Inspiring Impressionism – Exhibition Review

BY BEN REISS

Many people will know the Impressionists.  Works by artists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne can be found in museums and galleries across the world.  These artists would go on to have a profound influence on another artist whose works are also popular today – Vincent van Gogh.

A painter who might be less well known is Charles-François Daubigny.  He lived in France from 1817 to 1878 and the last few years of his career overlapped with the first few years of the Impressionist movement.

‘Inspiring Impressionism’, currently on at the Scottish National Gallery, demonstrates how Daubigny had a profound influence on Monet and, through him, the other Impressionists.  It also shows the influence he had beyond the Impressionists, on Van Gogh.

Apple Blossoms by Charles-François Daubigny, 1873
Apple Blossoms by Charles-François Daubigny, 1873

The exhibition starts by displaying a selection of Daubigny’s early work, highlighting the way he would start some paintings outside rather than painting wholly in his studio.  This technique is called painting ‘en plein air’ and was a key feature of the work of the Impressionists.  It allowed artists such as Daubigny and Monet to accurately capture the feel of the landscapes they were painting.

‘The Harvest’, painted in 1851 and ‘October’, painted in 1850 both also showcase how Daubigny’s paintings acted as precursors to the Impressionist painters who came later.  The thick paint and visible brushstrokes in these works would, like the ‘en plein air’ painting, be a hallmark of many Impressionist paintings.

The Harvest by Charles-François Daubigny, 1851
The Harvest by Charles-François Daubigny, 1851

It would be nice to see examples of work by some of Daubigny’s contemporaries early on in his career, to get an idea of the general artistic milieu that he was working in.  As it is, it is a little hard to get any visual impression of how his work differed from other mid-nineteenth century artists and why he in particular would go on to be so influential.

However, the exhibition illustrates his contemporary importance by highlighting the fact that two of his paintings – ‘The Harvest’, mentioned earlier and ‘Spring’ from 1857 – were both displayed in the Paris Salon (a very important annual exhibition) and purchased for the French state.

The display of Daubigny’s work prompted the contemporary French art critic Theopile Gautier to comment that the artist ‘contents himself with an impression…His paintings…offer only juxtaposed patches of colour.’  Artists such as Monet and Van Gogh certainly saw Daubigny’s paintings, and it is no coincidence that this description could as easily have been applied to their work as Daubigny’s.

Having set up Daubigny as the precursor of Impressionism in this way, the rest of the exhibition focusses on comparing and contrasting his work with that of Monet and Van Gogh.  Monet was a key figure in the Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886 while Van Gogh’s painting career lasted from 1881-1890.

Orchard in Blossom by Van Gogh, 1888
Orchard in Blossom by Van Gogh, 1888

The exhibition does a fantastic job of illustrating how both men were interested in and influenced by Daubigny.  Comparisons between seascapes painted by Daubigny and Monet in the 1860s such as ‘Cliffs Near Villerville’ (Daubigny) with ‘La Pointe de la Héve at Low Tide’ (Monet) draw out perfectly how Monet expanded upon Daubigny’s immediate and free-flowing style.  Like Daubigny, he often used a palette knife to apply paint and even took on Daubigny’s idea of purchasing a boat and painting the river from on the river itself, which allowed him an immediate and immersive viewpoint.

The influence of Daubigny on Van Gogh is made clearest in the display of both men’s paintings of spring blossom.  Daubigny had a great affection for this subject and was well suited to painting it – his use of paint in thick dabs perfectly evoking the impression of the trees.  Van Gogh was a big fan of these works, and the exhibition displays several of his own paintings of blossom which were clearly influenced by Daubigny’s earlier efforts.

Poppy Field, Auvers-sur-Oise by Van Gogh, 1890
Poppy Field, Auvers-sur-Oise by Van Gogh, 1890

Towards the end of his life, Van Gogh stayed (and died) in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Daubigny had also lived.  Van Gogh seems to have absorbed some of the spirit of Daubigny’s style simply through proximity to the landscape which inspired him and by painting Daubigny’s old cottage, still inhabited by his widow.

The most impressive wall in the exhibition displays a trio of works by the three artists – Daubigny’s ‘Fields in the Month of June’ from 1874, Monet’s ‘Field With Poppies’ from 1881 and Van Gogh’s ‘Poppy Field, Auvers-sur-Oise’ from 1890.  Each painting is of a poppy field and their bright red colours form a powerful and dominant impression.

Poppy Field by Claude Monet, 1881
Poppy Field by Claude Monet, 1881

Furthermore, their comparison makes clear the progression of ideas throughout this exhibition.  Daubigny’s work is quite a precise and conventional work, but the impression of the sky is wonderfully relaxed and immediate.  In Monet’s ‘Field With Poppies’, the field itself has also become a blur of colour while in Van Gogh’s painting, sky and field and trees writhe in a riot of colour.  Daubigny’s influence on these two famous artists is clear – it is possible to trace it right across the whole spectacular wall.

The one criticism that might be levelled at the exhibition is that, despite the title, it never quite comes out and states its main argument.  The curators were possibly keen to draw the crowds in by focussing on the better known Monet and Van Gogh, but really this is an exhibition about Daubigny.  It focusses on him and makes an excellent case for how influential he was on the Impressionists.

Fields in the Month of June by Charles-François Daubigny, 1874
Fields in the Month of June by Charles-François Daubigny, 1874

This is a small quibble, however.  The exhibition is largely excellent, not only full of high quality and eye-catching works of art but also clearly interpreted.  Visitors do not have to have any prior knowledge of Daubigny and the reasoning behind the inclusion of each painting is clearly and simply explained.  If you’ve ever wondered where the Impressionists got their ideas from, this exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland is a great place to start learning.

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One comment

  1. Sounds like it was a very interesting exhibition. There is a new exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris devoted to Camille Pissarro who a bit like Daubigny is in the shadows of the well known Impressionist artists. This exhibition refers, in fact, to Pissarro as the ‘first of the impressionists’, a statement credited to Paul Cezanne.

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