A History of Plein Air Art


by Jean Stern

Franz A. Bischoff, "San Juan Capistrano Mission Yard", oil on canvas, Irvine Museum

Starting with the late 1880s and continuing into the early part of the twentieth century, artists in California painted in an artistic style which exalted the picturesque landscape and unique light of this Golden State. This style, which is often called California Impressionism or California Plein-Air painting, after the French term for “in the open air”, combined several distinctive aspects of American and European art.

Landscape painting is a time honored tradition that is inseparable from the spirit of American art.  From Colonial times, American art had been governed by special circumstances unique to this land.  Unlike Europe, American art was nurtured in the absence of empowered patronage.  Institutions such as the monarchy or the church had been powerful determinants in the progress of European art.  In turn, America’s democratic tendencies were powerful factors that led to the popularization of landscape painting as the ideal vehicle for expressing the American spirit, as it afforded an avenue to express God and Nature as one, an understanding of spirituality that disavowed religious patronage, and it created a metaphor of the American landscape as the fountainhead from which sprang the bounty and opportunity of rustic American life.

The Hudson River School, a group of early nineteenth century artists led by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) ventured into what was then the “wilderness” of upstate New York.  They were in awe of the beauty and grandeur of nature and developed a popular and long-lived style that centered on landscape as a primary subject.  In a very real sense, they were the environmental activists of their day.  At the same time, America produced a vigorous school of genre painters, most notably Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who specialized in scenes of everyday life in a country that, at the time, was embodied by farms and small towns.

In keeping with this truthful and honest approach to art, the artist resolved to carefully and accurately observe the subject.  Thus, Realism and its associated variants was the style of choice.  The desire for realistic portrayal of forms has always been a forceful characteristic of American art.

As a philosophical, literary, and artistic movement, the goal of Realism was to give a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world, based on meticulous observation of nature and contemporary life.  In painting, it is best illustrated by the French artists Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875).  Their work was concerned with nature and dealt with life in the rustic settings of France.

Coming in the mid 1800s, at the height of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, with its attendant mass urbanization, environmental pollution and social transformations, Realism harkened to the idyllic life of the immediate past, to a time, real or imagined, when people were in harmony with nature and its bounty.  It was a movement to democratize art, in step with other mid-century demands for social and political democracy.  Declaring that art must have relevance to contemporary society, the Realists refused to paint moralistic or heroic models from the past and instead directed their thoughts to themes that acclaimed people and events in more commonplace circumstances and in their own time.

One noteworthy group of Romantic-Realist painters focused on the French landscape.  They imbued their works with an active brush stroke and a dramatic sense of light, most often energizing their compositions with vivid end-of-the-day sky effects.  These artists, notably Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), and Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1807-1876), lived and painted in the village of Barbizon, thus giving name to this aspect of Realism, a romantic model of nature and people, coupled with dramatic technique and lighting.  The Barbizon Style found a quick and willing group of followers in late nineteenth century Europe and America.

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