How newly-founded must an American art museum be not to be awash in paintings by the painters of the Barbizon School, either on display or, perhaps more likely these days, in storage? The works of Corot, Rousseau, Millet, Daubigny, and a number of artists loosely allied with them represent an important but frequently not fully sketched-out bridge between Romanticism and Modernisms of various sorts, but especially Impressionism. Barbizon painting also represents an important episode in mid-19th century middle class taste. The Barbizon landscape paintings produced in such great numbers (I once heard an old joke that Corot painted 3000 paintings, 4000 of which are in the United States) were snapped up by titans of industry and other collectors who wanted art that was more airy (and more available) than the landscapes of the Dutch baroque, but nothing that would raise eyebrows or hackles like the Impressionists, whose careers were just getting underway.
This is a very big show in the Taft’s cozy exhibition space. Taft Director and CEO Deborah Scott notes that is “the most ambitious project we’ve ever taken on.” The fifty-five paintings in the show were borrowed from some twenty museums across the United States and from institutions in five foreign countries. It has a complete and thought-provoking catalogue and even has a downloadable audio tour. Lynne Ambrosini, the Taft’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions who curated “Impressions of Landscape” and wrote two excellent essays for the catalogue, sees it as a show with a thesis: “Tempering the myth of abrupt revolution, Impressionist art grew organically from the progressive work of predecessors like Daubigny” (p. 42). It is an exhibition, she explains, of paintings when art is “on the verge.”
The show proposes that there is a traceable line from 17th century Dutch landscapes to Daubigny to Pissarro to Van Gogh. The Dutch had laid out one crucial set of the basic terms for European landscape for more than two centuries. Viewers were situated almost on the same level as what they were seeing; a cloud-filled sky could have as much pictorial weight as the land or water beneath it. The landscape portrayed a world where humans freely came and went; people populating the landscape might be at work or at play and both might be going on in the same space, which helps provide baroque landscape with a narrative element. This is the show’s deep background.
In the foreground of the exhibition, Ambrosini makes the claim that Daubigny is a central figure in helping the modern become modern. It is a show, remarkably, that has brought five outstanding Van Goghs to Cincinnati, and if that isn’t enough reason to go down to the Taft, it is hard to imagine what would be. The Van Goghs are there because Ambrosini sees Daubigny as central to the younger painter’s development. It must certainly be significant that one of Van Gogh’s final paintings was “Daubigny’s Garden,” based on sketches he made after coming to pay his respects to Daubigny’s widow, who makes a cameo appearance in the painting. Shortly afterwards, Van Gogh would shoot himself in Auvers, the village where Daubigny had lived. But is Van Gogh a wheatfield or a spring orchard too far? Does Daubigny stand out from a considerable array of painters with whom Van Gogh entered into a self-imposed apprenticeship? Van Gogh admired, studied, wrote about, and even copied Dore and Daumier and Delacroix, and certainly obsessed about Japanese prints and Millet. What did he see in—what did he need from—Daubigny?
The exhibition does not place Daubigny in the context of the other Barbizon painters because, Ambrosini explains, he wasn’t really like them and didn’t really paint either what, or where, they did. Instead, she proposes, Daubigny’s roots are in Realism (perhaps another link to early Van Gogh), and points to a cleverly-found piece of supporting evidence. In 1861, Daubigny made a series of 15 etchings (published the following year) interpreting an expedition he embarked on with his young son on his studio boat where he lived, sketched, and painted for days at a time. (A pristine complete series of the etchings was lent to the Taft by Cincinnati collector Sallie R. Wadsworth.) In one, “The Studio on the Boat,” the artist works on a small painting while leaning up against the shaded side wall are some drying canvases and a portfolio on whose outside we can see the word “Realisme.”
