The Important Artists and Works of En Plein Air
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.
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.
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.