Living in London in 1841, American portrait painter John Goffe Rand patented his invention of the zinc collapsible paint tube with a stopper cap. He revolutionized the artist’s palette by offering a range of pre-mixed colors in a portable medium.
Young painters packed up their foldable easels and boxed sets of factory-made brushes and set out to explore the great outdoors.
In 1854, Gustave Courbet created “La rencontre, ou Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” in which the artist depicted himself greeting friends while on his way to paint out of doors, carrying his gear on his back. The painting is an iconic representation of the evolution toward “plein air” painting.
The fact that painters moved out of the traditional enclosed studio or workshop implied a rejection of the formal rules of academia. The rebellious embrace of open air creation was a crucial step in the march towards further modernist experimentation.
John Goffe Rand was born in 1801 in Bedford, New Hampshire. Having worked as an apprentice to a cabinet maker until 1825, his talent for portrait painting made him decide to risk the insecure career of a creative artist. His early work was acknowledged by fellow portrait painter and inventor Samuel B. Morse who encouraged his younger colleague to move to Boston and establish his own studio.
Morse was an influential figure in Manhattan’s art circles. In 1825, a number of students of the American Academy of the Fine Arts – founded in 1802 to encourage the appreciation and teaching of the classical style – rebelled against the educational methods at the institution and the authoritarian leadership of its president, the painter John Trumbull. Samuel Morse and John Cole were among the co-founders of the National Academy of Design on January 19, 1826. Its first group exhibition took place at 37 Broadway in the city of New York, on the corner of Reade Street.
Morse had been a student at London’s Royal Academy and emulated its structure for the National Academy. Mission of the organization was to “promote the fine arts in America through exhibition and education.” Today, he is above all remembered as the inventor of the Morse code, the co-developer of the single-wire telegraph system, and for his virulent nativism.
In 1834, after a brief stint in New York, John Rand and his newly-wed wife Lavinia Brainerd traveled to London to widen his art studies and continue to work as a portraitist. He must have carried some serious introductions with him. In spite of a somewhat mediocre talent, he was commissioned to paint members of the Royal family and other figures of the English nobility including Lord Bexley, the Duke and Duchess of Inverness, and the Duke of Sussex.
Upon returning to New York, John Rand and his wife settled on Long Island where he recommenced painting portraits. The artist died in Roslyn in 1873 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. His paintings may have been long forgotten, but his name lives on in the annals of art – not as an artist, but as an inventor who opened up a pathway towards new working practices.
Traditionally painters and their assistants mixed pigments with linseed oil in small amounts and stored the extra paint in pig bladders tied with a string. It was a messy business. To access the paint the container had to be pierced with a pin and artists had to contend with the recurring (and costly) problem of leaky or burst bladders.
As Rand became increasingly frustrated with colors drying out before he could use them, he came up with an ingenious solution for storing mixed oil paints. In 1841, while residing at 37 Howland Street, at Fitzroy Square in London, he devised a collapsible tin tube with screw cap. Secure and lightweight, the paints inside the metal roll remained in stable and workable condition for a considerable period of time. He took out patents in London in March 1841 and with the United States Patent Office in September that same year (patent no. 2,252).
The introduction of Rand’s invention meant that artists no longer had to blend their own paints, instead buying them from art suppliers. With their tubes and newly designed portable easels, they would leave their studios and paint from nature in oils instead of being restricted to the use of watercolors.
Painters stepped outside, choosing to create “en plein air.” Increased mobility enabled them to capture the nuances of light and weather conditions, both in urban and rural settings. The advancement of chemistry widened the range and variety of colors, enhancing their palettes. Artistic freedom arrived in a tube.
Hudson River School
Impressionists seized upon the opportunities that paint tubes offered them. Carrying their equipment with them, they ditched the traditional manner of using a sketch to reconstruct in paint the subject matter within the confines of a studio or workshop. In the past, outdoor drawing had merely been a preparatory activity, not a way of creating autonomous works.
The French painter Claude Lorrain has been called the “father of outdoor painting” for his close observation of nature and emphasis on landscape as a genre in its own right. Chronologically speaking, urban landscapes preceded “pure” landscape painting by some considerable time. Why would this have been the case?