But “realism” is a tricky word. Even in casual conversation, we are unlikely to agree whether it indicates that we are in the presence of an intense sense of subjectivity or objectivity. Moreover, the portfolio of etchings as a whole is at least as much dedicated to playfulness and fantasy as it is to realism. In the next to last etching in the sequence, as Daubigny father and son prepare to return home, dozens of fish leap and cavort joyfully on the surface of the river now that they are secure from the fabulous fishing skills of the young son, who cannot help but bring in a sumptuous dinner by merely dropping his line in the water. Besides, perhaps the portfolio is bound and in the shadows because, in part, it is part of what Daubigny is setting aside to make his paintings. Surprising elements of playfulness and fantasy show up from time to time, as in the small painting showing the studio boat being precariously towed (or is it being dragged?) through the rough, well-traveled waters of the more industrialized portions of the Seine by a steam-powered ferry boat, with Daubigny’s smaller and more delicate skiff skittering through the waves. Even the more sedate river paintings choose carefully what to take into account. As Ambrosini observes in one of her essays, “Seen today, however, Daubigny’s realism appears selective.”
Perhaps one way to draw some links between the artist’s work and realism is to note the careful draftsmanship in the earlier paintings, presumably the result of immediate, first-hand observation. In “The Water’s Edge, Optevoz” (by 1856), Ambrosini notes in the catalogue that there is an “extraordinary specificity [to] the plants, rocks and water life” (19). The clouds are freely and loosely painted (both in the sky and then when reflected in more abstracted and geometrical form on the water), as are the reeds and whatever is floating on the almost deathly still surface. It would be interesting to trace the ways that Daubigny’s painterly floating sedge helps lead the way to Monet’s water lilies a half century or so later on. But Daubigny’s rocks are done with considerable attention to details of mass and line and chiaroscuro. Sharpness and looseness seem engaged in process of being transformed into each other, with definition alternately dissolving and resolving. In the earlier parts of his career, Daubigny’s early to mid-career paintings are heavily dependent on drawing, as we can see in the remarkable unfinished work, “Flood at Billancourt” (1866). As the exhibition notes help us see, he started with priming his canvas, but we can still see the detailed underdrawing. It is only after he painted in the sky that he painted the town and the river, bathed in the light implied by the largely finished sky. It will be an important part of the history of modernity in painting when underdrawings disappear, and brushwork—intrinsically more open to improvisatory mark-making–supplants line work.
In “The Water’s Edge,” we also get an early look at one of Daubigny’s frequent compositional concerns. To a surprising extent, the Taft show suggests that Daubigny was a dedicated formalist. A number of the paintings are arranged according to a visual schematic dominated by a kind of stretched-out “X.” There is a watery, triangular wedge at the bottom, and the cloud-flecked wedge of sky at top, with the shore tapering in towards the center coming in from the left and right. (We see other versions of this in “The Village of Gloton,” for example, or “Banks of the Oise at Auvers.”) And just slightly off-center but very close to the geometric heart of the canvas we can find a solitary object—a rock bathed in the sun, or a towering tree. This design scheme is connected to another aspect of Daubigny’s modernity: the challenge he set himself “to set up perspective…to create an illusion of recession,” as Ambrosini notes in a catalogue essay (25), with a literally fluid subject matter that inherently resists it. One of the arcs of modern painting is the increasingly insistent replacement of the illusion of space in a canvas with the flatness of paint on the canvas. The lower triangle of the water in his paintings works towards creating the illusion of space while the more abstract schematics of his dividing the space on the canvas works towards flattening it. It is, as Ambrosini says, painting on the verge.
Daubigny is probably best-known—perhaps, as Ambrosini suggests, too well-known—for the decades of paintings he did on his studio boat. The exhibition features a nice sampling of the paintings he did of French rivers and shores, and even has several paintings that probably show the boat itself beached by the water’s edge. “Voyage en Bateau,” the series of etchings Daubigny made to memorialize a painting expedition he undertook with his son, gives a sense of what the boat looked like, and what it felt like to be an artist on it. It offered the painter a point of view, lower to the water and more intimately involved with its surface than, for example, we are in Ruisdael’s 17th century water views. The etching sequence as a whole also serves to remind us how much narrative energy is hidden (suppressed?) behind Daubigny’s apparently meditative paintings. Quarters were tight on board (see “Night on the Boat,” a wonderful etching of crowded sleepers), but like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, once Daubigny gets to work painting in it, it seems bigger on the inside than the outside. In “The Studio on the Boat,” the square opening at one end of the vessel was both his source of light and also a kind of framing device available for Daubigny’s use. Perhaps it also served as something of a blind: a way to see without being seen. It is interesting to consider the voyeuristic qualities to Daubigny’s riverscapes, not just because he can see people who must work by the edge of the river or those who have the leisure to picnic there, but he could observe distant hints of a more industrialized world—a steam-powered boat, a distant plume of smoke—without being thrust into them. As far as I could tell, only once did Daubigny seem to have been seen as well as to be seeing: in the etching “The Word of Cambronne,” one figure on the shore sends catcalls towards the boy and his father on the boat float in the middle of the river, one moons its occupants, while another takes an unceremonious dump underneath a tree. The word, by the way, that General Cambronne is thought to have said (to the British, when asked to surrender) was “Merde!”
