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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Plein Air Impressionism

When people talk about "en plein air" painting (French for outdoor painting), there often arises some confusion regarding Impressionism and painting on location. Many people consider them one and the same. Part of the confusion stems from the narrow perception that Impressionism has only to do with landscape painting. Though Impressionism is most associated with landscapes, it took the early impressionists only a short time to begin seeing other painting content from an impressionistic mindset; and to begin applying the style to other subject matter; to the point that very quickly, nearly all subjects were "fair game." In fact much of the impressionist revolution was merely a continuation of Realism's earlier efforts toward the broadening of subject matter from the narrow precepts of the French academy to common, everyday people, scenes, and subjects.

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet:
not the first Impressionist painting, but the one
which gave the movement its name.
It's little wonder people are confused relative to the terms Impressionism and "plein air." While it's true that Impressionism evolved out of plein air painting, the act of painting out-of-doors goes back well before Monet's Impression, Sunrise, at least as far back as the Barbizon school in the mid 1850s.  (Barbizon is a small French town in the Fountainbleu Forrest). Now, having said that, plein air painting could, I suppose, be almost any style, though Impressionism, with its quick renderings (sketches in oils) especially lends itself to this method of painting on location. There are purists would insist that all Impressionist paintings be started and, most of all,  finished out-of-doors. But that was often not the case then and is seldom the case now. One reason for this was that in its "heyday," the Impressionists were still feeling their way--learning. Such learning could only be done out-of-doors. But now, the precepts of divided brush strokes, eye-blending of colors, prismatic, perceptual color, atmospheric renderings, aerial perspective, and so on, are all pretty academic and well-understood by those interested in this style of painting.

Gare Saint Lazare, 1877, Claude Monet:
impressions of light, steam, smoke, and iron.
So, must all Impressionism be painted "en plein air?"  The answer to that is a somewhat qualified, no.  The qualification of that negative response is that, in trying to capture momentary light, Impressionism is probably easier and better when done on location, though I suppose one could paint an Impressionist scene through a window (which Monet, among others, did). And, I suppose, a really experienced Impressionist could work from photos (a stretch) or memory, perhaps even imagination, though by the time you reach that far you are risking a transition into Expressionism. As usual, when it comes to lines dividing one "ism" from another, they often get rather blurry when you go bending the customary "rules." But again, keep in mind, Impressionism is not and was not limited to landscapes. Subjects such as figures, still-lifes, portraits, and flowers, to name just a few, were also painted using an Impressionist style; and while some these undoubtedly were painted "en plein air," it's likely the majority were not.

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