The knowledge participants will gain at the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE) won’t just be related to the process of painting. For example, Dr. Amy Scott, the Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross curator of visual arts at the Autry National Center, will offer some crucial insights into why American plein air painting looks the way it does — how, indirectly, your own plein air pieces have been shaped by American art history.
It’s nigh impossible to create art without being influenced by what has come before you. For contemporary plein air painters, that means carefully considering the legacy of the Hudson River School and California Impressionism. The things that motivated the artists in these movements continue to shape plein air paintings in America.
Scott believes the way the environment was depicted, and the reasons the land was painted by past masters, are topics worth study, saying this leads us back to Europe, where so many American artists visited and painted as sort of an unofficial finishing school. “The seeds of the relationship between art and environment begin there,” says Scott. Thomas Moran, Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt — all of the greats emerged from a tradition. “The historical tradition of American plein air painting doesn’t just start with California Impressionism but goes back to the Romantic era, and is tied up with our sense of identity as a nation, the dimensions of this country, and our role in nature,” says Scott. “Art has played a big role in shaping those ideas and opinions, going back to Moran and Bierstadt.”
From schools of thought in European art, Americans were introduced to the idea of reading metaphors or allegories into landscapes, according to Scott. Some saw it as evidence of God’s hand, others viewed nature as something that both limits human behavior and offers resources and opportunities humans can control. Some idealized the rural life in the face of the Industrial Revolution. Some artists viewed wilderness “as almost a holy space,” says Scott. “Overall, Europeans introduced the idea that you could read a landscape like a book; it has lessons and morals that can be applied to society at large. All of these narratives informed how Americans painted. The market had an influence as well, but Europeans showed us that nature had lessons to teach us.”
Scott says artists have mostly moved beyond these points of view, and now paint landscapes with more of an “art for art’s sake” approach. “But in the 19th century, we were still trying to make sense of landscapes, trying to grasp it, to figure out what it was — physically, in terms of geology and so forth, as well as what it meant for us as a nation.”
And one idea emerging from plein air’s past seems only to be gathering steam. “A lot of contemporary plein air painters are very concerned about conservation,” Scott points out. “That may be the loudest, most prominent theme that has continued from the historical era.”
Scott has much more to share with PACE participants. Register now for the event, scheduled April 7-11 in Monterey, California.