But while ensconced on the boat, Daubigny seems to have found a way to enjoy, and to have been able to market, leisure. Leisure was a precious commodity to the mid-19th century middle class. The immense—and ultimately, perhaps the stifling—popularity of the riverscapes was perhaps rooted in the subtext that there, on the boat, the artist was free. It is perhaps also connected to the deeper subtext that there is an audience who can buy a piece of that freedom and put it up on their walls in the confines of the city. It is as if the painter is saying, “I work full-time at being free. You can be free for less.” This becomes a sign of the complicated nature of modern life because, as Ambrosini notes, Daubigny was not, in fact, full-time on the river; he “still lived in Paris” (26), where his audiences and the 38 dealers with whom he worked were to be found (86). As the exhibition points out, Daubigny took great pains to avoid painting the familiar tourist sites across France, sometimes literally turning his back on them and painting more undeveloped landscapes contiguous to them and the people who still had to work in them. But he then sold his authentic paintings of authentic people to the urban bourgeoisie.
It is hard to know what to make of Daubigny’s gradual but steady financial success. When you exhibit a painting and it is bought by the state or awarded a medal by Emperor Napoleon III, does that help you confront the most challenges of keeping up with the most progressive painters of your time? One of Ambrosini’s catalogue essays suggests that in time, Daubigny came to work on two different types of art, his “daring work” vs. the “conventional crowd pleaser” (81-2). Perhaps Daubigny had two different audiences, or perhaps he had two different careers, where, as Ambrosini notes, a more “Impressionist picture exemplifies his late style when painting for friends, progressive collectors and his own pleasure” (32). Or perhaps, as befits the man caught up in the pressures and conflicts of modernity, he was two different painters altogether.
It is comfortable to flatter ourselves today that we can readily tell the difference between the advanced work and the paintings that were market-ready. Naturally, we are drawn to the “daring” work which helps locate his career in the progressive tradition. And in truth, as we get to Daubigny’s later paintings, the two modes of production seem to have merged, at least stylistically. In an interesting example of an artistic feedback loop, having influenced the young Impressionists about painting outdoors and being open to nature, by the 1870s Daubigny was being influenced in turn by his protégés. We lose the sense that there is a meticulous underdrawing and his brushstrokes become looser, as virtually all French artists in the final quarter of the century are thinking about just what a brushstroke is and does—what it expresses and what it abbreviates.
Around these years, Daubigny is drawn to a new and even more concise geometry. In “The Dunes at Camiers” (1871), the horizon line is virtually in the dead center of the canvas. Color aside, it makes Rothko look loose. Daubigny’s color scheme is austere, tilting as it often does towards the warm with only an occasional small burst of cooler blue. The whole bottom half is beach and dunes, though there are barely any identifiable shapes, sacrificing the 19th century affinity for the picturesque. “Seascape” (c. 1874) is another powerful painting, similar bisected by a horizon line. Its tendency towards abstraction would be even easier to appreciate if the tiny mark representing a boat on the horizon were eliminated; perhaps that second painter could not imagine the picture without the boat to orient us and keep us rooted. The tiny fleck that suggests a boat also cannot help but return at least a minimal element of narrative to the painting—something that had been excised from “Dunes”—and tug it back from the brink of abstraction. The sequence of calligraphic horizontal squiggles we often see in Daubigny’s work measures out the recession of space. In “Seascape,” the squiggles suggest the crests of waves; in other paintings, in other colors, they denote rows of wheat in a field. This was one of several places in the exhibition where I would have much liked a Courbet nearby for purposes of comparison, another painter frequently on the verge of narrativeless abstraction.
