I spent part of my childhood, teenage years, and young adult life by the shores of Lake Geneva, and this perhaps explains why I am very fond of Konrad Witz’s Miraculous Draft of Fishes, a 15th-century panel painting in which a biblical scene takes place right by the western end of the lake, in a setting precisely rendered and recognizable—a true “topographical portrait” as Florens Deuchler, one of my professors at the University of Geneva, called it.
We see Christ walking on water and appearing to six of his disciples who are in a boat lifting a net. Peter, dressed in blue, is the first to notice Christ and jumps into the water to reach him. While the scene, a combination of different Gospel passages (the painting’s traditional title is misleading), is not a faithful visual translation of a scriptural source, the backdrop, on the other hand, offers a meticulous description of buildings, hills, and mountains—all still observable today (for instance, in the very distance, we can see Mont Blanc). In the 15th century, no painter would have set their easel outside—it was just impossible, the materials required to paint in oils being far too cumbersome. In fact, a medieval and early modern painter’s studio was, as I like to tell my students, not unlike a professional restaurant kitchen, requiring a complex set-up and a large and hierarchically organized team, with the master at the top and apprentices at the bottom. Paints were made from scratch and prepared according to rigorous (and private) recipes. For artists to be able to take painting materials out of doors and thus practice real plein air painting, we have to wait for a simple technological development: the invention of paints in tubes.
But despite such technical limitations, early modern artists did go out of doors to attempt to capture the visual reality of a landscape, using portable techniques such as drawing and watercolor. This was the case for Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Breughel the Elder, and the drawings they made during their travels (I am reproducing Dürer’s view of the Northern Italian town of Arco, on the road between Verona and Trento, that he passed while returning from a trip to Venice).
Mimesis and Representation
Plein air, as defined by the Grove Dictionary of Art, is a practice consisting in “painting out of doors, so that nature is confronted directly.” The goal is to represent (to re-present, to present again) a visual reality so its experience endures after we have left the spot—in other words, to achieve mimesis. Although at first this Greek word simply meant “imitation” (imitatio in Latin), starting in the 5th c. BCE, it started being applied to the reproduction of the external world—or its illusion. Grove explains that “plein air,” which simply means ‘open air,’ “can also refer to works of art, typically landscape or townscape subjects, that convey the impression of having been executed outside” (my emphasis).
Since working out of doors allows the artist to observe and record “the transitory effects of light,” the accurate translation of such phenomena is key to conveying a true sense of place and how it feels to be there. This is precisely the case for Giorgione’s famous and mysterious Tempest. Scholars don’t agree on the identification of the figures or of the scene they enact. The earliest mention of the work in a 1530 inventory is revealing: “a small landscape on a canvas with a tempest, with a gipsy and a soldier.” The painting is first and foremost a landscape and figures are secondary to it—perhaps even mere complements: note how they are pushed to the sides of the composition. The point of the landscape is to capture the transience of sudden lightning and the very characteristic quality of the light as a storm breaks and to convey it to the viewer: we are made to feel the wind that rustles the leaves. The humid and shimmering atmosphere, typical of the Venetian mainland (as is the architecture), envelops the figures, conferring them soft contours and fully integrating them into their environment.
Whether an artist convincingly represents a panorama, as does Witz, or atmospheric effects, as does Giorgione, the observable reality of a landscape is only part of the story, but there is quite a bit more, to borrow our issue’s title, Beyond Plein Air. This is about artistic practice. Thus, the choice of a particular landscape, the ways in which one responds to it and engages with it, and the motivations and goals for doing so, deserve to be interrogated.
