Plein Air Painting: Isn’t It Romantic?

21 Oct 2013

Plein Air Painting - Oak in the Snow by Caspar David Friedrich

Oak in the Snow by Caspar David Friedrich,
1825, oil, 44 x 34.5 cm,
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany.

I think all landscape artists and plein air painters have a touch of the romantic in them. It doesn’t really matter what type of landscape we most like to paint. Whether it’s the morning mist drifting over the hills, or the ebb and flow of the waves against the beach, or the startling jagged edge of a craggy mountain peak, we each find our individual inspiration when plein air painting. Any environment can stir the heart and touch the soul, and suddenly we’re moved to create art.

I also think we all have a touch of the Romantics in us, and with that capital “R,” I’m referring to the movement in art history known as Romanticism. What started in the late 1700s as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution is still alive and well today, only now I think we paint in reaction to the technological revolution. At a time when we spend hours in front of the computer screen, or driving in the car, or trapped in our workspaces, I think we’re all yearning to reconnect with nature, with emotion, with anything authentic and real. Those of us who paint “en plein air” get to do that through art.

Plein Air Painting - February Moon Set by Mark Hanson

February Moon Set by Mark Hanson,
2011, oil, 16 x 20 in.

Marc Hanson, a world-class romantic painter, recently sent me an interesting article on Romanticism written by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. She theorizes that artists in different parts of the world adopted Romanticism for different reasons. English Romantics like John Constable and early J.M.W. Turner were inspired to capture the pastoral beauty and charm of the English countryside, while the French Romantics wanted to produce works that incorporated nature in a theatrical way to evoke emotion. (Think of all those swooping lines and swirling shapes in Delacroix’s paintings and how they rev you up.) German Romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich sought to express their passion for nature itself, and the American Romantics, which include Hudson River School painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Frederic Edwin Church, pushed that even further, hoping to add a layer of religious morality to their works.

As I read this article, I had a lot of fun thinking about my motivations and trying to determine which brand of Romantic I might be. I’d have to go with German. So how about you? Are you a romantic?


Plein Air Painting - The Cottage in a Cornfield by John Constable
Plein Air Painting - Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks by Thomas Cole
The Cottage in a Cornfield
by John Constable, c. 1817 or 1833,
oil on canvas, 62 x 51.5 cm,
Victoria and Albert Museum,
London, Great Britain.

Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks
by Thomas Cole, 1838, oil, 39 1/2 x 63 in.,
Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, USA.


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on 8 Feb 2011 2:48 AM

Another feature of American 19C landscape painting was the element of the 'sublime', which was completely different from that of the 'beautiful'. The sublime was that sense of grandeur, awesomeness and danger that confronted tiny humans faced with the vastness and wildness of nature. A characteristic feature was a tree struck by lightning, a reminder of the threat. The beautiful, on the other hand, was the domesticated landscape, with fences and farm animals, and cottages. The Irishman Edmund Burke described these elements in his 'A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful' (1756), which undoubtedly influenced the American painters.

on 8 Feb 2011 4:59 AM

Oh, and you can see the lightning-struck tree at lower left of Cole's sublime-Romantic 'Schroon Mountain' above.