Stanhope Forbes, "A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach," oil on canvas
Stanhope Forbes, "A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach," 1884–85, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 in., Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

As a plein air painter, you are part of one of the largest art movements in history. Learn about those who have helped start this movement in some way, and be inspired to continue your own journey.

Plein Air Heritage: Stanhope Forbes (British, 1857–1947)

Inspired by French plein air painter Jules Bastien-Lepages (1848–1884) to paint outdoors and use ordinary people as models, Stanhope Forbes abandoned plans to make a living as a portrait painter. Believing an artist must “stick to one branch of painting and make it [their] own,” he said, “I must do plein air or nothing. It’s the only way to achieve success.”

Attracted by the quality of light and the mild climate, Forbes moved to Newlyn, a small fishing village in Cornwall, England, where he could paint outside most of the year. The shimmering reflections and rich textures of the harbor, along with the traditionally attired fishermen and women, provided endless opportunities for the bold brushwork and tonal painting that were the hallmark of his work.

“Anything more beautiful than this beach at low water I never saw, and if I can only paint figures against such a background as this shining mirror-like shore makes, the result should be effective,” he wrote.

Shortly after arriving in Cornwall, Forbes began sketches for a 5 1/2 x 9-foot painting of a fish auction on the beach near Newlyn. The artist’s process included “painting entirely and absolutely out of doors, braving all difficulties and relying in no way upon sketches or studies, with which later on the work could be comfortably finished within the walls of a studio.”

Such a monumental canvas proved too unwieldy, however, and he abandoned it in favor of a more manageable — but still impressive — 4 x 5-foot piece. He worked on the painting for just under a year, finishing in the spring of 1885.

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