En Plein Air

By Lily Kaar

This pretty little box with decorative scrollwork on the sides is an artist’s field box. Fitted with sketching pencils, water tins, porcelain mixing dishes, and even a few cakes of watercolor still in the tray for paint, this was a self-contained art kit for the watercolor painter of the second half of the nineteenth century. A few sketches of flowers are still tucked in the top section.

Watercolor Box

Watercolor Box

Watercolor Box

Beginning from the late eighteenth century up through the beginning of the twentieth, manufacturing advances made many forms of painting easier. Previously, every artist mixed their own paints from ground pigment and linseed oil. The introduction of prefabricated cakes or tubes of paint made painting more accessible to a wider range of people, and also made it easier to move out of the workshop and studio into the natural world.

In the early 1800s, artists working en plain air (French, “in the open air”) made their own carrying cases for their paints and tools. By the middle of the century, the same paint merchants who peddled the new pre-made paint were also selling ready-made kits such as this, with all the tools, mixing pans, water tins, and paint already included. Even more fortuitously for the merchants, painting kits could be scaled in quality, allowing less intricate, cheaper sets to be available for the growing number of amateur artists during the Victorian era. One model sold over 11 million units from 1853 to 1870.1 This particular kit, with its pretty, honey-colored wood, was likely somewhere in the middle of the price range. The cheaper sets were often made of enameled or “japanned” tin. The more expensive sets were made of mahogany.

The rise of watercolor as an appreciated art form was concurrent with the rise of landscapes as an appreciated subject. In Britain, the medium and the genre were tightly linked, as the British tradition of watercolor painting had roots in topographical painting.2 Since most watercolor painters did not make a living from selling their watercolor pieces, they often had more lucrative jobs in addition, including working as drawing tutors. Beginning from the mid-1700s, drawing began to comprise an important part of the education of a young gentleman or lady. Drawing tutors encouraged their students toward an interest in watercolors and landscapes, until gradually, watercolor nature painting was considered an important genteel pastime for the leisure classes.

1 Barker, Elizabeth E. “Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750–1850.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Web. 26 June 2015.

British Watercolours 1750-1900: The Landscape Genre.” Victoria & Albert Museum. Web. 26 June 2015.

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