Impressionism for Beginners: #1: Working “En Plein Air” and Small-Scale

This is a short series of articles offering a simple yet detailed overview of art movements – an attempt to make art history more “digestible.” The series begins with a look at Impressionism.

Impressionism is one of the most famous art movements of all time. It is also commonly recognized as the first in a string of avant-garde art movements, which stood in opposition to the classical schools of making art – including Neoclassical, Romantic, Realist etc.

Impressionism was birthed in Paris, France, in the mid-19th century. It soon spread out to other countries and continues to be influential to this day. Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were some of its most famous artists.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Because of its antagonism to traditional ways of making art, as well as the various Neoclassical schools of formation, Impressionism greatly struggled to gain acceptance from academics and the intellectual classes. In the beginning, Impressionists struggled to have their works featured on major exhibition.

While Impressionism extended across all art forms of the time – including sculpture, printmaking and so on – it is widely more discussed in terms of painting. This is arguably because it is in painting that its differences from the mainstream, classical and traditional ways of art making are more easily discernible.

For example, one of the most defining features of Impressionism is that artists tended to work out of doors, rather than working in a studio setting. In other words, Impressionist works tended to begin and often be entirely completed on location. This is a technique that is also commonly referred to by the French term “en plein air.”

Most major artworks of the time had been painted, up to this point, in a studio setting. This meant that the scenes portrayed had been staged in the studio. Working in a studio also granted artists with more time, for example, to build tonal graduations with layers upon layers of glazes.

The Battle of Austerlitz, 2nd December 1805. François Gérard (1810). An example of the neoclassicism, which was not without its merits.

Working “en plein air” generally necessitated Impressionists to paint on smaller canvases. This was simply because smaller canvases were easier to carry to the various locations. (This is probably how the stereotype of the French painter in a stripey shirt working on the banks of the Seine was born.)

Working on a smaller canvas meant that Impressionist painters had a smaller area of blank canvas to fill. This facilitated their objective of capturing light out of doors, which naturally necessitated faster work than a studio-based process granted.*

Perhaps fortuitously, working on smaller canvas greatly contributed to the popularisation and eventual acceptance of Impressionism as a legitimate art movement. Major artworks, up to that point, were generally bigger, made for cathedrals, castles or large halls.

Impressionist works could, on the other hand, be housed in smaller apartments or homes, thus fulfilling a need in the market that had particularly opened up after the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the beginning of the modern era.

Impression, Sunrise. Claude Monet (1874). This painting is credited with inspiring the name of the impressionist movement.

*This will be discussed in more detail in a later entry of this series.

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