Plein Air Series: Revolutions

Last week we looked at the history of European landscape painting in the 17th and 18th century, the role of the French Academy, and the rigid classical themes that dictated the fine arts. This week we are going to discus two major historical movements that shook the foundations of European society and the vital role landscape painting played in the evolution of painting during this time: the French and Industrial Revolutions.

The French Revolution occurred at the end of the 18th century. From 1789 to 1799 the French lower classes overthrew the French monarchy. The arts played a central role during the revolution. Artists such as Jacques-Louis David portrayed revolutionists as martyrs.

The fall of the monarchy ushered in an era of political and social restructuring. The fine arts were hardly untouched by such changes. The strict standards enforced by the Academy on the fine arts were faltering under pressure. Artists yearned to break free of classical influences and to explore themes that touched on the human experience.

The Romantic Movement did just that. Originating in literature, romanticism came to dominate the visual arts and music, offering a clear alternative to neo-classism. The romantics were strongly drawn to nature, and these artists were among the first to portray landscapes as complete works of fine art. In addition they depicted their admiration of nature and its ability to provoke the sublime.

The Industrial Revolution also dramatically altered the fabric of European society. Beginning around 1760, this period saw the development of machine labor and modern production methods. Common goods, once made by hand, were produced quicker and cheaper by machines. Economic progress, however, came at the expense of the environment. Coal powered factories released pollution into the air, and dense cities consumed the countryside.

A group of artists called the Barbizon School responded to the destruction of the natural landscape. Taking their name from their French hometown, these artists rejected classically composed Italian landscapes, and were motivated by the more naturalist approach of the Dutch and Flemish traditions. They sought to capture the natural light, colors and the change of seasons in France. The Barbizon’s desire to break free of contrived images and suffocating studios was so strong that by the mid 1800’s they were creating revolutionary works of art outside in plein air.

One small yet monumental invention of the Industrial Revolution was the paint tube. In the past, artists had to grind and mix their own pigments, storing them in delicate pig bladders. The modern metal paint tube gave artists access to a wider variety of colors and allowed them to transport them with ease.

The revolutionary changes that occurred in Europe during the 19th century cannot be underestimated, as it challenged the norms of society and what constituted fine art. The strides of artists during this period inspired future artistic movements, such as Realism and Impressionism. Next week we will shift our gaze from Europe and look at the history of landscape painting in America.

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 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.

Lauren W. Warford