Landscape Painting Plein-Air
by Anthony Watkins



Every successful artist must possess the courage to meet artistic challenges as well as the ingenuity and determination necessary to carry a work of art to completion. These traits are never more evident than with artists who set up their easels outdoors and paint their landscape pictures right there on the spot. The term plein-air (French for “open air”) refers to paintings that are done on site. The purposes of such paintings, in part, are to reproduce accurately the various effects of daylight. Plein-air painters seek to capture the exact look of outdoor nature; this “look,” of course, always reveals the inner “eye” of every artist as well. We all can see the same scene in different ways; this is what makes each artist’s work unique. Given the individuality of each artist’s view, however, all plein-air paintings should exhibit the following: the sunlight should really look sunny, the shadows should really look shadowy, and the grass, trees, and buildings should be colored as if the light of day were actually falling on them. Details like individual leaves and blades of grass assume less importance in plein-air works. Emphasis is placed instead upon reproducing the sensations that direct or indirect sunlight, glare, heat or cold, wetness or dryness produce in our vision as we survey the land. Our exploration, here, of plein-air painting will examine the development of the plein-air movement in landscape painting from its beginnings in the 1830’s to its present place in contemporary art.

Until the Renaissance landscape was mostly shown as a background to depictions of human activity. The great German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) made a number of town scenes, for example, in watercolor on his first trip to Italy in 1495. Most experts agree, however, that the father of landscape painting as we know it was Cluade Lorrain (1600-1682), a Frenchman whose career was spent in Rome and whose large-scale scenes of mountain vistas, classical ruins and harbors were extremely influential throughout Europe. In England John Constable (1776-1837) and Joseph M. W. Turner (1775-1851) were landscape specialists and became two of their nation’s best known artists. Their fame, in fact, helped to popularize landscape as subject matter because of the many painters who followed their example. These and other pre-1830’s artists differed from what would later be known as plein-air painters primarily in their manner of painting pictures entirely in their studios guided only by slight sketches, memory and learned conventions of form, style and proportion. What resulted was often a good substitute for what we see in nature but rarely were these paintings a good reflection of what we see.

It was in France where the tradition of artists who went to live in the country to paint the landscape first hand was “officially” begun. The small village of Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau became home to a band of artists who were known collectively as the Barbizon school. This group, Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) and Charles Daubigny (1817-1878) being most prominent among them, chose to convey the beauty of the land by working only outdoors. Along with the Pre-Raphaelite School artists in England, these were among the first painters to systematically work plein-air. But, apparently because color formulas were so deeply set in their minds and despite the artists’ dedicated observations from nature, the sunlight and overcast effects they aimed for were only partially successful; the light areas of their paintings are too yellowish and the shadow areas are too brownish to give a truly natural effect.

From the 1830’s onward artists in France (and others in Germany, Britain, America and Scandinavia) led the way in adopting a more naturalistic and scientific way of viewing their surroundings. They sought new ways of measuring and grading the effects that light produced on various places, objects, animals and people. In addition, the whole gamut of painting techniques known up until that period was also carefully re-examined. The results were compared to nature and still found wanting.

Ultimately, there were four major developments that helped advance the plein-air movement. The first was technical: Plein-air landscape painting received a tremendous boost during the 1840’s with the invention of lightweight, portable sketch box easels and collapsible metal paint tubes. Artists, previously, were required to grind and prepare their oil paints outdoors or else carry piles of different colors wrapped in small pieces of animal bladder, the latter of which usually leaked and were not impermeable, causing the paints to harden before they could be used effectively. Artists also had to use the sort of tripod easels which were really only suitable for indoor work. Add to this the storage boxes and grinding tools, and one can easily grasp how seemingly inaccessible the world of outdoor painting was in earlier times. The cause of plein-air painting was further aided by the introduction of stronger, more brilliant colors (particularly cobalt blue, cadmium yellow and cadmium red) which permitted a more accurate rendering of hues transcribed from nature.

Second was the development of specialized instruction in landscape painting in the major European art academies during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Dusseldorf Academy in Germany became the leader in landscape instruction by hiring some of the best landscape specialists as professors; many of the school’s students went on to achieve great success. The American Hudson River School artists Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) and William Trost Richards (1833-1905) were among those who received their training at the Dusseldorf Academy. The school required that its pupils paint outdoors as much as possible, and scholarships were awarded for painting trips to various regions in Europe (often Italy) during which time students were expected to paint plein-air studies of the new scenery.

In the painting “Berghang,” by Dusseldorf student Ludwig Becker (German, 1833-1868), the high vantage point gave the artist a chance to contrast the sun’s bright glint on the roof tiles with the complex masses of long shadows caused by the raking light, contrasts that create sensations by directly stimulating the eye. As visual stimuli they represent the widest range possible in a painting—the brightest glare to the deepest shadow. That an artist was able to achieve this kind of effect as early as 1865 is a testament not only to the increased accessibility of outdoor painting at this time but also to the quality of the instruction available.

