Inspiring Impressionism, at the Scottish National Gallery, argues that Charles-François Daubigny was one of the most important artists of the 19th century
“Soleil couchant sur l’Oise” (Setting Sun on the Oise), c.1865, © Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France
The aim of Inspiring Impressionism: Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh, at the Scottish National Gallery, is at last to give Charles-François Daubigny his due. Daubigny (1817-1878) was the son of a classical landscape artist and worked initially in the academic tradition, but came under the influence of the Barbizon school and turned towards plein air painting and direct observation. In 1839 he tried to create a Salon-type painting, “Saint Jerome in the Desert”, outdoors in the French Alps, but as Lynne Ambrosini notes in the exhibition catalogue (National Galleries of Scotland, £24.95), “A stiff wind thwarted this plan.”
In his working practice, his looser, less finished style and his choice of subjects, he helped nudge Impressionism along; it’s surely the success of Impressionism which has led to his relative obscurity. This exhibition presents Daubigny’s work alongside that of the Impressionists, and the parallels are almost too obvious: his orchards blossom next to Monet’s and van Gogh’s; his riverbank, Monet’s riverbank; his poppies, Monet’s and Van Gogh’s poppies. Monet copied him in an important practical way too: he borrowed the idea of the bateau atelier, a floating studio, which Daubigny called Le Botin — the little box. A full-size replica is included in the exhibition, based on Daubigny’s etchings. Monet makes his the main subject of a painting; Daubigny has his peeping out from behind some rushes, upstaged by ducks. Monet also preferred to moor close to home; Daubigny took the Botin on journeys of days, sometimes weeks. The only problem, he said was “the steamboats . . . there are a lot of them going back and forth”. He sketched the little boat struggling in the wake of larger vessels, but generally the commercial and industrial side of the countryside was to be ignored, and only the unspoilt parts painted.
Throughout the 1860s the word “impression”, which Monet would later reclaim, was liberally applied to Daubigny’s work by critics; he creates a “brutal impression of reality”, he is “a slave to his impression”. One critic refers to “this school of the impression and of its leader, Monsieur Daubigny”. Looking at Daubigny’s The Harvest, Maxime du Camp complained it was unfinished: “with a few months of work, the thing could resemble a painting.”
Daubigny introduced Monet and Pisarro to the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (subject of a recent show at the National Portrait Gallery) who was crucial to their careers. In 1866, when Daubigny was elected to the Salon jury, he defended the work of Cézanne, Pissarro and Renoir, and two years later campaigned successfully to have the Impressionists’ work admitted. In 1870, when a painting by Monet was rejected, Daubigny resigned from the jury. Daubigny’s influence lasted: he was on Van Gogh’s list of favourite artists as early as 1874. Three of Van Gogh’s last paintings are of Daubigny’s garden in Auvers.
In later life Daubigny enjoyed great commercial success, even if he sometimes sounded grumpy about it. The dealers wanted river pictures; he gave them river pictures, and complained that “the best paintings are those which do not sell”. Emile Zola concurred: “Should he vigorously paint heavy earth, dark skies and powerful trees and islands, the public finds that very ugly, very coarse.” When a visitor in 1877 praised some of his later, looser canvases, Daubigny was pleased, saying they were “too large and too bold” to find a buyer — “they are for my family.”