For Giorgione, atmospheric effects convey a mood rather than a specific story. The panel functions in the allusive mode of poetry. Witz replaces the Holy Lands with the very place for which the altarpiece was meant (it was destined for the high altar of Geneva’s cathedral). Biblical characters are not just transported to another place but also to another time, Witz’s own present. Although the altarpiece’s exact patron is still discussed (it could be the bishop of Geneva or even, as Deuchler suggested, the pope himself, Felix V, former duke of Savoy Amadeus VIII), scholars agree that the context for the commission has to do with the struggles between the papacy and the cardinals: Felix V was the last antipope of the Schism. This is why the scene that takes place hic et nunc focuses on the interaction between Christ and Peter, the first pope. But there is more: the setting is a well-cared and prosperous countryside, in which all kinds of activities take place. We see farmers, laundresses, a shepherdess and her flock, archers practicing, and figures traveling on horseback. At the time, Geneva was an important economic center, with fairs that attracted crowds from far away. This spatio-temporal manipulation is at the service of a political message and the recognition of the site is central to conveying its symbolism. The place is sanctified by the biblical scene, which in turn is actualized, its relevance asserted. It is indeed, as Deuchler called it, a “political manifesto” of a “Good Government” (as was the case for Ambroggio Lorenzetti’s 14th-century fresco that I mentioned in MAJ’s last issue). This paean to Savoy and to the Duke’s rule is bolstered by the presence in the landscape, not far from the lake’s shore and right above Peter, of a group of soldiers on horseback carrying the flag of Savoy.
In Annibale Carracci’s Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, the setting, which occupies a large portion of the semi-circular canvas, is similarly important, but the purpose of such emphasis is completely different. The scene of the Holy Family escaping to Egypt is easily identifiable, but secondary to the landscape, which is based on countless sketches made out of doors. Drawing from reality was indeed the linchpin of Carracci’s artistic practice as it was for the art school he founded with his brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico around 1852 in Bologna. Created in reaction to Mannerism and its perceived artificiality, the school became known as the Accademia degli Incamminati, or “the Academy of those who proceed forward,” a name that indicates its members’ forward thinking. One of its early names was “Accademia del Naturale,” or “Academy of the Natural” and indeed, it promoted a highly organized teaching curriculum grounded on the direct observation of nature, the imitation of classical models, and the study of anatomy. It was to provide the model for the European Academies created in the following century.
Carracci’s Landscape is the result of the assemblage of elements recorded out of doors; the sketches made sur le motif function as building blocks. It is the first “paysage composé” (literally “composed landscape”): an evocation of a remote and idyllic past in which natural and architectural elements culled from reality are carefully put together with the goal of producing a harmonious composition.
“An Open Window”
The illusion of depth is essential to mimesis and a crucial element in the history of Western landscape painting. In On Painting (Della pittura in Italian, and De Pictura in Latin), Leon Battista Alberti explained: “I inscribe a quadrangle of right angles as large as I wish, which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint.” In plein air painting—as in other forms of painting that aim at capturing the visible world, the canvas is a vertical window that mediates between the artist and the observed world (hence frames!).
Alberti and other Italians first codified the rules of linear perspective. Giorgio Vasari, guided by a fundamentally campanilistic agenda extolling all things Florentine, forcefully shaped the contours of Western art history, ensuring the long-lasting impact of a narrative in which the convincing depiction of depth reigns supreme. As a result, works such as Masaccio’s Tribute Money, with its impeccable illustration of the application of the rules of perspective, both linear and atmospheric, are considered milestones and granted the title of masterpiece. In this fresco from a pictorial cycle on the life of St. Peter, Masaccio depicts three moments from the same episode in the Gospel of Matthew (17:24–27). In the center, Capernaum’s tax collector asks Christ and the apostles to pay the tribute and Jesus tells Peter that he will find the money in the mouth of a fish (which he does on the left, so he can pay the tax, as seen on the right). The quest for an accurate rendition of depth as a way of capturing the world’s three-dimensional reality is perhaps one of the most enduring master narratives of the history of art and for a long time (and to some extent, still today), its successful handling, especially early in its history as is the case for Masaccio, an indisputable proof of skill.
