The Important Artists and Works of En Plein Air

Progression of Art
John Constable: The Hay Wain, Study (c. 1821)
c. 1821

The Hay Wain, Study

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.

Oil on canvas - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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

Forest of Fontainebleau, Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Bréau

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.

Oil on canvas - Getty Center, Los Angeles

Charles-François Daubigny: On the Oise (1863)

On the Oise

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.

Oil on wood - Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana

Camille Pissarro: Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes (1872)

Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes

Artist: Camille Pissarro

A man and a woman tend the field in Pissarro's sunny springtime scene, the furrows plowed for a new season. A meandering path runs vertically just right of center, drawing attention to the horizon and to the clustered trees in the distance, while also emphasizing the bright new growth along its edges. Meanwhile, the shadows cast by the two trees form a horizontal line which frames the two workers. The painting conveys the bright promise of spring as a source of renewal, and conveys a sense of harmony between the human and natural worlds.

In composition, Orchard in Bloom expresses Pissarro's view that the artist should "work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression." He had learned en plein air painting from Corot, though he eschewed the older artist's classical references, instead emphasizing a realist approach to contemporary landscapes. Moreover, while Corot finished his works in the studio, Pissarro painted his works, as art critic Karen Rosenberg wrote, "outdoors, often at one sitting, which gave his work a more realistic feel. As a result, his art was sometimes criticised as being 'vulgar,' because he painted what he saw: 'rutted and edged hodgepodge of bushes, mounds of earth, and trees in various stages of development.' According to one source, such details were equivalent to today's art showing garbage cans or beer bottles on the side of a street."

This painting was one of five works that Pissarro exhibited in the first Impressionist show in 1874. He went on to exhibit in all eight of the Impressionist exhibits, and his work profoundly influenced Paul Gauguin and Cézanne, who began painting en plein air with him and acknowledged him as "the master."

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

John Singer Sargent: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (c.1885)

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Artist: John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent's painting is named after the flowers that surround the two girls, though the title also references a popular song of the day. Dressed in long white dresses that glow with the lavender light of early dusk, the girls carefully attend to the glowing Japanese lanterns that they are preparing to hang in the garden. By cropping the landscape and using a close-up view Sargent makes the garden almost a decorative space, replete with intricate floral patterns. As the art historian and curator Richard Ormond writes, the painting presents "a kind of Garden of Eden, an invented garden dense with flowers and foliage. It combines the en plein air technique with Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic impulses." In departing from the direct expression of sensory reality, Sargent took en plein air painting in decadent new directions.

Influenced by Monet, Sargent adapted plein air technique, which was generally used for landscapes, to the creation of portraiture: the genre for which he became famous. As critic Sarah Churchwell notes, this particular painting "took [Sargent] two years to achieve, for he could only paint for 25 minutes each night in late summer: every evening at 6:45 Sargent 'would drop his tennis racquet', remembered a friend, and 'lug out the big canvas' from his 70ft-long studio into the garden, where he would paint for as long as 'the effect lasted'." This exhaustive process was made more grueling by an exacting eye for revision and correction. Sargent often scraped away what he had painted, in effect beginning again each evening, and eventually cut two feet off the canvas as he felt the resulting square would lead to a tighter composition.

This work played a significant role in restoring Sargent's reputation, which had been damaged by the scandal that greeted the display in Paris of his Madame X (1884), a portrait of a young socialite that was felt to be overly sexualized. After returning to England, Sargent began spending his summers in an artist's colony, which is where this work was created, featuring the daughters of a fellow artist. In 1886, the painting was purchased by the Royal Academy; today it remains one of Britain's most popular paintings.

Oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London

Paul Cézanne: Montagne Sainte-Victoire (c. 1890)
c. 1890

Montagne Sainte-Victoire

Artist: Paul Cézanne

This work depicts Mont Sainte-Victoire, a landmark in southern France synonymous with Cézanne's work due to his many depictions of it and the surrounding landscape. In the distance, the railway bridge crossing the Arc River - also frequently painted by Cézanne - can be glimpsed. After traveling on the railroad in 1878, just six months after it had opened, Cézanne described the mountain as a "beautiful motif;" not long after, he began painting it.

From 1870 onwards, having been based in Paris, Cézanne spent more and more time in Provence, where he could develop his individualistic approach to art. His en plein air painting was particularly distinctive as he found the practice to be conducive to formal analysis of his subject, particularly the intersection of picture planes. His Post-Impressionist approach involved using color to create a sense of depth, and he viewed subjects such as the mountain in terms of elemental forms. He once decreed that the artist should "treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, with everything put in perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed toward a central point."

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Cézanne's plein air painting to the development of modern art. In exploring and exaggerating the way in which objects could appear simultaneously from several perspectives on a single canvas, his work had a profound influence on the Cubist movement, particularly on its two figureheads Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso and Braque's work, in turn, stands at the forefront of all the subsequent experiments in geometrical abstraction that define early-twentieth-century art.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Claude Monet: Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer) (1897)

Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer)

Artist: Claude Monet

Monet's famous Impressionist landscape painting series, generally known as "the Haystacks", focuses on the motif of two haystacks at different times of day and year. In this high-summer scene they appear luminous with light and rich color. Sunlight and shadow breaks the field into diagonals of variegated yellows and reds and bands of deep blue and greens, as the horizon on the right takes on an atmospheric glow.

This work is one of a sequence of twenty-five paintings depicting stacks of wheat in a farm near Monet's home at Giverny. Pioneering the serial motif, which became a signature of his work, Monet created his "haystacks" from the summer of 1890 until spring of the following year, seeking to capture the daily and seasonal variations of light and atmosphere. He sometimes used as many as a dozen canvases per day, painting quickly but also switching to a new canvas if the conditions changed.

Monet influenced not only his contemporaries but also subsequent artists, including Andre Derain, Vlaminick, the Fauvists, and Kandinsky, who said of the haystack series: "what suddenly became clear to me was the unsuspected power of the palette, which I had not understood before and which surpassed my wildest dreams."

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

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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]. .
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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