Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. 25th June, 2016 to 2nd October, 2016


Published by National Galleries of Scotland. 176 pages. ISBN 978-1-906270-86-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I doubt that many people in Britain will be familiar with the work of Charles Francois Daubigny (1817-1878). There are some of his paintings in galleries in this country, but not too many, and I can’t recall ever coming across more than one or two of them. I have seen some in France, and visited his house in Auvers, but I’m not about to claim that before the Edinburgh exhibition I knew a great deal about his life and work.

It will be obvious from the date of Daubigny’s birth that he was much older than Monet and Van Gogh. In fact, Daubigny had already started to have paintings accepted for the Salon before Monet was born. He had studied in Paris, spent time in Italy, was back in Paris in 1837 and exhibited at the Salon in 1838. In 1840 he entered the atelier of the noted artist, Paul Delaroche. But he decided against following an academic route and painted independently, while supporting himself by providing illustrations for books and magazines.

It’s sometimes mistakenly suggested that the idea of painting outdoors was largely an invention of the Impressionists, but Daubigny had worked that way in the 1840s and 1850s. He had a degree of association with the Barbizon School and one of the paintings in the exhibition, The Crossroads of the Eagle’s Nest, Forest of Fontainebleau, which dates from 1843/44, shows him functioning much in the general style of the artists who were in the area at the time. The painting is accomplished, but perhaps not strikingly original in its composition and colouring.

Success at the Salon was a key factor in establishing a young artist’s reputation, and Daubigny’s The Harvest, exhibited in 1852, attracted a great deal of attention. Critics pointed to its exactness of detail, and the way in which it captured not just the appearance but the mood of the scene and what is happening: “No one has ever rendered the harvest better, wheat has never arrived on a canvas looking so bronzed, so crackling, so true, under the burnt atmosphere of the month of August, and Mr Daubigny’s painting is a masterpiece”.  So said the Goncourt Brothers. The rural setting and the colours, together with the suggestion of a moment captured on canvas, can’t help but lead the viewer towards thinking of Daubigny’s work, in this painting at least, as anticipating elements of Impressionism. Not surprisingly, paintings by Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley also make an appearance in the exhibition. Both admired Daubigny’s landscapes.

Another painting, The Pond at Gylieu, in the 1853 Salon, aroused similarly enthusiastic comments, with one critic referring to: “The clarity of the water, the limpidity and delicacy of the sky, the freshness of the air are indescribable. This painting can be inhaled as well as looked at, and gives off some kind of aroma of wet leaves that ends up intoxicating you”. Parisian journals at this time were full of drawings by satirists such as Daumier and Gavarni, and the catalogue reproduces one by Bertall which shows two men looking at a painting. One has a handkerchief held to his nose, and is saying: “They are absolutely too humid, these paintings of Daubigny! I can’t look at them without getting a head cold; it destroys your handkerchiefs”.  It’s amusing, and is perhaps as satirical of the kind of comments that critics were making, as it is of the paintings, but it’s also an acknowledgement of how Daubigny’s canvases were affecting some viewers. Their realism was profound.

In the mid-1850s Daubigny worked around Villerville, a Normandy fishing village, and was overwhelmed by the sea: “I see the ocean, and it so beautiful that I don’t want to go anywhere else, and I can’t wait to work”.  His 1855 painting, Villerville seen from Le Ratier, is impressive in the way in which it blends buildings, trees, water, and sky. The light seems to shimmer off the water, and though a single boat is appears to be moving there is almost an air of stillness about the composition. It’s said that Daubigny was concerned about the impact of industrialisation on the landscape, and if a factory chimney or some other sign of creeping modernity did crop up in one of his paintings it was usually relegated to a background role. I doubt that Daubigny could ever be said to be a painter of modern life: “In his paintings of the 1850s, Daubigny included but distanced such urban elements, subordinating them to a scenic ensemble. Hints of environmental awareness emerged in his letters then, too, and eventually he eliminated all signs of industry from his work”.

He was referred to as a leader of the realist school of painting, even if that realism was confined to rural subjects. In his personal life he possibly reflected how some of those who praised or purchased his paintings felt. He was, at that time, a city dweller, living in Paris but always anxious to travel into the countryside for inspiration. As he remarked: “Long live the countryside and nature which serve as harmonic register for all good and beautiful things”. But Daubigny wasn’t simply copying nature in his realism. Baudelaire commented that his landscapes “immediately convey to the soul of the viewer the original feeling with which they are filled”, and someone else said: “He doesn’t copy nature, he expresses it, and that with a feeling…..which no other master can express”.

Daubigny’s early years as an artist were not without problems and, as noted earlier, he took on print and drawing commissions to earn money. It was only in the 1850s that his paintings began to attract enough attention for them to sell at prices that enabled him to set aside more mundane work. He appears to have had an awareness of his own worth once he had established a reputation, and was astute enough to know what sort of prices to ask for: “From his letters, it appears that Daubigny raised his prices regularly as his sales improved”. The catalogue includes an informative essay by Lynne Ambrosini about the market for Daubigny’s pictures. She notes that he produced paintings that were directly intended for sale, and others that, because of their size, and sometimes their subject-matter, might not easily attract a buyer. She quotes an American student who was told by Daubigny that some of his large canvases were pour la famillie, almost as if he knew that time would show their true value and so they would be a kind of insurance. Ambrosini’s own take on this is that, “Along with the pretty little paintings ornamented with ducks, Daubigny also created many daring works that furthered progressive art”.

