“Under the Open Sky”: Landscape Sketches by Nineteenth-Century American Artists
In his “Letters on Landscape Painting,” a series of articles published in the journal the Crayon in 1855, Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) advised young artists to study “under the open sky.” This phrase refers to the practice of sketching outdoors, or en plein air. Durand was a major practitioner and proponent of this kind of fieldwork, and his influence as leader of the Hudson River School and president of the National Academy of Design (the foremost American artists’ organization in the nineteenth century) helped to establish plein air work as a fundamental component of landscape painting in America. This selection of nineteenth-century American landscape sketches from the Museum’s permanent collection highlights the work of artists who followed Durand’s advice—and his footsteps—out into the open air. (Numerous examples of Durand’s own field studies can be seen in the nearby special exhibition Kindred Spirits.)
Outdoor sketching was introduced in Europe in the late eighteenth century during the Romantic era by painters seeking to capture their direct experiences of nature. With the rise of landscape painting in the United States in the 1820s, American artists also adopted the practice. Plein air work took on special significance in America, where the landscape was invested with moral, spiritual, and nationalistic values. Such reverent interpretations of American scenery placed a premium on truth in representation. The English art critic John Ruskin also called for absolute fidelity to nature, and his treatise Modern Painters (1843–60) was widely read in the United States. Although the criteria for what constituted “truth” in art varied—exacting depiction of natural motifs, convincing portrayal of mood or atmosphere, or allusions to timeless themes—artists used outdoor sketching to give their work the cachet of authenticity.
Armed with portable sketching supplies, nineteenth-century American artists regularly took to the field in order to make direct observations of the scenery. Often executed quickly and sometimes under physical hardship (owing to inclement weather, pesky insects, and remote locales), these on-the-spot sketches served as the “raw materials” for more finished compositions created later in the studio. The public took an avid interest in artists’ outdoor activities, fostered in part by published accounts of sketching excursions, as well as by the exhibition of landscape studies. The works on view here—in a variety of media and styles—provide insight into the working processes of landscape artists and the vitality of the practice of plein air sketching in nineteenth-century American art.