Plein Air Series: The Academy

When one thinks of an artist, most people imagine someone painting outside in the picturesque field, easel and paint in tow. However, a look back into art history reveals that plein air painting is relatively new to the fine arts and has had a dramatic influence on the course of painting.

When looking at the history of Western art, one cannot underestimate the importance of classical history. The artistic principles developed by the Greeks and Romans influenced European art long after the fall of Rome. Even with the rise of Christianity, the Greco-Roman standards were adapted to suit the current society. While landscape painting did exist in ancient times, most exalted among the visual arts was the portrayal of the human figure.

When France came to dominate the tastes of European art in the 1700’s, they continued to praise classically inspired works over other forms of visual arts. The unrivaled authority on fine art during this period was the Royal Academy and The Salon. These institutions viewed landscape as a lower form of art, unfit for high cultural institutions and aristocratic patrons.

Artists like Claude Lorraine found ways to maneuver around these strict standards, and would place classically inspired scenes within his landscapes to legitimize the work. These images were grand, beautiful and romantic images created in a studio. While the natural landscapes of Europe provided inspiration to artists, these paintings are highly manipulated and idealized. These are not real locations, but rather contrived compositions intended to frame the scene.

During the 1700’s, the lavish court of Louis XV came to dominate European artistic tastes. Scenes of the aristocratic classes at play became a popular theme. Landscape painting became more excessive and lush to provide a sumptuous setting for such subjects.

By the end of the century, Europe would undergo immense political and societal upheaval and landscape painting would find itself a vessel of the changing tides. Next week we look at the evolution of outdoor painting in the 19th century.

If you are a lover of landscape and outdoor painting, don’t miss the Copley Society’s own plein air event: Fresh Paint!

On Sunday, April 24th, artists from the Copley Society of Art will set up their easels in and around Boston to participate in Fresh Paint 2016. When Fresh Paint was established in 1988, the Copley Society of Art was one of the first to host such an event. Fresh Paint is the gallery’s biggest and most important fundraiser, bringing in funds to support innovative exhibitions of emerging and established artists, lectures, scholarships, residencies, and outreach programs.

(picture credit: Claude Lorrain, "Sunrise," 1646-7, Metropolitan Museum of Art)