The third theme of the exhibition, In the Open Air, is closely linked to the arrival of plein air (outdoor) painting in the Nordic countries in the 1880s. This was to be the most turbulent phase in the development of Nordic nineteenth-century art, a period marked by revolts against the art academies and a mass exodus of young artists to Paris.

An eloquent symbol of the break with tradition which plein air painting represented is Carl Larsson's large canvas Open-Air Painter, 1886. When, somewhat late in the day, Realism achieved its breakthrough in Nordic art in the 1880s, it led to a vigorous rejection of the idealization of earlier art. Realism acknowledged only a visible reality, and art was no longer to be a bearer of ideas. Instead, truth became the all-overshadowing goal of the artist's work.

This created new demands as regards the study of nature, and broadened the field of artistic endeavour to include aspects of reality not traditionally considered aesthetically appealing. Democracy, earth, overcast skies, the open air - that was the way it was to be, sighed the Danish art historian Julius Lange, who saw the proper birthplace of a work of art as the mind and spirit of the artist, and the studio, rather than the great outdoors.

Plein air painting spoke more to the eye than to the mind, resulting in a greater concentration on the rendering of light and colour. This made particular demands on Nordic painters who had trained in France, and who on returning home found the silvery haze of the French tradition totally unsuited to a landscape defined by the cold, crisp air of the North. Here, there was no unifying, overall tone, and the colours seemed too bright and starkly juxtaposed.

The challenge which Realism posed for the landscape painter was, put very simply, to turn reality into art. Plein air painting always involved a clear temporal dimension, a "now", and the goal was therefore, as far as possible, to record one's impressions on the spot, without the process of redigestion which the slower studio method entailed.

In Open-Air Painter, which Carl Larsson exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1886, the artist has, in a manner typical of the period, chosen a prosaic, wintry back garden in Stockholm as the theme of his large painting. The work confirms Realism's contention that no part of reality is without content, at the same time as the seemingly random cropping of the composition gives the right impression of capturing a moment in time. In addition, the painting is done in a technique which, fifteen years earlier, would have been unthinkable other than in a sketch or study. The brush has left clear traces in the paint, and the brushwork is an essential component of the picture's artistic expression. In this new form of art, how you painted was more important than what you painted.

Open-Air Painter, Carl Larsson, 1886

Carl Larsson
Swedish, 1853-1919
Open-Air Painter, 1886

Jays, Bruno Liljefors, 1886

Bruno Liljefors
Swedish, 1860-1939
Jays, 1886

Peat Bog on Jæren, Kitty Lange Kielland, 1882

Kitty Lange Kielland
Norwegian, 1843-1914
Peat Bog on Jæren, 1882

An Avenue in Kastrup, Theodor Philipsen, 1892

Theodor Philipsen
Danish, 1840-1920
An Avenue in Kastrup, 1892

Girls Bathing (In the Open Air), Anders Zorn, 1890

Anders Zorn
Swedish, 1860-1920
Girls Bathing (In the Open Air), 1890