Towards the end of his career—or in any case, towards the end of the show—Daubigny executed some large-scale landscapes with a setting sun or a rising moon. “Moonrise at Auvers” (1877) is a prime example. A shepherd walks with his flock across a flat plain in the bright moonlight; we can make out a distant river, perhaps obscured by mist. It certainly seems fair to think that there autobiographical touches to such images, though it isn’t clear to me which of the two painters (or audiences) are to be invoked here. Is it a daring work or a crowd pleaser? Perhaps it’s both—19th century sheep throw me. It is certainly a painting designed to suggest a story. But the sky is particularly stunning—or particularly “daring”–made up not of clouds but of brushstrokes, in the same sense that Monet’s water lilies are made of brushstrokes rather than flowers. By 1877, the typical academic distinction between finished and unfinished—between a painting and a mere “impression”—has been irreparably breached.
One of the best reasons to have the excellent Monets and Van Goghs in this show is that they enable us to see that Daubigny helped raise questions about what a brushstroke was, and that Monet and Van Gogh came up with two very different answers to that puzzle. Their two different answers contribute a great deal to the history of painterly modernity. There is something powerfully expressive about the sky in “Moonlight at Auvers,” and it struck me that in some of his later paintings, the work made me think as much of Munch as of Van Gogh, a feeling hard to miss in the sketch “Landscape by Moonlight” (c. 1875). But exploring that would surely have required another show.
There are pictures at this excellent Taft show that are just important to go see. During the Franco-Prussian War, Daubigny fled to England and in 1871 or so produced “St. Paul’s from the Surry Side,” an urban masterpiece in which the distant promise—or threat—of the industrial city looms in the smoggy distance almost blocked out by dozens of working skiffs tied up near the shore. But you would never confuse Daubigny’s color scheme for, say, Monet’s London paintings two decades later. A more typical late work might be the monumental “Cliffs near Villerville” (1864-1872). As storm clouds gather over a hilltop village overlooking some water, two laborers work their ways up a path, presumably from the shore to town. It has the look of something painted relatively quickly, as if the painter has seen something of value about these particular clouds. Somewhere there is some sun breaking through the dense clouds because in places, the water glows with reflected sunshine. If part of the life of a landscape painting is in its weather, we are assured here that the weather can change. The picture freely embraces a narrative, of sorts. The laborers may well embody the touch of rural authenticity Daubigny needed to sell the picture, but they have a solidity and a sense of purpose and perhaps even a touch of nobility worthy of Millet. The town sits on its rocks as if it were a fortified castle. It is closed off from nature but indestructible; the way that humans live is both heroic and oblivious. There is nothing remotely Barbizon about this painting. But there is something of the Dutch baroque to it. There is a path we can see but cannot quite be on. It is open to the elements with a kind of sensual, almost sexual presence. Throughout Daubigny’s career, the sorts of influences from the Dutch change but never fully disappear. Daubigny saw Dutch 17th century painting with the wide-open eyes of a late 19th century proto-modernist—a world in flux, a world where we can see parallel economies almost everywhere we look, and where a sky can be both stormy and reassuring—and that’s pretty considerable accomplishment.
Part of the glory of Monet can be seen in how, in his enabling of abstraction, he allowed himself to squeeze the narrative elements in his earlier paintings out. It’s not clear that Van Gogh ever really tried to turn his back on the stories that gave the objects in his world their feeling and meaning. In Daubigny, there is a strong pull towards sheer formal elegance tempered by an apparent need to let a painting imply a story. So, can we trace a line from Daubigny to Van Gogh? I don’t know if I can take that final step. It is hard to know if Daubigny ever saw the world around him as freshly and as brightly as Van Gogh did. And he never laid down paint as Van Gogh did, for whom each stroke was like a tessera in a mosaic, locking down the dizzying ride taken through the whole. But there are so many levels on which this show succeeds. It shows the range—in terms of chronology, subject matter, scale, and style—of an under-appreciated artist. It raises issues about artistic production and cultural consumption. It suggests ways in which 19th century landscape was, for a time, an extraordinary index to what art was, what the artist sees, and what art could become when it was “on the verge.” And it reminds us of how much was once at stake for culture as a whole in just how and for whom a landscape was produced, and just how much can hang on a brushstroke.