Whether in the trick of a trope l’oeil, or the shock of the Avant-Garde, the French phrases in fine art vocabulary are capsules of art’s illustrious past. Intact and untranslated, these words are emblems of history; the Norman Conquest charges on their lettering, wars were fought in their syllables, and social strictures were upheld in their pronunciation. But of all the bilingual entries in any art history glossary, there is not one more outlandish than en plein air.
Translating to “in open air,” these three rebel syllables band together as symbols of change, freedom, and nonconformist thought. For the first time in the Avant-Garde art world, they sent painters out of their studios and a shutter down the spine of French academics.
Before this shift out of doors in the mid 19th century, artists would train and work indoors, in traditional studios. Yes, early landscape painters spent a portion of their time outside; however, it was limited to preliminary sketches, color tests, and other deemphasized, preparatory work intended to serve them in the formal studio. En plein air meant a painting was began and finished out of doors.
Whether intentionally or not, when painters first broke out of their studios in the 1840s, they flouted the academic conventions that kept them indoors, destabilizing the body that traditionally determined success and value in art.
Painting en plein air was essential to the advent of new movements such as impressionism. For artists, such as Monet, painting outdoors allowed them to capture the climate and atmosphere in paint. At last, artists could capture a moment in the moment.
The material and commodity cultures of art supplies also guided Monet and his contemporaries outside. For the first time, artists could purchase tubes of a premixed paint – a commodity that expanded both their territory and color scheme.
En plein air and its intertwined relationship with Impressionism is a symbol of change at many levels. Even today, contemporary artists, kitted up with tubes of paint, easels, canvases, and brushes, still set out from their studios to capture the world as it appears to the eye honoring the rich and rebellious history of en plein air painting.