Radical Revival: California Plein Air

May 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Carol Peek | Spring Bounty

By ALFRED C. HARRISON JR.

Beginning in the 1860s and continuing until the present day, California has been a center of plein air landscape art. Energetic artists have ventured out into nature to capture the scenic beauty that the state offers in abundance, from majestic sights like Yosemite and Mount Shasta to sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

The literal translation of the French phrase plein air is “open air,” or “outdoor,” but when applied to paintings, the word has acquired a broader meaning. Plein air not only covers landscapes that were actually painted on location, but also studio works closely based on nature observed firsthand. The term is often applied to California painters of the early 20th century. Plein air paintings capture the appearance of nature passed through an artistic temperament.

The revival of interest in early California plein air painting has had an interesting side effect — the rise of California landscapes in the same general style by living artists. Over the last 20 years or so, a culture has grown up that has supported the movement back to traditional art.

Without setting out to do so, Carol Peek [and other contemporary painters have] revived the landscape tradition made popular a hundred years ago. An animal lover from childhood as well as a prodigy in art, Peek naturally gravitated toward creating beautiful images out of the rural vistas she so enjoyed. Peek’s authoritative draftsmanship creates an image of almost surreal clarity. Her composition alternates strips of dark and light, from the shadowy immediate foreground to the brighter middle ground where the cows graze, then dark again in the oaks giving way to the lighter distances. She has reduced her palette to related shades of green that appeal to the eye in a way that a chord in music appeals to the ear.

We can dismiss these artists as reactionary practitioners of an outdated aesthetic. But perhaps we should consider another way of judging them. Like the original French impressionists, they are rebelling against an establishment that controls museum life and the mainstream media. Plein air painters ignore increasingly academic modernism to create paintings of considerable virtuosity out of the actual visual world.

The last several decades have seen a marked increase in the movement to conserve what is left of unspoiled nature. We may not be Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau; nor are we Victorians. But whether we were back-to-nature freaks in the 1960s, backpacking zealots in the 1970s, or are merely entranced by the views from the Ahwahnee Hotel’s dining room, most of us still seek out natural beauty for pleasure and enlightenment. Our plein air artists satisfy this deeply human desire, and they create art of our time.

— Excerpted from Antiques magazine, May-June 2012.

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