Impressionism usually gets cited as the inspiration for painting outdoors, en plein air. But Impressionism doesn’t deserve all that credit. In fact, plein air painting would probably still exist as it does today (or very close to it) if Impressionism never even existed.
Plein air’s real debt is to the earlier French artistic movement that inspired the Impressionists themselves – the less well-known (at least in America) Barbizon enclave of painters. These “Men of 1830” (as subsequent artists referred to them) were so-named for the headquarters they chose, a sleepy rural town south of Paris called Barbizon, perched on the edge of pleasant Fontainebleau Forest.
The Barbizon painters, not the Impressionists, were the first to paint finished observational paintings of nature in the field. They were also the first who could have benefited from the new technology of tubed paints, which were invented in 1841. But it’s a misconception that tubed paints made plein air (or Impressionism) possible. Tubed paints were nice to have, but they were expensive at first, so plenty of artists went on using the small tied pig’s bladders they’d been using for plein air work long before paint tubes were invented.
The painters of the Barbizon school were the first to celebrate the simple, earthy beauty of ordinary trees, rocks, and pools of water as they appear to the eye.
They were the first to consider local ponds, farms, fields, and wooded lanes as suitable subjects for finished paintings, the first to take as subjects worthy of “serious” art the sights and lives of “simple” country life.
And this they did plein air, some 45 years before before the first Impressionist paintings were exhibited to nearly unanimous ridicule in the City of Light.
Sometimes called “American Barbizon,” the works of artists like William Morris Hunt, Henry Ward Ranger, Alexander Helwig Wyant, and Maria a’Becket.
American painters saw Barbizon paintings at least 10 years before the Impressionists began making inroads in America, via Boston. Things moved slow then; Barbizon deeply influenced George Inness during a trip to Europe in the 1860s (already 30 years after the fact); it took until 1874 for William Morris Hunt to bring the first Barbizon painting to America (Millet’s The Sower, purchased from the artist for the equivalent of $60).
Inness’s imitators and heirs, whom we now call the Tonalists, drew inspiration, as did the master, from the Barbizon painters: chiefly Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Francois Millet, Jules Dupre, Charles-Francois Dubigney, and Narcisse Virgilio Díaz.
If there’s any doubt concerning their debt to the French Barbizon painters, here’s a comparison of one of Ranger’s paintings next to one by Corot.
The Tonalists were specifically interested in the moods of nature “at her most poetic.” Most Impressionism isn’t about mood at all; even Monet’s misty Morning on the River Seine paintings are primarily about color, atmosphere, and light.
Impressionism didn’t really hit the states until it started losing its edge in the late 1880s, but when it did, it dominated the U.S. art market for at least a decade. Its influence eventually spread across American painting from coast to coast. Tonalism quietly faded from sight during the 1920s as Impressionism seduced the next generation of plein air painters, and modernism exploded in the galleries, Gold Coast mansions, and progressive museum collections in the American cities.
American Impressionism really took root in the 1910s. We’ll have a good look at some of their best work in a future post.