The Important Artists and Works of En Plein Air
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Although the first recorded use of the term "en plein air" was in 1891, painting outdoors evolved from the historical practice of sketching in the open air, which dated back to the Renaissance. As the art historian Paula Rea Radisich notes, "...artists have sketched outdoors from time immemorial," though the sketches were generally viewed as studies or preparatory work, for paintings created later in workshops or studios, rather than as autonomous works. An early example is Leonardo da Vinci's Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Nave (1473), a drawing in ink and pencil depicting the Arno River valley in vivid detail.
During the mid-1600s, the Baroque-era painter Claude Lorrain pioneered an emphasis on landscape in its own right, informed by close observation of nature while sketching outdoors. As a result, Lorrain has been called "the father of outdoor painting." According to his contemporary Joachim van Sandrart, Lorrain "tried by every means to penetrate nature, lying in the fields before the break of day and until night in order to learn to represent very exactly the red morning sky, sunrise and sunset and the evening hours." He often revisited the same landscape in order to capture the light of changing hours and seasons, and his work was widely influential, as art historian Katherine Baetjer puts it, "because of the way in which the artist communicates the evanescent qualities of light."
Diego Velázquez created what are thought to be the known first oil sketches in 1630, with his Villa Medici in Rome, Two Men at the Entrance of a Cave (c. 1630) and his View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, Rome, with a Statue of Ariadne (c. 1630). These small works were also innovative in depicting landscape realistically, without including a classical motif. As the art critic Javier Portús writes, "in the 17th century...the representation of nature on canvas was very rarely enough by itself, so there was generally an accompanying mythological or religious 'story' to justify the work... Yet here, Velázquez transmits a more direct view of nature, and this is reinforced by the second of the two factors that make these paintings so singular...it was extremely rare for a painter to set up his canvas and painting tools in front of the subject of his work and paint it on the spot, as Velázquez did."
By the early 1800s, the practice and theory of Pierre Henri de Valenciennes had established oil sketching throughout Europe as an essential component of landscape painting. Living in Rome for several years, where he was influenced by Claude Lorrain, Valenciennes often worked outdoors. As he put it, "oil sketches must be done quickly, in no more than two hours. The artist must be minutely attentive to light and atmospheric conditions and be ready to lay aside one sketch and take up another as conditions changes." As the art historian Paula Rea Radisich has noted, oil sketching reflected "new trends in aesthetics. The sketch, it was thought, directly expressed the artist's individuality and subjective response to the motif, with a minimum of artifice and convention." At the same time, the practice reflected the era's emphasis on scientific observation, as Valenciennes advocated for viewing a particular place almost anthropologically in order to capture its specificity.
Valenciennes's treatise, Elements of practical perspective for the use of artists, connected from reflections and advice to a student concerning painting and particularly of the genre of landscape (1800), became a foundational text for landscape artists. As the art historian Philip Conisbee notes, his en plein air working method "became a cornerstone of landscape painting in the nineteenth century, from Camille Corot ...who studied with his precocious contemporary Michallon, to Paul Cézanne...who was mentored in plein-air painting by Pissarro."
John Constable pioneered the use of full-scale oil sketches in his en plein air painting, as seen in his East Bergholt House, (c.1809). By painting on large canvases, he was at the forefront of the evolution towards viewing such sketches as works of art in their own right, their loose and vigorous brushwork seen as compellingly expressive rather than 'unfinished.' Deeply influenced by Lorrain's work, which he encountered in the late 1700s, Constable emphasized direct and often scientific observation, taking detailed notes of atmospheric conditions. As he wrote. "no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other." He also rejected the idea of art as imitation, stating that "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." Shown at the 1824 Paris Salon, Constable's landscapes profoundly informed the development of the Barbizon School.
The Barbizon School was a group of loosely associated artists, including Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, who lived and worked in the small village of Barbizon near the Forest of Fontainebleau from around 1830 onwards. As the art critic Grace Glueck writes, the group's aim "was to observe nature firsthand and paint it not in grand classical style but as seen and experienced in human ways." Influenced by Constable and Valenciennes, they advocated for detailed observation and a realistic approach to representation, seeking, as Rousseau wrote, to depict "faithfully...the simple and true character of the place."
The Barbizon school's emphasis on naturalistic observation and en plein air technique influenced the leading artists of the day. Gustave Courbet, the pioneer of Realism, made the practice central to his depiction of rural landscape, and it came to exemplify his view of the artist as akin to rough-hewn laborers and craftsmen. The technique of en plein air painting was influenced in turn by Courbet's approach, particularly his frequent use of a palette knife to create a vigorous and heavily layered effect, emphasizing the material form of the work itself. Due to his friendship with Eugène Louis Boudin, a leading painter of marine landscapes, Courbet spent the mid-1860s painting en plein air along the Normandy coast, joined by James James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet, as well as Boudin himself.
These kinds of acquaintances, formed and cemented by many days spent painting side by side outdoors, influenced a number of artistic innovations. Whistler pioneered Tonalism, a movement that emphasized atmospheric tonal treatments, often using a restricted palette of muted greens and blues to depict landscapes. As artists flocked to the villages of Normandy to connect with Eugène Louis Boudin, the Normandy School developed and influenced the formation of the Newlyn School in Britain, which similarly emphasized outdoor painting. However, Boudin's greatest impact was undoubtedly his influence upon Claude Monet, the pioneer of Impressionism.
Simultaneously, Jules Bastien-Lepage pioneered the movement of Naturalism after moving to the village of Damvillers, where he began painting en plein air works scenes of peasant life. Called the "grandson of Millet and Courbet" by Émile Zola, Bastien-LePage said he was "determined to keep simply to the true aspect of a bit of nature." Exhibited at the 1879 Paris Salon, his works, including The Haymakers (1877), made him internationally famous and influenced artists as varied as Marie Bashkirtseff, the Russian artists of the Peredvizhniki, and the Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh, all of whom adopted en plein air painting.
