Plein Air, a Special Connection to Natural Surroundings.

Approximately the in middle of the nineteenth century a number of artists, principally Jean Francois Millet, Theadore Rousseau, Corot and Daubigny, began to paint outdoors, en plein air. They lived in and around Barbizon, France, a small village near the Fountainbleau Forest. They wished to escape the urbanization that was occurring throughout France and so they picked up their easels and went into the fields to capture the immediacy of the moment, the light and the scene’s changing moods. They painted with a directness and passion, inspired and strengthened by their connection with their natural surroundings.

"Water Mill, Thiers," by Theadore Rousseau

“Water Mill, Thiers,” by Theadore Rousseau

Others followed. Manet, Pissaro and Cezanne gathered in the Café Guerbois on the Ave. de Clichy and, sitting on the sidewalk with their coffees or drinks, discussed art and painting plein air. They too picked up their easels and paint boxes and walked to the fields of the Ile-de-France to paint outdoors. It was possible there, standing amid the grasses and flowers, to capture light and reflected light in a way not possible in their studios.

"At Father Lathuille," by Edouard Manet

“At Father Lathuille,” by Edouard Manet

Did this desire, this growing movement, happen spontaneously? Or was there a cause?
If you remember your art history or even saw the movies, The Girl with the Pearl Earring or Tim’s Vermeer, you recall that artists would grind their pigments and mix them with linseed oil. And so it was done for hundreds of years. The artist would buy his pigments from druggist in cones or bricks, later from a color seller, and sometimes with the help of an assistant grind them. His days painting needs, in color and quantity, would be mixed with linseed oil. Anything mixed but unused that day was wasted because there was no way to prevent the mixture from oxidizing.


Later, the first ready-made paint was sold by colormen in pig’s bladders. The artist punched a hole in the bladder to get the paint out and then sealed the hole with an ivory or bone pin or a small pipe that served as a dispenser. These were a quite messy, somewhat wasteful of the paint and difficult to travel with. An Englishman, James Hams, in 1822, improved on the bladders by inventing a glass syringe with a plunger to squeeze the paint out.

A serious improvement came in 1841 when an American portrait painter, John Goffe Rand, invented the squeezable or collapsible metal tube. His tubes were made of lead and fitted with a screw cap to make them air tight. Later, the English replaced the lead tubes with tin tubes.

paint tubes

By mid-century for the artists who worked in the open air, this paint in a tube, air tight, unbreakable and easily transported, was liberating. It made painting en plein air possible. The direction of art was forever changed.

"Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood" (1885) by John Singer Sargent.

“Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood” (1885) by John Singer Sargent.

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