Wander through the town of Delaware Water Gap, PA this week, or through the nearly 70,000 acres of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and you might stumble upon a sight out of a story book: a lone painter outside, capturing nature on her canvas in the open air.
The practice of starting and finishing paintings entirely outdoors, with no retreat to an indoor studio, is called painting en plein air– French for “in the open air.” A centuries-old practice, it became the signature method of French impressionists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Now, the Antoine Dutot Museum in the town of Delaware Water Gap is celebrating the resurgence of this art form with its Eighth Annual Plein Air Exhibit and Silent Auction.
While other en plein air events require an application or even an exclusive invitation, any artist can participate in the Dutot Museum’s paint out. Artists have between now and July 25th to complete up to four paintings done entirely en plein air, depicting anything in town or in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
On Saturday, July 29th, the museum will host an art show featuring the artists’ work. Attendees will have the option of participating in a silent auction to buy the pieces or pay a higher “buy it now” price to skip the bidding process entirely. Any unsold pieces will be up for sale on Sunday, July 30th. Artists will receive 75% of their sales while the other 25% will benefit the nonprofit museum.
Artists with a competitive streak can vie for cash prizes awarded to the best in show, as well as the chance to win discounts and gift sets of paints made by Vasari, a well-respected oil paint manufacturer that is supporting the event this year.
Tricia Lowrey Lippert, one of the event organizers, is also a painter who has worked en plein air since the 70s. “But a lot of it is a new movement,” she said. “It’s a huge movement, and it’s an international movement.”
This resurgence is partially due to Covid, which made all outdoor activities explode in popularity. The other explanation is the work of Eric Rhoads, publisher of PleinAir Magazine and organizer of the Plein Air Convention & Expo, now in its eleventh year.
Lippert recalls livestreams that Rhoads first hosted in 2020, after the pandemic made his in-person events impossible. Rhoads’ first En Plein Air Live conference, hosted on Zoom and featuring technique demonstrations, breakout room discussions, and talks by art historians, saw about 1500 people in attendance worldwide. Rhoads has continued hosting live Zoom conferences for artists in the years since. These days, about three to four thousand people attend.
About 40 artists are participating this year. Some are in it for the competition and the chance to challenge themselves, Lippert says. For others, the performative aspect of painting outdoors, with privacy all but impossible, presents a chance to break out of their shells.
“A lot of us are introverts,” Lippert said. Painting outside the solitude of the studio allows painters to engage with others, making the landscape and the act of depicting it a more communal experience.
The chance to engage with others continues at the auction. “It brings the community together, I think,” Lippert said. Artists come from both sides of the river, from the town of Delaware Water Gap as well as Blairstown, Columbia, and as far north as Newton on the New Jersey side. Each artist’s fans and family will come to the auction, making the audience largely a gathering of people from within a twenty-mile radius of the Water Gap.
Some of the participating artists are seasoned painters who have competed in highly regarded juried competitions, with cash prizes in the thousands. “But a lot of them are just people that want to help out and want to have fun and participate and be a part of it,” Lippert said. In fact, she estimates that about half of the artists participate year after year.
It’s fitting that the Antoine Dutot Museum hosts this outdoor paint out at the Delaware Water Gap, a historic natural wonder that was once the second-largest inland resort area in the United States. The Gap’s heyday as a resort area saw visits from household names, including luminaries like Fred Astaire and Teddy Roosevelt.
But in an earlier era, the Water Gap also hosted painters who would change the art world. Its landscapes have been captured by the likes of the American Impressionist Cullen Yates and Tonalist painter George Inness, who is sometimes called “the father of American landscape painting.”
Lippert pointed out that artist colonies once dotted the East Coast from Maine to Maryland, inspired by the work of Impressionists and landscape painters like those of the Hudson River School. Quite often, they would gather outside to paint en plein air.
“That’s really the whole tradition of where landscape sets in,” Lippert said. “So you take something as beautiful as the Water Gap, and it’s inspiration. We feel like we’ve offered the artists an incredible area to paint from.”
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.