Plein Air Art - Looking Back (Part 3) / by Jeannine Cook

This is the third in my blog about the heritage we all have of landscape and plein air art created down the centuries. (See Parts 1 and 2 which are already published.)

 

The ebb and flow of landscape painting, country by country, was very marked in the 17th and 18th centuries. In France, Poussin and Claude Lorrain were idealising landscapes, as were the Italians, for despite their wonderful native scenery, these artists still considered landscape to be only part of wider genres, with history, mythology, the Bible or society as their main subject matter. 

 An Artist Studying from Nature (1639), Claude Lorrain, Cincinnati Art Museum

An Artist Studying from Nature (1639), Claude Lorrain, Cincinnati Art Museum

Meanwhile, in England, with the advent of new art materials (especially watercolours) and their greater portability, Alexander Cozens led the way to new landscape art.  Cozens travelled extensively in Europe and recorded many scenes in situ.

 Lake of Vico,  Between Rome and Florence, John Robert Cozens, Yale Art Center

Lake of Vico,  Between Rome and Florence, John Robert Cozens, Yale Art Center

By the dawn of the 19th century, British artists increasingly considered plein air work to be part of their vocabulary.  John Constable is famed, not only for his big landscape paintings, but for his studies of clouds, rain and the English climate in general. 

 Seascape Study with Rain and Cloud,  1827, oil on paper, Constable, Royal Academy of Art

Seascape Study with Rain and Cloud,  1827, oil on paper, Constable, Royal Academy of Art

J.M.W. Turner started working en plein air by the age of eleven or twelve, when he was still struggling with perspective. 

 Rain, Steam and Speed, oil on canvas,  1844, J.M.W. Turner, The National Gallery, London

Rain, Steam and Speed, oil on canvas,  1844, J.M.W. Turner, The National Gallery, London

Samuel Palmer also worked outdoors extensively.  Nonetheless, landscapes were still considered a minor art as compared to history painting, portraiture, etc. so the many landscape artists working in Britain had a thin time of finding a public to buy this genre of art.

 Garden in Shoreham, Samuel Palmer, 1820s or early 1830s, V & A Museum

Garden in Shoreham, Samuel Palmer, 1820s or early 1830s, V & A Museum

It took a radical, courageous change of optic, first by artists themselves and finally by the gallery owners (a new breed in the 19th century) and thus the public, to realise that landscape painting was an important category of art. The 18th century had led the way with the new learning and wonder caused by so many new scientific discoveries, from William Herschel's new telescopes and infrared radiation to William Withering publishing the first definitive account of the use of foxglove (digitalis) for treating dropsy via so much new knowledge of the solar system, electrochemistry or medicine. People began to be curious about nature in all its facets. The Romantic Movement was also underway whereby emotions and individualism, together with a deep interest in history and aspects of nature, held sway, especially influencing literature, music and the visual arts.  

Caspar David Friedrich was an early exponent of wild, romantic nature. it took a while for the French artists to catch up with this new optic on landscape art, but Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was one of the first in the 1830s to celebrate landscape painting en plein air but also combining it with a Neo-Classical approach.

 Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Caspar David Friedrich,  1825-30, Metropolitan Museum New York

Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Caspar David Friedrich,  1825-30, Metropolitan Museum New York

 Ville dAvray, ca. 1867, oil on canvas, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot,  Washington, D.C. National Gallery of Art

Ville dAvray, ca. 1867, oil on canvas, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot,  Washington, D.C. National Gallery of Art

The Barbizon School of painters soon joined him in this new way of painting, with Millet, Daubigny, Rousseau and Troyon just a few of the proponents of working outdoors to celebrate nature in all its aspects.  They in turn were the pioneers and inspiration to the Impressionists and eventually, the post-Impressionists.

 Landscape, 1860-70, oil on panel,  Charles-François Daubigny, Yale University Art Gallery

Landscape, 1860-70, oil on panel,  Charles-François Daubigny, Yale University Art Gallery

Part 4 of Plein Air Art - Looking Back will soon be posted in my blog.