“Essentially a Flat Surface…”
But master narratives are meant to be questioned—and even replaced by new ones—and this is what happens with modernism. Interestingly, it is when artists were able to carry industrially-produced oil paints in tubes and to practice plein air painting in earnest that we start finding works that challenge the Albertian window. For the Impressionists, for whom painting sur le motif was a fundamental tenet, the goal was to capture a visual impression. Light was essential. The paint application with visible brushstrokes that juxtapose colors rather than blending them on the palette (we talk of “divided brushstrokes”) is at the service of capturing the transitoriness of light conditions. When Monet paints Le Havre’s harbor, material forms dissolve in the colored light of a sunrise. The title—which gave its name to the movement—leaves no doubt that it’s the optical impression that counts, the experience of the fleeting moment when the sun rises over the water. Although art critic Louis Leroy, writing in the satirical journal Le Charivari, had coined the term “Impressionism” with a derogatory intent, the artists in the group eventually adopted the name. In his review of what became known as the first Impressionist exhibition, Leroy declared about Monet’s painting that “[w]allpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” But the unfinished aspect that Leroy pillories is essential to conveying a sense of freshness, of spontaneity, as it suggests that Monet had to work quickly to seize such an ephemeral sight. An important consequence of this sketchiness is that the depicted space is flattened, and we are constantly reminded that we see paint on a canvas. A couple of decades later, in an article published in 1890, painter Maurice Denis will famously declare: “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”
“To Treat Nature…”
The distinctive profile of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire dominates Paul Cézanne’s 1902 painting. Cézanne incessantly painted this area just outside his hometown so the road that leaves Aix-en-Provence and heads due East, meanders below Château Noir and the Bibemus quarries, and goes through Le Tholonet village, was renamed in 1959 “Route Cézanne,” the only French road listed as a Monument Historique (a national heritage site). The artist’s work has forever changed the way we see the landscape.
The sense of depth provided by the topographic accuracy in which Cézanne renders the mountain in the distance is challenged by the consistent color application, with short and diagonal brushstrokes evenly covering the canvas, regardless of the location in space of what is depicted. Black lines are simultaneously read as outlines or as shadows, further asserting the composition’s planarity. Forms are simplified, becoming facetted in such a manner that Cézanne’s art will have a profound impact on later artists—in fact, Cubism would be unthinkable without him.
Cézanne’s subject matter is nature, but filtered through artistic practice and an analytical process guided by a quest for formal simplification, his goal being, as he wrote to fellow artist Émile Bernard in 1904, to “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.“ This is a quest for the essence of things, but also for permanence; Cézanne declared that he wished “to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums”(qtd. in Denis 213)—indeed, reintroducing sturdy materiality where Impressionism had dissolved reality into colored light.
Although based on nature, Cézanne’s artistic process was also informed by his relationship to earlier artists—what he calls the “art of the museums.” In particular, that of a favorite of his: Nicolas Poussin, the most important practitioner of the paysage composé. As a matter of fact, Cézanne declared: “I want to do Poussin over again, from nature.” Through the solidity thus achieved, he also endowed his works with a timelessness comparable to Poussin’s Arcadian landscapes (and completely antithetical to Impressionism’s fleeting moments). The fact remains: the immutability we observe in Cézanne’s landscapes is also real—Provence’s Mediterranean landscape, with evergreens and a strong sun, changes little over the course of the seasons.
Capturing nature while synthetizing forms and emulating the art of the past is also central to Georges-Pierre Seurat, who told critic Gustave Kahn that his goal for his Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was “to make the moderns file past like figures on Phidias’s Panathenaic Frieze on the Parthenon, in their essential form.” Seurat’s analysis was based on scientific understanding of optical phenomena, on research on the physical nature of color and the chromatic structure of light. Félix Fénéon, art critic and Seurat’s friend, drew from Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s 1839 treatise, and explained: “These colors, isolated on the canvas, recombine on the retina: we have, therefore, not a mixture of material colors (pigments), but a mixture of differently colored rays of light.” Seurat’s famous depiction of Parisians spending an afternoon of leisure by the Seine on a Sunday afternoon is a typical Impressionist subject matter, but it is the result of a painstaking process, completely antithetical to plein air’s spontaneity, involving countless sketches both in color and in black and white, using conté crayon. Notwithstanding the theory behind it, the eye doesn’t quite mix the divided and perfectly regular brushwork, which impart the composition with a distinctive grainy texture—hence the style’s nickname of Pointillism (other names were used as well, such as Chromoluminarism, Divisionism, or Neo-Impressionism).
