Artists have long painted outdoors, but in the mid-19th century, working in natural light became particularly important to the Barbizon school, Hudson River School, and Impressionists.
In 1830, the Barbizon School in France, enabled artists like Charles-François Daubigny and Théodore Rousseau to more accurately depict the appearance of outdoor settings in various light and weather conditions. In the late 1800s, the en plein air approach was incorporated with the impressionists’ style, and artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille began creating their work outdoors. From France, the movement expanded to America, starting in California then moving to other American locales notable for their natural light qualities, including the Hudson River Valley in New York.
The Macchiaioli were a group of Italian painters active in Tuscany in the second half of the nineteenth century, who, breaking with the antiquated conventions taught by the Italian academies of art, did much of their painting outdoors in order to capture natural light, shade, and colour. This practice relates the Macchiaioli to the French Impressionists who came to prominence a few years later, although the Macchiaioli pursued somewhat different purposes. Their movement began in Florence in the late 1850s.
The Newlyn School in England is considered another major proponent of the technique in the latter 19th century. The popularity of painting en plein air increased in the 1840s with the introduction of paints in tubes (like those for toothpaste). Previously, painters made their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil.
The act of outdoor painting from observation has been continually popular well into the 21st century.