If you consider for a moment, you will perceive that painting the figure in the open involves a simultaneous attack on nearly every problem in the wide domain of art. You have first of all the out-door questions of atmospheric vibration and refraction, and the consideration of the color-scale and value-scale; then, in addition to these, you have practically all the in-door problems, which include figure-composition and arrangement, in addition to the usual problems of drawing and modelling(sic) - the latter presented in a reversed and unfamiliar form, owing to the new and unexpected color-reflections from the sky and surrounding sunlit landscape.
-Birge Harrison, Landscape Painting, 1909
In the above paragraph, Birge Harrison describes only partially the difficulties involved in painting a figure en plein air (the most glaring omission of Harrison's being the obstacle of the ever-changing light out-of-doors). He goes on to dissuade the young artist from tackling this challenge, no matter how tempting it appears, because of the very many problems which need to be simultaneously addressed. Even the best of artists must go through yards and yards of canvas before they execute a successful figure painting under these conditions.
Many artists have created paintings of nudes in a sylvan setting, though few were convincing as representations of an actual figure in the natural world. Bouguereau, as example, painted many beautiful figures against a backdrop of nature, but there is little doubt that they were generated in a studio. (Of course, it can be argued that it was not Monsieur Bouguereau's intention to capture this truth in nature, as mythology and allegory were the subjects of his outdoor nudes: as an artist openly criticized for portraying fantastical scenes with an irreverent verisimilitude, he fell short of achieving the full realism he obviously sought by NOT characterizing the actual play of light on his models). It was not until the Naturalists, who experimented with photography and direct nature studies, and who worked outdoors or in specialized, glasshouse studios, that the first compelling depictions of the nude en plein air were painted.
Though artists like Sorolla and Sargent are known for exploring the motif of the human body outdoors, it is Anders Zorn who is probably best associated with this demanding theme. At a time when society accepted nude mythological characters in paintings, but prudishly rejected the naked body in and of itself, Zorn openly challenged the public's hypocritical stance by painting the nude in naturalistic poses and settings. Using photography as an aid in capturing staged "candid" moments of disrobed female models in and around his hometown of Mora, Sweden, Zorn went on to create a large body of paintings centered on the subject of the figure outdoors. His choice of topic could have potentially led to controversy had it not coincided with a national movement in Sweden extolling the health benefits of living a more "natural" lifestyle. This movement, along with the Zorn's brash choice in subject matter, paved the way for other Swedish artists to tackle the same theme, and very likely had a direct influence on such contemporary painters as Jeremy Lipking and Ignat Ignatov when they too chose to revisit this theme.
Anders Zorn ( 1860 - 1920)
John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925)
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863 - 1923)
Jeremy Lipking ( b. 1975)
Ignat Ignatov (b. 1978)
There is one painter, the British artist Henry Scott Tuke, who spent much of his career exploring the subject of the play of light on the naked human form, but he is often overlooked, most likely because his subject was the nude male rather than the nude female.
Henry Scott Tuke painting on location in Falmouth.
Tuke was born into a devout Quaker family in York, England in 1858 and by the age of seventeen was enrolled in the Slade School. From there he went on to study in Florence, where he first attempted the subject, painting boys swimming at the coast near Livorno. While studying in Paris from 1881 to 1883, he met, and became an adherent of, the artist Jules Bastien-Lepage, and upon Tuke's return to England, headed to Newlyn where like-minded artists such as Stanhope Alexander Forbes explored the Naturalist movement in Great Britain, painting local scenes with an eye toward unposed realism. Settling in Falmouth in 1885, Tuke purchased and refurbished an old French brigantine, which became his floating studio, enabling him to better paint his seaside pictures from direct observation. In 1886, along with Forbes, Tuke was a founding member of the New English Art Club, which showcased the Naturalist art of Britain when the Royal Academy would not, though he later increasingly showed at the latter venue (he was made an associate of the Royal Academy in 1900, and became a full member in 1914). By 1892, after a trip to Italy, Albania, and Corfu, Tuke altered his palette, reflecting the brighter, impressionistic colors of the mediterranean, and he abandoned the square-brush technique of Bastien-Lepage for a more fluid painting technique. Always loving to travel, Tuke visited Jamaica and Central America in 1923 where he produced some fine plein air watercolors, but took ill, and had to return home to England. Never fully recovering from his sickness, he passed away in 1929, and was buried in Falmouth.
Unfortunately, Tuke's subject matter brought him some notoriety, and probably affected his chances of achieving fame as a British impressionist outside of his home country. To this day, his work is often attacked, and museums and public buildings which display his art are often derided for exhibiting his paintings, which many consider to be outward representations of pedophilia. Nevertheless, his celebration of male youth is sometimes sensual, but never sexual, and should be viewed from the point in history when they were painted (ie. a time when nudity among swimming boys was the norm), and though his paintings were sometimes controversial, there was never any hints of scandal in Tuke's dealings with his models. As works of art, Tuke's paintings are brilliant and need to be appreciated for his understanding and portrayal of light. His ability to capture this subject is among the best.
Henry Scott Tuke (1858 - 1929)
... it does no harm occasionally to shoot arrows at the stars even if you know that they will not carry. But for students seriously to shoulder all these problems at once, shows both courage, and naivete, but little discretion. Did they know that Sorolla himself worked for twenty-five years at the problem before he painted his first successful out-door canvas, they would perhaps attack it with less enthusiasm. But courage is an admirable thing, and it seems a shame to put obstacles in its path.- Birge Harrison, Landscape Painting, 1909