Cities are man-made. An early inhabitant of Florence or Bruges would have boasted the achievement of local architects and artists who contributed to the beauty of their city. More importantly, the artist attempting to depict the cityscape was not burdened by the load of religious or mythological baggage that the landscapist carried with him. He was not concerned with religious duty or moral high-mindedness. His eyes were focused on the here and now of the urban environment. Painting was an expression of civic pride.
Influenced by Lorrain’s work, John Constable pioneered the use of full-scale oil sketches in his outdoor painting, whilst taking detailed notes of atmospheric conditions. Shown at the 1824 Salon in Paris, his landscapes profoundly informed the development of the Barbizon School, a group of artists living and working in the village of Barbizon near the Forest of Fontainebleau from around 1830 onward. Their landscapes would make an impact on the Hudson River School, the first uniquely American art movement.
Born in 1825 in Newburgh, young George Inness worked as a map engraver in the city of New York. With a passion for painting, he went on to study with Lyon-born American landscapist Régis François Gignoux, before entering the National Academy of Design, closely surveying the work of Thomas Cole, the Hudson River School pioneer. Inness opened his first studio in New York in 1848.
During trips to Paris in the early 1850s, he came under the influence of Barbizon painters. Their landscapes were noted for loose brushwork with an emphasis on mood and emotion. Having established his home and studio in 1885 at The Pines on Grove Street, Montclair, twelve miles west of Manhattan, Inness became the leading American exponent of Barbizon-style painting. He is often referred to as the ‘father of American landscape painting’.
Plein Air & Protest
First recorded in 1891, the term “en plein air” implied more than mere process or technique. Until the early twentieth century, schooling at the French Academy of Beaux-Arts was considered the only way to pursue an artistic career. The Academy had a narrowly defined and rigid method of teaching. Common subjects were portraits, allegorical scenes from the Bible and Roman mythology, and still life images.
Similar educational systems were set up elsewhere in Europe and America. By the late nineteenth century, aspiring artists experienced this form of teaching as stifling. They rebelled. Overturning the practice of copying works of the Old Masters and endlessly repeating classical themes, modernists emphasized the artist’s engagement with the living environment. The creative mind, they argued, should have no preoccupation except innovative originality.
Plein air was a banner of protest. The legacy of this technique lay primarily in its influence on modern art as it represented a rejection of Academic conventions and an embrace of artistic creation outside enclosed spaces. Claude Monet famously asserted that he had no studio at all. Plein air replaced the laborious ways of old for a first attempt (alla prima) approach by which paintings were completed in a single sitting.
Spurred on by an increasing demand for dyes to accommodate the exploding textile market, scientific research into colorants gathered momentum, resulting in the rapid production of new colors and enhanced versions of old ones. Pigments for the art market may have taken longer to develop, but the choice widened exponentially. Cobalt blue emerged in 1807; cadmium yellow in 1820; viridian in 1838; cerulean blue in 1860, to be followed by synthetic French ultramarine, zinc white, and cobalt violet. Armed with a battery of brilliant colors, Impressionist painters dazzled their contemporaries with an unparalleled intensity of images.
Excited by contemporary studies in color theory inspired by the chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, artists sought to capture the changeable climatic conditions, be it sun, wind, fog or rain. In order to record fleeting light effects they had to work quickly. Turning the creative process into an exploratory operation, they worked with small but brightly colored strokes. As a consequence of the increased pace of creation, Impressionists sacrificed traditional qualities of outline and detail which put them at odds with the art establishment. Empowered by technological advances, they re-defined the creative process.
Modernist experimentation was made possible by new developments in both color schemes and equipment. Had it not been for John Rand’s path-breaking invention, plein air painting might never have progressed. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, perhaps the movement’s greatest representative, suggested that without tubes of paint there “would have been no Impressionism.”
Illustrations, from above: John Rand Goffe’s patent drawings (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution); La rencontre, ou Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, 1854 by Gustave Courbet (Musée Fabre, Montpellier); John Goffe Rand’s tombstone at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, printed in the top: “Inventor of the Artist’s Color Tube;” “Autumn Oaks,” ca. 1878 by George Innes (The Met, New York); John Singer Sargent “Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885” by Claude Monet (Tate Gallery, London); and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paint box and palette (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).