The Famous Artist Who Inspired the Impressionists - Yet You've Never Heard of Him

Vincent Van Gogh, Daubigny's Garden, 1890. Basel, Collection R. Staechelin.

...it must be truly good, when one dies, to be conscious of having done a thing or two in truth, knowing that as a result one will continue to live in the memory of at least a few...

--Vincent Van Gogh, to his brother Theo, on Charles-François Daubigny's death, March 3, 1878

 

The town of Auvers-sur-Oise lies just northwest of Paris--a commune on the river, surrounded by wheat fields and woods. It is perhaps most famous as the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent his last days. In one of Van Gogh's final letters to his brother, Theo, he wrote of the landscape there, of the "vast fields of wheat under turbulent skies." Van Gogh shot himself in the chest, out in one of the fields, in July of 1890, dying two days later.

Charles François Daubigny, Apple Blossoms, 1873, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.

Van Gogh had traveled to Auvers to be close to his doctor, Paul Gachet, and his brother, who lived in Paris, but there was another reason why was he there. Auvers-sur-Oise had been the home of Charles-François Daubigny, a famed landscape painter of the Barbizon school, and one of Van Gogh's heros. Daubigny died in 1878, but by the time Van Gogh arrived in Auvers, twelve years later, he found the landscape relatively unchanged and unspoiled by the industrialization overtaking so much of France. The fields, orchards, and thatched-roof cottages of Auvers, immortalized by Daubigny in his time, became the subjects of Van Gogh's final paintings.

Claude Monet, Spring (Fruit Trees in Bloom), 1873. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Mary Livingston Willard, 1926 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.

Van Gogh was not alone in his admiration for Daubigny's work; the painter's home and studio in Auvers attracted many other artists, friends, and followers, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro among them. A pioneer of plein air painting, Daubigny's innovative techniques and personal style influenced a generation of artists known as the Impressionists. Yet, until now, Daubigny's role in the development of Impressionism was almost entirely unknown. Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape, an exhibition at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, in collaboration with the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, contextualizes Daubigny's work, techniques, and ideas with the naissance of Impressionism, and connects him in a lineage that stretches to Post-Impressionist Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, The white orchard, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Daubigny was born in Paris in 1817, into a family of painters. In 1843, he settled in the village of Barbizon, where he was joined by Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet. With Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, two other important contemporaries, Daubigny helped establish the Realist style of painting, by treating everyday subjects with the attention previously reserved for classical or historical scenes. Daubigny devoted himself to the depiction of the natural landscape--an element previously relegated to the background--and the ordinary people who worked the land, harvesting their fields. It was in Barbizon where Daubigny began painting landscapes on large canvases outdoors--an unusual practice at the time--seeking to represent the landscape as realistically as possible.

Charles-François Daubigny, Sunset near Villerville, 1874. The Mesdag Collection, The Hague.

In his efforts to represent the landscape as he saw it while working en plein air, Daubigny adopted a method of quick, sketchy brushwork that eschewed finely rendered details for a more loose style, a technique that would heavily influence the Impressionists. One of the breakthroughs of the research that culminated in this exhibition was the discovery that, with a painting executed in 1857, Daubigny was among the first artists to paint "wet on wet," allowing the completion of a painting outdoors in one session, a hallmark technique adopted by the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s.

Charles François Daubigny, Le bateau-atelier, 1827 - 1878. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

So committed was Daubigny to capturing the atmosphere and feeling of the plein air landscape, he fashioned himself a studio boat, dubbed Le Botin, from which he would paint river scenes from the open water. Monet followed his example, using his own studio boat to float along the Seine, painting the riverbanks, sky, and the reflections of light on the water.

Claude Monet, Monet's studio-boat, 1874. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

Daubigny's impact on the Impressionists extended beyond painting techniques; he championed his young painting protégés in the Parisian art world and cultivated an artist's colony in Auvers. Indeed, one of Daubigny's most important contributions to Impressionism, and the course of art history, came about through a fortuitous meeting. In 1871, in London, Daubigny introduced Monet to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, facilitating the historic dealer-artist relationship that would launch Monet, along with fellow Impressionists Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and others, from obscurity to international prominence.

Claude Monet, Sunset on the River Seine at Lavacourt, Winter Effect, 1880. Petit Palais, Paris, © Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet.

For Van Gogh, Daubigny's influence was much more distant--Daubigny had already passed away by the time Van Gogh began painting--yet quite profound. Van Gogh considered Daubigny one of the great masters of landscape painting, using his work as study material, and adopting many of the same subjects, such as poppy fields and flowering orchards. Daubigny is mentioned about 60 times in Van Gogh's letters; in one letter to his brother in 1883 Van Gogh describes a walk in the dunes, where he felt Daubigny's presence: "That walk alone... made me much calmer because of a feeling that one hadn't been alone but had talked to one of the old figures from the time of the beginning, Daubigny." Most consequential, for Van Gogh, was the way in which Daubigny not only painted the landscape as he saw it, but suffused it with feeling: critics of the time noted that Daubigny painted both "with the eye" and "with the heart."

Charles François Daubigny, The harvesters, 1875. Museum Gouda, Gouda. Photo: Tom Haartsen.

Near the end of his life, Daubigny looked to the sky, with dramatic clouds dominating his compositions of sweeping landscapes. Van Gogh, too, in his final canvases, depicted the turbulent skies and endless wheat fields of Auvers. Daubigny's 1875 The Harvesters and Van Gogh's 1890 Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, when seen side by side, share the same horizon line, dimensions, and composition--as though the two artists were painting the same field, on the same afternoon--yet each contains its own expressive palette and gestural style. It is as if the two artists, though separated by time, were in conversation, through the language of landscape.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield under Thunderclouds,1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape is on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from October 21, 2016 until January 29, 2017.

--Natalie Hegert