Plein air painting is when artists head into the landscape to work directly from nature. It is the bread and butter of Maine’s storied role in American art.

It first became popular in France in the 1870s following the invention of the paint tube. The newfound portability of paint had a massive effect on style. Previously, a painting was not a painting — a “tableau,” according to the universally accepted standards set by the Salon and the French Academy — unless it had a very high sense of finish.

To us, Impressionist works by the likes of Monet and Renoir might typify attractive paintings, but the sophisticated art audience of 19th-century Paris (that is to say, everyone), with their appetite for glazed and varnished confections, initially thought Impressionist paintings were unfinished, unmediated, unaccomplished and unattractive. The term “impressionism” was a seething insult.

In the end, however, Impressionists usurped the popular audience while even the most famous academics have faded from memory. Radicalism and modernism triumphed.

Plein air painting in Maine is usually associated with Monhegan, and a strong group of Monhegan painters is now on view at Elizabeth Moss Galleries.

“Women of Monhegan” features five women painters who work in a traditional plein air mode.

My favorite is Alison Hill’s “Path to the Lighthouse.” It is a deliciously painted oil on canvas of red-roofed white houses along a Monhegan path. The paint is joyously thick, and the raking light of early morning glows gloriously on the steep roofs.

I also particularly enjoyed Kate McGloughlin’s “View from Tribler Cottage.” It is a tiny oil painted in an unselfconsciously smeary style (as if Morandi painted on Monhegan). Rather than a struggle, the loose strokes reveal the joy of painting.

Marilyn Swift’s “Vaugh House, Swim Beach” also stands out. This watercolor matches a sprightly style with a fine sense of volume and finish. It is a richly colored view from the water past a pair of beached rowboats up to a geometrically simple house. The composition is nicely balanced between the solid white house and the spatial complexity of the foreground.

“Women of Monhegan” makes for an interesting contrast with Michael Vermette’s exhibition “Katahdin & Monhegan.” While the women’s work yields no hint about their gender, Vermette’s paintings are about as manly as can be.

Vermette’s “Maine Guide Skinning a Bear” just might be the most testosterone-infused painting I have ever seen. A mustachioed, uniformed and camouflage-clad guide is shown about halfway through skinning a bear with a big knife.

This might sound over the top, but Vermette is an extremely talented painter, and this large watercolor is just as dominated by the gorgeous autumn leaves that transition from incredibly realistic at the bottom of the painting to almost completely abstract at the top. It is an unusual and extraordinary painting.

While I usually associate Vermette with his sculpturally thick oil technique featured in half the works in this show, his watercolors are stronger here.

Most impressive is his large “Three Lobstermen,” in which the men, backs to us, have a conversation over the bed of a truck piled with traps. Two of the men are older, and Vermette captures them perfectly through fantastic technique coupled with virtuoso observation.

My favorite Vermette in the show could hardly be more different than the highly-finished lobstermen. It’s a view over the artist’s resting (but still booted) feet into a tiny hunting shack at Katahdin Lake Camps. A door, window, sink, wood stove, mirror, mounted buck and antlers are all crammed onto a single wall just past the foot of the bed.

Vermette’s cartoonish style perfectly captures the clumsy coziness of the campy camp. It is spontaneous, fun and eminently comfortable.

Also on view through today is an installation of 108 shaped paintings of angels by Eva Goetz, with all sales benefiting the Center for Grieving Children.

These aren’t the seraphim and cherubim usually associated with the holiday season; rather, they represent broader and more primitive ideas about angels from cultures around the world. Goetz has a joyously colorful vision of the beings that mediate between the firmament and our terra firma.

It might seem ironic to focus on plein air painting as we approach the shortest day of the year, but holidays are about cultural traditions, and plein air landscape painting is the mother lode of Maine’s remarkable role in American culture.

It might be a tradition born of radical change, but as shows like Moss’ prove, plein air painting is alive and well in Maine.

 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]