Saturday, March 23, 2013

In the Open Air

Painters of the 19th century, seeking a certain atmospheric quality of light, were drawn to paint realistic and impressionistic landscapes en plein air. En plein air is a French phrase meaning in the open air.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood
by John Singer Sargent (1885).
The popularity of plein air painting grew in part because the technological advance of premixed and  transportable oil pigments made it possible for artists to take to the field. But the popularity of painting in the open air also grew from a new-found appreciation of the natural world.

Europeans and Americans were in the throes of unprecedented change and undergoing a technological point of inflection (industrial revolution). The primary draw to painting in the open air was perhaps a recognition of the need to engage with ― and reconnect to ― the natural environment.
"For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life, the air and the light, which vary continually for me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere that gives subjects their true value."
― Claude Monet
Clouds in paintings by John Constable paintings were declared remarkably true to life. Scientists believed they could derive the season, or even the hour of the day from the skies depicted in Constable's paintings.

Cloud Study by John Constable (1821)
Claude Monet's Haystacks, painted between the summer 1890 and the winter 1891, exemplify the study of ―  if not near obsession with ― qualities of light and temporal atmospheric conditions. Monet painted a series of 25 canvases depicting haystacks in a field at Giverny. During that time Monet wrote to a critic,
"I am working very hard, struggling with a series of different effects (haystacks), but at this season the sun sets so fast I cannot follow it. . . . The more I continue, the more I see that a great deal of work is necessary in order to succeed in rendering what I seek."
Haystacks (1890-1891) by Claude Monet

A glimmer of light cannot truly be seen without much that is dark, and darkness cannot truly be felt without shadowy forms rising from the blackness.

― Anonymous