The third advance was due to the influence of the figure painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848-1884) whose greatest work, “Joan of Arc,” of 1879, is well-known to visitors of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The large-scale paintings Bastien-Lepage created of peasant life were exhibited in Paris and London from 1874 to 1884 and garnered enormous praise from artists, critics and the public. His importance in the development of plein-air painting was due to the fact that he was one of the first to successfully paint life-sized figure subjects entirely in the open air. In his paintings he succeeded to a greater extent than anyone before him in combining naturalistic detail, narrative content, strong draftmanship, and convincing effects of light into unified, solidly realistic images. Visitors of the Paris Salon exhibitions, who were accustomed to seeing pictures of the outdoors rendered with brownish shadows and stylized forms, found themselves enchanted by the vigorous handling of realistic form and lifelike coloration they found in works such as “Joan of Arc.” And when other painters saw Bastien-Lepage’s pictures and discovered he had simply set up his easel outdoors, posed his models, and painted right there through to the finish, they sought to do likewise with an unprecedented fervor. All this activity resulted in a fresher, more vivid concept of outdoor color and by the year 1880 the plein-air movement was in full swing.

The fourth development in advancing plein-air methods came through the widespread growth of artist colonies. As was realized in Barbizon, there were many benefits associated with an artist’s living and working among other painters who held similar ideals. Solutions to painting problems could be solved by one or several artists and then shared with the entire group. The mutual knowledge and support thus gained by all proved valuable, especially to younger painters.

It was already clear by the 1870’s that Bastien-Lepage’s plein-air naturalism had set a new direction for both figure and landscape painting. Eager to test their abilities artists travelled to rural communities in France or established groups in their own native countries to set up outdoors and work on their compositions. The resulting works were more realistic than the paintings of the Impressionists yet freer in execution than those of the older Hudson River School. The English painter Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947) wrote of the plein-air movement as representing “one of those distinct waves of feeling which occur occasionally in Art, as in Literature, and the tide had set in strongly in favor of out-of-door work, and a very thorough study of all its changing effects. It was a breath of fresh air in the tired atmosphere of the studios, and painters began to see that it needed more than an occasional visit to the country to get at the heart of its mysteries: that he who wished to solve them must live among the scenes he sought to render, and become thoroughly familiarized with every aspect of nature. Under the spell of the genius Jean François Millet and ... Bastien-Lepage, most of us young students were turning our backs on the great cities, forsaking the studios with their unvarying north light to set up our easels in country districts where we could pose our models and attack our work in sunshine or in shadow under the open sky.”1 The ideals expressed here by Forbes are repeated in scores of existing letters, articles and memoirs written by artists of the period. Plein-air painting had come into its own—to stay.

Predictably, artist colonies cropped up during the summer months when the art academies were closed. Painters began to flock to Concarneau in France, Pont-Aven in Brittany, St. Ives and Newlyn in Cornwall, England and Dachau, near Munich, Germany in order to work up paintings for the various international exhibitions held during the fall and winter. In Brittany, for instance, it was common for an artist to work all summer on one painting for the Paris Salon. Some painters worked so long outdoors on large pictures that the seasons changed well before the paintings were finished. One American artist described a colleague’s ordeal as follows: “Clifford Grayson has been painting a picture of a peasant girl seated on a wheelbarrow. He began it in the spring with a delicate background of light green leaves and blossoms. He enriched the greens during the middle of the summer and removed the blossoms, the blossoms having fallen off. In September the leaves began to turn, and now, October 11, there is a russet background. I don’t know but... I like it better than any of the others.”2

The landscapes of the American artists Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927) and Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) represented a similar but quicker approach. Even so, the prospect of spending one or two months fixed to the spot while working on one picture led many avid plein-air artists to modify their methods. For large paintings the old system of painting indoors from studies made outdoors was radically updated. Now that artists knew what to look for in open-air color and light there was no reason why they couldn’t achieve the same results working indoors when the size of the picture made outdoor painting cumbersome. As long as the eye of the artist is constantly refreshed and informed by outdoor work this will hold true.

Contemporary landscape painters usually do both; some work is done entirely on site with other work done in the studio.

Plein-air painting enjoys an exciting resurgence today. As a working method and as a way of seeing, it continues to attract artist converts while retaining its popularity with collectors. In this age of photography it becomes ever more valuable for the artist to experience nature at first hand rather than copy a 35mm slide of it, a device many artist do try. This is the issue that most sharply defines the wide gulf existing between true plein-air painting and that which is photo-derived. Although both approaches are valid, it is increasingly important in this technological age to remember that we are human and need to seek nourishment from things personal, heartfelt, and handmade. Once we acknowledge these basic truths we can better appreciate the plein-air painter whose hand, eye, heart and mind have permanently captured a moment of outdoor beauty for us to enjoy.

1. Caroline Fox and Francis Greenacre, Artists of the Newlyn School, 1979 pp. 15-16.
2. David Sellin, Americans in Brittany and Normandy, 1860-1910, 1982, p. 48.

Anthony Watkin’s paintings have been featured in galleries and exhibitions in New York City, Washington D. C., Baltimore, San Antonio and Atlanta, among other cities. His work has appeared in such publications as The Artists’ Magazine and The Washington Post. Awards include the Florence Lonsford Award for Landscape, Salmagundi Club, and the Fredrix Award for Best Landscape, Oil Painters of America.

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