Impressionism and Open-Air Painting

From Corot to Van Gogh

The aim of this exhibition is to illustrate the development of oil painting in the open air, a technique which reached its height with Impressionism, yet originated almost a century before.

El hospital de Saint-Rémy

Vincent Van Gogh Hospital à Saint-Rémy, 1899

Oil on canvas. 91.7 x 72 cm
The Armand Hammer Collection. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation

From the late 18thcentury, young landscape artists often practised during their period of training in Italy by painting small oil studies outdoors. Regarded by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) — a Neo-classical landscape artist and the father of plein air painting —as minor works when compared with compositions completed in the studio, yet essential to the learning process, these studies served as exercises for developing the expertise of both hand and eye. Indirectly, the intention was that they would provide the landscape artist with a repertoire of motifs for future use in compositions for which he would be able to draw on visual memory rather than imagination. Whatever the case, open-air studies ultimately became restricted to the artist’s private working practice.

During the first half of the 19th century, the clear-cut distinction between landscapes painted out-of-doors and those executed in the studio began to break down. From the 1820s there was a greater degree of crossover between the two methods with a more careful finish evident in open-air oils and the use of motifs taken from nature in studio compositions. Artists such as Corot and Constable extended the practice of painting directly from nature to their work as a whole and the fashion for oil studies of this kind soon swept across most of Europe and the United States. At the same time, such studies gained increasing recognition and independence, particularly among the Barbizon School artists (Rousseau, Diaz de la Peña, Dupré and Daubigny among others), who frequented the Forest of Fontainebleau, sixty kilometres south of Paris. Some of these painters entered studies taken directly from nature alongside other, more finished works at official exhibitions.

In the 1860s, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Bazille and Cézanne also began to frequent the Forest of Fontainebleau and subsequently took over from the artists of the Barbizon School. For these artists studio painting was second¬ary and the spontaneity and rapid execution hitherto characteristic of open¬air studies now became basic tenets of their art. In fact, those very studies made in the open air — at least the ones which traditionally served as aids to indoor production — became pointless since they themselves had become the focus of creative practice. Yet the apparent freedom inherent in working from nature was soon to become an obstacle to artistic creation. Indeed, in 1880 Monet himself declared that he had no other studio than that of nature yet around that time he began finishing his paintings in his atelier. With the appearance of the avant-garde movements at the beginning of the 20th century, working in the studio regained lost ground vis-à-vis working in the open air. However, prevalent among the plein-air painters was an Expressionist facet which turned landscape into a projection of the artist’s subjective desires.

The development of open-air painting is explored in seven rooms dedicated to motifs deeply rooted in its tradition. In each thematic space differ¬ent schools and styles are displayed with the aim of illustrating the continuity of the tradition of open-air painting and the changes which took place within it over time.

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