I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Secret Society of Plein Air Painters”. On more than one occasion I've been asked, “Plein air? What's that?”
The reason I created this sticker is two-fold. First, as a way to identify my painting friends' cars in a crowded parking lot, and second, to subtly point out that the French-derived art term plein air is (in my opinion) a bit pretentious.
Borrowing words from France is a linguistic habit that goes back, a long way back – to when England was invaded by William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago. All of a sudden French was considered the superior way to speak. So instead of saying you were going to eat cow or lamb for supper, you'd say you were going to have beef or mutton; and instead of having a drink, you'd have a beverage. A blossom became a flower, and a foul stench became an unpleasant odor.
"It wasn't me, your Highness."
Fast forward to today, and we're still doing this. Even though artists have been painting landscapes on location at least since the mid-1800s, I would posit that “plein air” is a term that's being appropriated for modern purposes, mirroring the outdoor painting movement that gained momentum at the turn of the 21st century. As a new wave of artists rediscovered the joys of painting outside the studio and began forming societies and festivals and competitions, someone, somewhere decided that “Landscape Painting” or “Open-Air Painting” needed a marketing makeover. En plein air fit the bill. The logic must've gone like this: if hors d'oevres and escargot sounds better than "snacks" and "snails", why not rebrand landscape painting, too? Paintings are considered a luxury item, after all, and to use a term easily understood by the common folk would be, how shall we say, déclassé.
Fresh Snail. Mmm-mmm!
Now, I'm not against having borrowed words, or even the lovely French language – I'm just a tad weary of having to explain what plein air painting means on a regular basis. Outside of art circles, it's just not catching on. Yes, there's a spirited campaign in some quarters to “get the word out” about our love for painting outdoors under the plein air banner, but sometimes I think using unfamiliar words at best confuses people and, at worst, appears elitist.
I am not French. I don't speak French. I don't say I'm a peintre des oiseaux when I'm out painting birds, nor do I say I'm painting à l'intérieur when I'm in the studio. So until plein air becomes as recognizable as, say, restaurant or ballet, I will continue to say, “I paint landscapes on location.”
C'est aussi simple que ça.