude Lorrain's scientifically detailed studies of landscapes. Like Lorrain, Constable would often spend days on sketching trips in the countryside. His father owned the cottage depicted in this sketch, located on the River Stour dividing the counties of Sussex and Essex. Indeed, Constable had grown up within sight of the setting. Such familiar scenes, he remarked, "made me a painter, and I am grateful,...the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things."

For Kauffmann, Constable's approach combines "two tendencies: he portrayed his native Suffolk and one or two other areas in a manner both more naturalistic than that of any of his predecessors and yet imbued with a deeply Romantic spirit." Shown at the 1824 Paris Salon, Constable's landscapes had a profound impact on French artists, including Corot and Rousseau and other leading artists of the subsequent Barbizon School.

Forest of Fontainebleau, Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Bréau (c. 1849-55)

Artist: Théodore Rousseau

This landscape depicts the majestic oak trees of Fontainebleau Forest, their dense foliage and gnarled branches blocking out the horizon to the left, while the fringes of the Plain of Clair-Bois appear to the right, where cattle drink from a still pool. The central oak tree, its trunk illuminated by light, the deep shadows of the surrounding forest, and the turbulent sky of the open plain, romantically evokes the primal power of nature. As the art critic Christopher Knight wrote of Rousseau, "the forest primeval was his great subject. The chestnuts and ancient oaks of Fontainebleau replaced the elders of church and state as cultural symbols of enduring power, mystery and beauty."

Rousseau's en plein air work was innovative both for his vigorous and distinctive brushwork and because of his lifelong engagement with the Fontainebleau Forest, an engagement that also involved actively campaigning for the ecological preservation of the area. The influence of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters, such as Jacob van Ruisdael, can be seen in Rousseau's use of a low horizon and the vertical division of the plain into thirds on the right side of the canvas. Yet in his depiction of the forest to the left, Rousseau disrupts the "law of thirds" in order to emphasize the dynamic energy of the forest, as if it were overwhelming the formal logic of the pictorial space.

Rousseau's vigorous and expressive brushwork, as Knight noted, "identified [his] presence in the particular time and place recorded in the chosen landscape. Paint carried his distinctive, recognizable artistic fingerprint." A leading figure of the Barbizon School, Rousseau's influence on subsequent artists was so significant that in the twentieth century he became known as the leading precursor of the Impressionist movement.

On the Oise (1863)

Artist: Charles-François Daubigny

This landscape depicts the Oise River in France, its meandering course creating a diagonal from left to right, where it widens into a still reflective expanse. A flock of ducks grazes the green bank in the foreground, while a small boat is visible as it skims the other bank, whose edges are dense with thick trees. The low horizon-line creates a sense of serene expanse while simultaneously dedicating the top two-thirds of the canvas to the sky, its blue broken by mottled clouds, reflecting the sunlight that shimmers in the scene below.

Originally associated with the Barbizon School, Daubigny charted an independent path. He was particularly interested in depicting the play of light upon water, using loose brushwork, a luminous palette, and pure colors. As the art critic Sam Kitchener notes, Daubigny increasingly practiced painting en plein air, "scraping a palette knife across the canvas to create texture...and making quick dabs of colour; capturing nature 'as it was' meant attempting to capture it as it was experienced." Daubigny's innovations also included the use of a double-square canvas, a custom format that allowed him to create panoramic views. He was also one of the first artists to present his oil sketches and unfinished paintings as artworks in their own right, an approach adopted by subsequent artists such as Monet, Pissarro, and Vincent van Gogh. In 1857, Daubigny bought a boat and converted it into a studio in order to paint the views along the Oise River, influencing Monet's similar use of a boat from 1873 onwards.

Thought perhaps less well-known than the Impressionist artists whom he influenced, Daubigny was important as one of the first painters to use plein air technique to capture the impression of light on water. In this he was not only an inspiration to Monet and his generation, but also preempted the activities of the North American Luminist painters, who were similarly concerned with capturing the atmosphere of lake and riverside scenes.

Useful Resources on En Plein Air

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"En Plein Air Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 22 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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