Lasting until 1880, the Barbizon School's emphasis on landscape and en plein air painting influenced the development of the first uniquely American art movement. The pioneer of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, depicted sublime, awe-inspiring landscapes showing the rugged expanses of his adopted homeland (he was born in Lancashire in England). Creating oil studies on extended trips into the wilderness, Cole innovated the use of thin paint and a copal medium to speed up drying times and enhance the flow of pigments, a technique employed by subsequent artists. Albert Bierstadt and the second generation of the Hudson River School adopted a more naturalistic approach while turning their attention to the landscape of the American West. Some second-generation Hudson River School artists, such as John Frederick Kensett and Fitz Henry Lane, employed en plein air painting to create realistic and precise depictions of atmospheric effects that were later described as Luminism.
En plein air painting reached its artistic culmination with the Impressionists, so much so that the technique is often identified exclusively with the movement. As the art historian Margaret Samu notes, "this seemingly casual style became widely accepted...as the new language with which to depict modern life." Meeting in the early 1860s at the studio of the painter Charles Gleyre, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille realized they shared an interest in landscapes and scenes of contemporary life. Taking frequent trips to the countryside they painted outdoors, using, as Samu puts it, "short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light...The artists' loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness." The Impressionists expanded the subject matter of en plein air painting, often depicting the leisure hours of the middle class. They also pioneered a serial approach that became an important trend in modern art. Monet was the first to make this approach his own, creating sequences of paintings from the early 1880s by revisiting the same locations at different times of day or different seasons: from hay stacks in a field to Rouen Cathedral or the water lilies in his pond, responding to the different atmospheric and light conditions he found upon each visit. Noted women en plein air painters, such as Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, and Eva Gonzalès, emerged in the Impressionist era.
The rise of en plein air technique reflected the elevation of landscape painting to a high art across the nineteenth century. As art historian Laura Auricchio writes, "between 1800 and 1900, French landscape painting underwent a remarkable transformation from a minor genre rooted in classical traditions to a primary vehicle for artistic experimentation." In the early 1800s, Pierre Henri de Valenciennes established the French Academy's new Prix de Rome for "historical landscape." But many en plein air landscape artists, from John Constable to the Impressionists, eschewed historical and mythological references, preferring instead to depict elements of rural life, with the human figure often dwarfed by the landscape, but expressing a life lived in harmony with nature. Thus, as Auriccho notes, "if the century opened with Neoclassical landscapes, telling ancient tales set in distant lands, it closed with local scenes painted in the most experimental styles of the day."
En plein air painting was enabled by various technological advances. Until the 1800s, artists had to grind their own pigments and mix them with various binding oils to be used for the work at hand, thus confining painting to the studio. In 1841 the invention of the paint tube by the artist John Goffe Rand transformed artistic practice. Tube paints could be easily transported, then spontaneously thinned, mixed, or used directly from the tube. By the 1850s the field easel or French box easel had also been invented, further simplifying the practice of painting outdoors. These easels - with an attached paint box, palette, and telescopic legs - could be quickly folded up and carried into the countryside. The rise of Impressionism in the 1860s was also informed, as art historian Margaret Samu notes, "by the development of synthetic pigments...providing vibrant shades of blue, green, and yellow that painters had never used before." The combined influence of these inventions was enormous; as Pierre-Auguste Renoir noted, "without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism."
Rejecting the Academy practice of imitating classical themes and the works of the Old Masters, plein air painters emphasized the artist's direct engagement with nature. Adapting to the conditions of the moment, the artist sought a direct sensory and emotional connection to the scene they were representing, informed by observation of specific details. Working in nature was a rigorous process, altering the dimensions of artistic creation as an experiential process. As Vincent van Gogh wrote, "just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen - I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the four canvases that you'll be getting, not to mention dust and sand . . .When one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them." Rapid and vigorous brushstrokes, slashes of the palette knife, the impasto effect of paint applied directly from the tube, gave a sense of the artist's physical and emotional investment in the painting, while simultaneously drawing attention to the material reality of the pictorial space.
The legacy of en plein air painting lay primarily in its influence on modern art, as it represented a rejection of Academic conventions and an embrace of artistic creation outside the studio which strongly informed modernism's radical agenda. At the same time, Cézanne's en plein air work inspired a new generation of artists, including Pablo Picasso, to undertake evermore radical analyses of the formal dimensions of a scene, while van Gogh's expressive brushwork and color palette influenced the Fauvists, Expressionists, and Neo-Expressionists. Monet's use of color influenced André Derain and other members of the Fauvist movement, as well as the Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky.
En plein air painting also remained an important technique or approach in its own right well into the early 20th century, most notably amongst the Post-Impressionist or late Impressionist artists associated with various groups in the United States and Britain. The practice declined around the start of World War I, with the exception of the California Impressionists, who continued working en plein air in art communities such as Laguna Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea until World War II. In the 1980s, a revival of interest in the California Impressionists led to the so-called Plein Air Revival amongst a group of artists based in California. This movement, along with associated art clubs and exhibition, popularized plein air painting with a wide public, so that today it is practiced by thousands of amateur and semi-professional painters.
In the contemporary era, David Hockney is perhaps the most noted exponent of en plein air painting, though he combines it with digital techniques such as painting on an iPad. In the late 1990s, as he spent more time in the countryside in his home county of Yorkshire, he began painting the local landscape and its seasonal variations en plein air, as in works like Bigger Trees Near Warter or/ou Peinture sur le motif pour le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique (2007), a monumental work created outdoors in small sections.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas