National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: The Beginnings of Impressionist Landscape

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In 1841 an American artist invented collapsible metal tubes for oil paints. For impressionists, who often painted out-of-doors, this new convenience was indispensable. About the same time, railway expansion was making the countryside more accessible: new lines connected Paris with Normandy and with towns along the Seine that became home and subject for many impressionist painters. Our strongest image of these artists is out-of-doors, hats shading their eyes, easels alongside a riverbank as they transcribed fleeting effects of light and atmosphere on the landscape.

By the middle of the century, open-air painting was an established tradition, though most artists maintained the distinction between oil sketches made outdoors and finished works painted in the studio. Bolder painting styles were starting to blur these differences, and realism, which emphasized "truth," prompted many artists to paint nature with unembellished directness instead of "enhancing" raw sensation through representations of myth or allegory. Landscape artists Corot and Boudin were strong influences on young impressionist painters. Corot made many oil sketches from nature, outdoors, but there was no market for them in his lifetime. The paintings he exhibited and sold were painted in the studio. Boudin, however, began to paint his landscapes entirely en plein air -- in the open air.

By about 1870, impressionists Pissarro, Sisley, Monet, and Renoir had made a touchstone of open-air painting. Asked by an interviewer about his studio, Monet flung his arms open before the Seine and its buttercup-covered banks, saying "That's my studio." This vision of impressionism was part myth -- in fact, many pictures show signs of studio work -- but it underscores the importance these artists placed on direct observation, speed, and spontaneity as they tried to capture the look of changing weather, seasons, and times of day.

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