Say “painting en plein air”—in the open air—and we envision the Impressionists, working away at easels set up outdoors, hastening to capture momentary effects of light. (Never mind that their canvases were often worked on in the studio as well.) The historically minded will cite the Barbizon painters, the Impressionists’ predecessors, who even earlier worked directly from the motif, in the picturesque landscape near the Forest of Fontainebleau. But almost everyone associates plein air painting with the advent of modernism, since for academically trained artists of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, the figure, not the world of nature, was paramount. There were, of course, landscape and even still life artists during this period, but the most ambitious aimed at becoming history painters. They...


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