It might be thought that with his critical reputation riding high, and his sales going well not only in Paris but also in London and Brussels, Daubigny could rest on his laurels. He had enough money to buy land and build a house in Auvers, and he moved between there and Paris. In 1866 he was elected to the Salon jury, and began to argue in favour of work by Pissarro, Cezanne and Renoir. He had met Monet by this time. In 1867 he signed a petition, along with Monet, Manet, Sisley, Pissarro, and Renoir, for a second Salon des Refuses. It was a sign of his increasing affinity with many of the younger Impressionists. By 1868, when he was re-elected to the jury, he had campaigned successfully enough on their behalf for their work to be shown at the Salon. But he resigned in 1870 when a painting by Monet was rejected despite him speaking in support of it.

Daubigny’s work in the 1860s had increasingly shown signs of a looser approach to brushwork that denoted an attempt to capture the moment. Lynne Ambrosini describes it as “privileging colour and light over detail and outline.” He was, in other words, inclining towards what we think of as an Impressionist style, probably as a result of seeing the work of younger artists. Or it may have been that he had been moving in that direction, anyway, so was arriving at the same conclusions around the same time as painters like Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro. It could, of course, have been a combination of both factors. Whatever the reason Daubigny’s new approach did not find favour with all the critics, and he was accused of submitting half-finished paintings to the Salon. Maite van Dijk, writing about Daubigny and the Impressionists in the 1860s, quotes Gautier’s comment that Daubigny “contents himself with an impression and so neglects the details”. And he added that Daubigny offered “only juxtaposed patches of colour”.  It was a common complaint about the work of the Impressionists generally, and Daubigny, by the 1870s, was no longer being viewed as a master of realism, but as the leader of the Impressionists.

It’s easy to see why Monet admired Daubigny’s work, and the examples of the younger artist’s paintings on display in the exhibition illustrate how there was probably a two-way exchange of ideas, though not necessarily of the verbal kind, between the pair. But what of Van Gogh? At first sight it may not appear obvious that he had been influenced by Daubigny. However, Nienke Bakker’s catalogue essay, In Daubigny’s Footsteps: Vincent Van Gogh, stresses how much he admired the older artist and spoke highly of him in letters to his brother, Theo. Influences do not necessarily work in a direct way and someone may admire the canvases of another painter without wanting to directly copy them, or even select elements to follow. Still, the Dutch painter thought that Daubigny’s work went “beyond the paint”, an expression which, according to Bakker, “signified that the material served solely as a vehicle for conveying feelings, and one which Van Gogh used in direct opposition to the soulless technical contrivance of the academic artists he detested”.

When he moved to Auvers in 1890, Van Gogh was aware of the fact that Daubigny, who had died in 1878, had spent time there. He met Daubigny’s widow and obtained her permission to paint in the garden of the house that her late husband had established in Auvers. Beyond the garden, Van Gogh painted some panoramic landscapes which expressed his love of an unspoiled countryside. It’s illuminating and informative to look at the three paintings (one by each artist) of poppy fields in the exhibition and note how related they are in terms of their composition. Daubigny’s is darker and does have some small human figures in the foreground, Monet’s has a lighter touch, and Van Gogh’s, with its brighter colours and looser feeling, carries the idea of Impressionism a step further. Different in their own ways, and yet with a central layout and urgency common to them all.

As the Foreword to the catalogue makes clear, both the “exhibition and its accompanying book are devoted to the achievements” of Daubigny. The works by Monet, Van Gogh, and other artists such as Pissarro, Sisley, and Berthe Morisot, that are on display are not negligible by any means, but it is Daubigny’s paintings that, to use an apt phrase, “steal the show”. But in doing so, they do add to our awareness of Impressionism by reminding us, if we need to be reminded, that it didn’t simply appear from nowhere and had its antecedents in work by someone like Daubigny.

It also points to Auvers as an important location in the history of French art. The catalogue has a useful essay, Auvers-sur-Oise as an Artists’ Colony; from Daubigny to Van Gogh, by Frances Fowle, that is well worth reading in its own right. Auvers perhaps doesn’t have the same allure as Pont-Aven, Giverny, Barbizon, and some others, when artists’ colonies are discussed, but over the years, not only Daubigny and Van Gogh had worked there, but also Berthe Morisot, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, and Armand Guillaumin.  These days, its fame, or notoriety, probably relies on the fact that Van Gogh spent his last days in Auvers and committed suicide in a nearby field. It deserves to be remembered for far more than that.

Inspiring Impressionism: Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh is a superb exhibition, and delights both the eye and the mind. It’s unlikely that we’ll have another opportunity to see so many Daubigny paintings gathered together in one place, at least not in the next few years.