|Artists Sketching in the White Mountains,|
1868, Winslow Homer
The French, though, made a fetish of it. Starting with what's called the Barbizon School in the mid-1800s and then, especially as the Impressionists journeyed off to the Normandy Coast or to the Forests of Fountainbleu, painting outdoors caused art to change. First of all, paintings became smaller. One could hardly cart and 8 by 10-foot canvas with supporting easel through the streets of Marlotte just to paint a bunch of trees. Not only that, such a large landscape painting would have been unbearably pretensions, looking more like theater scenery. Easels had to change too. They became small and portable. They still had to be sturdy and adjustable, but light enough that an artist could hike deep into the woods to find just the right spot to set up and work.
|Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood,|
1885, John Singer Sargent
En plein air also changed how an artist painted. Moreover, one had to learn to paint fast, capturing the changing light quickly and faithfully. Otherwise, an artist might spend more time scraping paint off the canvas than applying it. Most of all, one had to accept a new standard of beauty, where nature and color ruled, where all things existed only insofar as they reflected light. It was not easy, throwing off centuries of artistic sensibilities so ingrained they were more instincts than teachings, but plein air painting demanded it, and a whole new way to paint was born.