Some works of art might appear all personal and subjective, even inward-looking, but the artist’s visual perception of the natural world still plays a determining role in them. Edvard Munch’s celebrated The Scream, for instance, is more than an expressionistic depiction of existential angst. Besides exploring elemental psychological drives, the Norwegian artist was also responding to natural phenomena and capturing the quality of light out of doors under very specific conditions. Painted in 1893, a year after Munch had moved to Berlin, The Scream is informed by a natural event that took place ten years prior, the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa. Eruptions started as early as May of 1883, culminating in a chain of cataclysmic blasts on 27 August that destroyed most of the island and its archipelago (seismic activity continued for months, until early in the following year). The blasts produced an unprecedentedly loud sound, which traveled thousands of miles. The ashes that were propelled by the eruptions traveled as well, coloring the sunsets for many months. After witnessing such a sunset, Munch wrote in his diary: “The sun was going down—had dipped in flames below the horizon. It was like a flaming sword of blood slicing through the concave of heaven. . . . I felt a great scream” (64–65).
I will conclude these musings by going back to where we started, on the shore of Lake Geneva. Done with minimal color and a few simple lines, this view by Ferdinand Hodler keeps reminding us that we are looking at paint on a flat surface. As we observe the brush marks and follow the direction of the paint’s application, we imagine the artist seated not far from the spot Konrad Witz had chosen 471 years earlier. Keeping his eyes on the motif, his hand traces the lake’s left bank and the distinctive profile of the Salève, the end of which appeared in Witz’s panel. The swans, a fixture of the lake, might be reduced to calligraphic ciphers, but they are recognizable nevertheless, while the limited palette, a monochromatic harmony of blues with some pink, evokes what we call in French “l’heure bleue” (the blue hour), the magic moment just before sunrise and sunset. Hodler, like his predecessors, gracefully balances a faithful depiction of a vista with his own intentions and agendas.
Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435–36] Trans. John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1970.
Cézanne, Paul. Letter to Émile Bernard, 15 April 1904. Letters, ed. John Rewald, 4th ed., New York, 1976. 301.
Chevreul, Michel-Eugène. De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés, considéré d’après cette loi dans ses rapports avec la Peinture, les Tapisseries des Gobelins, les Tapisseries de Beauvais pour Meubles, les Tapis, la Mosaïque, les Vitraux colorés, l’Impression des étoffes, l’Imprimerie, l’Enluminure, la Décoration des édifices, l’Habillement et l’Horticulture. Paris: Pitois-Levrault, 1839.
Denis, Maurice. “Cézanne—I,” trans. Roger Fry, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 16 (January 1910): 207–19.
—–. “Définition du neo-traditionnisme,” Art et Critique 65 (23 August 1890).
Deuchler, Florens. “Konrad Witz, la Savoie et l’Italie. Nouvelles hypothèses à propos du retable de Genève,” Revue de l’art 71 (1986): 7–16.
Félix-Fénéon. Les Impressionistes en 1886. Paris: Publications de La Vogue, 1886.
Kahn, Gustave. “Chronique de la littérature et de l’art: Exposition Puvis de Chavannes.” La Revue indépendante 6 (6 January 1888): 142–46 (see William R. Everdell, The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
Leroy, Louis, “Exposition des Impressionnistes,” Le Charivari 25 April 1874.
Munch, Edvard. The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth. Ed. and trans. J. Gill Holland. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.
“Plein air.” Grove Art Online. 2003.
Image at top: Konrad Witz, The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, oil on wood, 132 x 154 cm, 1444, Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, Switzerland (photo: Wikimedia Commons).