Plein Air painting of Impressionists
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
This is not a scene that we are accustomed to seeing often these days ... painters taking to the open air and painting the beauty of their environment. I took the above photo in Cincinnati, OH at the end of the summer, as the sunflower fields were bursting with blooms. Painting outdoors, a common activity begun in the mid-1800s termed Plein Air painting, was revolutionized by the Impressionists. That summer day immediately brought to MY mind the familiar paintings below, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, both leaders of the Impressionist style.
So it made me wonder, why did it take so long for artists, who mind you have been painting since the most ANCIENT of times, to take the trade outdoors and paint their environment? What is it about the outdoors that significantly impacted the style of Impressionism? What is it about Impressionist paintings that draw us in and makes them so appealing?
Why did it take SO LONG to go outside?
This nasty looking tin tube with a screw cap can be found in the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. It is an original Lefranc brand oil paint tube from the 1890s. So, what is its significance, you might ask?
'Plein Air' painting simply means, painting outdoors, in the open air. While we don't give it any thought, THE GAME CHANGER that enabled artists to take their trade outdoors was the invention of pre-mixed tube paint! This is certainly not something we consider when thinking of the history of this art style. John G. Rand, an American portrait painter living in London developed tube paint in 1841 while struggling to keep his paints from drying out. Prior to that artists needed to grind their colors and then mix them with animal fats, walnut or linseed oils, eggs, or some other emulsifying medium to create colorful fluid paint that they could work with. This process was very labor-intensive and not transportable.
Historically artists employed apprentices to visit the local pharmacists or chemists to purchase the elements needed to create color, such as lapis lazuli, copper, cobalt, mercury sulfide, arsenic, lead, lime, burnt animal bones, plant roots, insects, etc. They then returned to the workshops, often ground the elements to a fine powder with mortars and pestles, and carefully mixed them in very specific proportions with an emulsifying agent to achieve the color intensity and workability that the artist demanded. The artist then needed to immediately use the mixture before the paint dried out. Hence, each day they painted, the artists could only avail themselves of one or maybe two colors. Prior to Rand's invention, the best paint storage modality was a pig's bladder sealed with string. To access the paint the artist poked a hole in the bladder, but the difficulty was plugging the hole afterward, ultimately resulting in leakage or drying out of the paint. The pig bladders were also less transportable because they could easily burst. Rand's resealable tin tube was easily compressible, resistant to burst, leak-proof, and could be repeatedly opened and closed. Although more expensive, these paint tubes were EXACTLY what the French Impressionist painters needed to free themselves from the confines of the studio. It was their ticket to freedom of the outdoors!
How did the Outdoor Setting impact Impressionism
Impressionism is a popular artistic movement that developed in France in the mid-1800s to counter the classical, laborious and rigid painting styles that were idealized by the French Academy of Fine Arts, which hosted the Paris Salon, the Academy's official art exhibition. The artists that promoted and led this artistic revolution had their works rejected by the Academy establishment, so they founded their own group called Société Anonyme des Artistes, otherwise known as the Society of Anonymous Artists. Impressionism was meant to quickly capture a moment in time through fast brushstrokes, bursts of color, stunning textures, blurry ill-defined edges, dynamic movement, and the effects of changing light. The outdoor setting had a staggering impact on their painting style, first and foremost because the natural light was always changing thereby imposing different hues to the scene. The sun might shine resulting in glimmering reflections or unique shadowing. The clouds might roll in darkening the hues. Light during dawn was different from the light during day and still different from the light during dusk. The wind might blow, creating sway and movement in the subject. Seasons changed affecting the color palette of the surrounding foliage. All of these atmospheric changes of nature landed a direct impact on their canvases.
The haystack paintings below, by Claude Monet, are only four of over 30 haystack paintings which he painted between 1890 and 1891 in a field at Giverny in order to study the effect of the light at different times.
These are only three of Monet's 'Water Lilies' from a series of approximately 250 such oil paintings. Each slightly unique, meant to capture different lighting, different reflections, and different hues.
Impressionist painters worked very quickly to "capture the fleeting moment", in essence providing their IMPRESSION of what they were observing at that moment in time. In order to expeditiously capture their vision, pre-mixed tube paints that did not dry out quickly and available in a rainbow of colors were essential!
Why are Impressionist paintings so appealing?
Simply stated, Impressionist paintings are easy on the eyes. They present a burst of bold colors. They don't use harsh black outlines to sharply delineate the borders of their subjects, depending instead upon the juxtaposition of different colors to create the borders. Visually, this results in blurred edges and thereby a softening of the images. The content and subject matters are friendly, happy, and casual. They impart movement and fluidity. They appear dynamic and ALIVE as they display the pulsations of everyday life. Viewers can easily relate to the Impressionistic images before them and perhaps may even feel invited to join the scene.
Without a doubt, the world has embraced Impressionism. Most major galleries throughout the world house works from several Impressionist artists. At the present time, there is an EXCEPTIONAL exhibition of over 60 of Monet's paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, titled 'Monet and Chicago', on display until Jan 18, 2021. Paris has come to Chicago! As a result of the vast number of art patrons and collectors in Chicago, the city actually constitutes the largest collection of works by Monet, outside of Paris. This unique and rare exhibition is a display of Monet's works which are owned by private collectors throughout Chicago showcased alongside pieces owned by the Art Institute. Hence, the opportunity to view several of the exhibited works is ordinarily not possible. The exhibition includes beloved major works together with rarely seen still lifes, landscapes, and even portraits of Monet's family. If you are in the Chicago area or able to visit it before mid-January, then I urge you to view this special exhibition.
Who would have imagined that a seemingly mundane invention as a tin tube with a screw cap could singularly result in the evolution of a NEW art style that would be so embraced and loved throughout the world?
'Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.' Winston Churchill