What is Plein Air?

En plein air is a French expression, which means “in the open air.” The term is used to describe the act of painting outdoors, popularized in the 19th century.

The down low on plein air begins with Eugene Boudin, one of the more adventurous 19th-century painters, known primarily for his beach scenes and seascapes of northern France and for his luminous skies. One of Boudin’s students was a young painter named Claude Monet to whom Boudin taught the importance of painting a scene directly from nature in the light, in the air, just as he saw it. In the stroke of Monet’s brush, painting en plein air was born. Out went the dark palette of Realism and the Barbizon School. In came the sun.

When Monet and his colleagues first came on the scene back in 1874, artists who ultimately became brand names – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Bonnard, and Degas – they were all considered rebels. Defying the traditions of the official Salon de Paris, they moved their studios outdoors into the open air – again, en plein air – to facilitate the direct observation of nature.

They originally called themselves “Societe Anonyme,” but a critic hatched what he believed to be a derisive handle based on the title of one of Monet’s paintings in a group show: “Impression: Sunrise.”

The Impressionists chose to use landscapes and scenes from everyday life as covers for their true subjects, color and light, defying a trend popular throughout the 19th century (and with the Salon de Paris) to paint historical or literary subjects.


Impressionism is an old idea.

With new blood.

Artists in the United States were attracted to the spontaneity of the Impressionist artists and the freedom of creating in the Great Outdoors instead of in the confines of a studio. Many traveled to France to study with the Frenchmen. Suddenly, locations blessed with remarkable light became the go-to for painters on both coasts and in American Southwest, where colonies of American Impressionists formed.