The Plein Air movement, which translates from French to “Plain Air”, was one of the most rich and prolific periods for impressionism. This period featured French landscape en plein air painting, and was the time when Monet did his most well-known work.
A 2008 exhibition displayed at The National Gallery of Art made the bold claim that this period had its roots much farther back in history than most people think. It was commonly assumed that its origin came with the Impressionist movement in the 1860s.
This exhibition was titled In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet, and tracked the inception of the movement back to the 1820s and 30s, examining Plein Air founding father Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and his colleagues of the time.
Unlike other art periods which claim no single locale, the Plein Air movement has its home in the beautiful and lush Forest of Fontainebleau, a wooded area southeast of Paris. Because of its location and proximity to the city of Paris, it was relatively easy to travel to. Artists such as Corot and Theodore Rousseau made many a journey to the forest, and before long many artists called the locale their painting home.
One of the draws of Fontainbleau was its rich landscape and varied topography, providing a wealth of different angles, colors, textures and scenery to enrich the artists’ palette. The small towns of Chailly and Barbizon became a home base of sorts for many artists of the time.
From this locale, the Barbizon School movement was born, with it, too focusing on naturalism and the beauty of the great outdoors. Like other movements, it rebelled against the conventional landscape methods of the time, gradually introducing new ideas and concepts to the field.
In 1839, the invention of photography provided even more grist for the artistic mill of Fontainebleau, and early photographers Gustave Le Gray and Eugène Cuvelier found themselves trekking to the area to capture the wonders of the natural landscape. Shoulder to shoulder with the local painters, inspiration was shared between the two artistic mediums, elevating both art forms.
Early photography had its limitations, not the least of which was the difficulty in transporting the bulky and heavy equipment to the rural areas. Because the color green was almost impossible to capture, photographers such as Gustave Le Gray were forced to endure long exposure times. However, with the paper negative being introduced in 1847, the field of landscape art was revolutionized, in no small part because of Le Gray and his work.
The 1860 saw a new influx of impressionistic life, with Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley in effect rediscovering the location and bringing their enormous artistic talents to translating light, color and form through their depictions of the surrounding landscape.
The artist Caruelle d’Aligny found in Fontainebleau a scenery that to him was so reminiscent of his beloved Italy, he stayed and focused on those areas of the forest that most resembled his former home.
Interestingly, the artist Millet had another reason for moving both himself and his family to the small town of Barbizon – a cholera epidemic. Millet, who specialized in depicting scenes of rural labor, migrated permanently to the Fontainebleau area to escape the deadly cholera outbreak in Paris, and stayed until his death in 1875.