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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Artists En Plein Air

John Singer Sargent painting outdoors,
circa 1920 / unidentified photographer.

As Summer waxes on you may feel the urge to break free from the chill of air conditioning and harsh fluorescent lights and feel the sun on your shoulders. You could heed that call by gardening in the backyard, going to the beach, or hiking a local trail. But if you are an artist, you could be doing your job outside. The concept of painting en plein air (French for "in the open air") is credited originally to the Barbizon school of painters, who took advantage of newly invented portable tubes of paint and left their stuffy studios for the great outdoors. The French Impressionists quickly followed suit, resulting in some of the most well-known Impressionist paintings (think about it - without plein air painting there would be no waterlilies and no haystacks).

Though it originated in France, plein air painting was a trend embraced by Americans as well, as is well-represented in the collections of the Archives of American Art. On the left you see John Singer Sargent, who is most well known for his studio portraits such as the scandalous-for-the-time Portrait of Madame X. Here, however, he applies his artistic talents to a rugged outdoor setting, employing a common plein air painting technique of strategically placing white umbrellas to diffuse the bright sunlight. 

Aston Knight painting in a stream,
circa 1900 / unidentified photographer.
With lightweight easels and portable paints, some artists took the ability to paint anywhere to its most extreme limits. L. Aston Knight, an American painter raised in France, was noted in his obituary in the New York Times for "his rendition of rippling water" (Times, May 9 1948, p. 68). The photo on the left shows that Knight took the study of water seriously. Where others might be content to paint a stream while standing on its banks, Knight put on his boots and waders and positioned himself directly in the stream. The Times obituary also mentions that Knight rented a mill in Normandy specifically so he could paint the brook on the grounds (which may be where this photo was taken).

For more on plein air painting see this post on Artists Outdoors, the group PAPA (Plein Air Painters of America), or just strike up a conversation the next time you see someone painting at your local duck pond!

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art

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