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Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting

The tradition of painting beautiful landscapes nearly died out with the onset of Modernism in the 1940s, and thereafter with the development of abstract art in the 1950s and 1960s. However, starting in the 1980s, contemporary artists began to look once more at the beauty of the land, and a thriving revival of American landscape painting took hold. California, with its beautiful and vibrant landscape, was at the center of the renewed interest in landscape painting, and many of these landscape artists were members of the California Art Club.

The term “plein-air” comes from the French phrase en plein-air, an idiom that does not translate directly, but simply means “outdoors.” Similarly, in Italian, the phrase is al fresco, and in Spanish it is al aire libre. Plein air painting is a specialized genre that landscape painters have utilized for more than one hundred and fifty years. Simply put, the best way to capture the true appearance of the landscape and its all-encompassing light is to paint out of doors. The plein air approach is a landscape painter’s most effective tool for capturing the effect of natural light.

Perhaps like no other artist, the plein air painter is mesmerized by natural light. The passion for light drives him or her to seek the genuine experience and paint it, regardless of climate, weather or natural impediments. Hence, it is as a plein air painter that the landscape painter finds an ultimate reason for being, and at the same time, confronts his or her most rigorous challenge: to capture quickly the brilliant and fluid visual sensation of natural light at a specific time and place while facing the formidable constraint of fleeting time. This exhibition featured a selection of landscape painters of the past alongside paintings that were painted less than twenty years ago. Now, more than ever, with the increasingly complex qualities that characterize today’s way of life, we need to get back to nature and experience her healing and restorative powers. These artists of the past and the present do that in a most admirable way.

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