Impressionism: a painting style

En-plein-air painting

no exclusive characteristic of  Impressionism


Many sources emphasize that painting en-plein-air painting is a major characteristique of  the impressionist painting style. They also state that the pre-impressionists of the Barbizon-school finished their paintings in their studios (R24,p16; R4,p9; R3,p646). But this vision is at least disputable. For the painters of Barbizon and others painting en-plein-air was very important, Corot adviced many impressionist to do so. And on the other hand even Monet often finished his paintings in his studio.
En-plein-air literally means ‘in the full sky’. It is mostly translated as ‘on the spot’ or ‘in situ’ or ‘outdoors’.

An important characteristique of the impressionist painting style:
Painting en-plein-air is an important characteristique of the impressionist painting style. The Impressionists wanted to catch the effect of the sunlight and the weather conditions on the colours in the landscape. Already in the early 1860’s Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Bazille, being pupils of Atelier Gleyre, went to paint in the open in the surroundings of the forest of Fontainebleau.
Pissarro wrote (1883/02/28) to his son Lucien: “impressionism should be nothing but a theory of pure observation, without loss of imagination, or freedom”. (R312,p34) In 1910 Lucien Pissarro wrote ‘The weather changes so that I cannot work two days running on the samen motif.’ In 1914 Lucien Pissarro said “I always paint my pictures entirely out of doors, and being a pupil of the impressionists try always to render the feeling that the subject gives me.” And: An atmospheric effect must be rendered by touches of subtle differences which suggest the delicate variety of nature. In 1924 wind, rain and hail made it impossible to paint and a gust of wind upset his easel (R312,p121+148+183+187).
Cézanne worked entirely from nature (R312,p228). In
1906 he died after he had caught cold in a heavy storm while painting outside (R48;R164,p15).
Just a few times art-critics call the expositions of the ‘impressionists’ “plein-air”, namely Chesnau in 1874 and Schop in 1876 (R2,p490/1).
Mallarmé (1876) stated that only ‘in the open air can the flesh tints of a model keep their true qualities’ (R2,p54).
Note: additional info will be rendered.


The Barbizon school painting en-plein-air:
Inspired by the English landscapists, the Barbizon painters started to paint real landscapes en-plein-air and especially in the Forest of Fontainebleau. Alike the Impressionists they often rendered the effect of light during various conditions, namely various times of day, seasons and weather conditions. Art-critics criticised their lack of drawing and named their paintings unfinished, being just sketches rendering une première impression  (R290,p56/7+68). Note: later the the Impressionist would receive the same critic.
Some sources claim that the Impressionists were the first to paint and finish oil paintings en-plein-air. And that the Barbizon painters just made sketches en-plein-air (R3,p646), but this vision is disputable. Other sources claim that Daubigny was the first who fully painted en-plein-air. There also are several pictures of Corot painting in the open. It was Corot who adviced Pissarro, Morisot and many others to paint en-plein-air.

The Myth: Monet only painted en-plein-air:
Monet seems to have created a myth that he had no studio and only painted en-plein-air.
Many writers emphasize that painting en-plein-air is a main characteristic of the impressionist painting style. Also stating that the pre-impressionists of the Barbizon-school finished their paintings in their studios (R24,p16; R4,p9; R3,p646). But this vision is at least disputable. When people visited Monet in Vétheuil, Monet liked to create the myth that he ‘never had a studio’ (R22,p162). Guy de Maupassant described in 1883 how Monet worked en-plein-air on 5 or 6 paintings to catch the different light effects of the different times of day (R22,p211). And in 1897 the reporter Maurice Guillemot wrote that Monet ‘only worked in the open’. Nature is his studio and his actual studio must be called his salon (R22,p318). Later on in 1908 his second wife Alice Hoschedé described how he works every two hours on another motive in Venice (R23,p149).
Russel describes beautifully how Monet painted at different places which still can be identified today (R23). He mostly worked from the early morning onwards on several paintings at one time. Every day discovering new things, adding and removing from his paintings (R23,p116). But Russel also writes that Monet finished in 1912 the paintings that he made in Venice in 1908 (R23,p155).


Monet finished series in the studio:
Monet and the other Impressionists made series of paintings. Monet finished many of these paintings in his studio (R22). Early 1892 and 1893 he worked on his series of the Rouen Cathedral on a few spots opposite of the Cathedral, but he finished them later and even dated them 1894 (R22III,p527). In 1899, 1900 and 1901 Monet painted in London series of the Charing Cross Bridge, the Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament (R22III,p650). But many of these paintings he finished later and dated several of them 1902, 1903 and even 1904 (R22,CR1521-1595).
How is it possible that Monet remembered one or more years later in his studio the exact influence of light on his topic? How did he remember the difference in colour he saw on his motive around 9.00 and 10.00 o’clock? I wonder if any art-historian ever examined this? Are there differences in the paintings he did and didn’t rework in his studio?


Catching the fleeting moment is impossible:
The Impressionists painted en-plein-air to capture the fleeting moment of the effect of the sunlight on the objects that were painted. When the time of day changed or when the weather changed they stopped and tried again a next day under the same circumstances. Guillaumin once did wait a whole year for these similar weather conditions. But in fact it is impossible to capture such a fleeting moment. See below the two photographs I made in Fécamp one minute after another. As you can see, the colours enoursly changed. So, if an impressionist was painting at that moment, which fleeting moment would the painter depict?
Note: the pictures will be added later.


My conclusion is that when even Monet, who painted quite consequently in an impressionist painting style, often finished his paintings in his studio, painting en-plein-air should not be one of the most characteristics of this impressionist painting style. I think what distinguishes the impressionist painting style most, is the (slightly unnatural) brightness of the colours, the absence of black, the bluish/purple rendering of the shadows and the vividness of the juxtaposed brushstrokes. And also the conviction that a ‘sketchy’ painting renders a fleeting moment better than a ‘finished’ painting. Compare the outcry of the conservative art-critic Claretie: ‘one wonders where the painting in the open air will stop and what will dare the artists, who intend to chase the shadow and the black from the whole nature’ (R264,p338).


My main sources are the Catalogue Raisonné by Wildenstein on Monet (1996=R22), Russell (2001=R23), Zeitler (1999=R24), Walther (2013=R3), Roe (2006=R4). For other general references (=R) see. For other references to internet sites (=iR) see. For other additional references (=aR) see below.

Additional references (=aR):

  1. x



Recommanded citation: “Impressionism, a painting style: painting en-plein-air; no exclusive characteristic of the Impressionists. Last modified 2024/01/03. https://www.impressionism.nl/en-plein-air/

Note: additional info will be added.