Setting the record straight

Charles François Daubigny, The Village of Gloton, 1857, oil on panel. San Francisco Fine Arts Museums.

Charles François Daubigny, The Village of Gloton, 1857, oil on panel. San Francisco Fine Arts Museums.

‘Most ambitious’ Taft exhibition demonstrates Daubigny’s influence on Impressionism

By Maria Seda-Reeder

The Taft Museum of Art is the exclusive U.S. venue for “Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape,” an exhibition demonstrating French realist landscape artist Charles François Daubigny’s heretofore unacknowledged status as a key forerunner for early Impressionism.

This will be the first major examination of the 19th-century French landscape painter, who lived from 1817-78. Lynne Ambrosini, director of collections and exhibitions and curator of European art at the Taft, conceived of this exhibition “quite a few years” ago. The museum received a $70,000  grant from the National Endowment for the Arts back in 2013 to support planning and research for the international exhibition, which was followed by an NEA implementation grant of $45,000 in 2015.

“Like most exhibitions, it starts off as an idea that runs into practical hurdles and other exhibitions that you have to do first,” Ambrosini says matter-of-factly. “But I’m excited that it’s finally happening.”

[Read a Q&A with curator Lynne Ambrosini.]

Claude Monet, Houses on the Achterzaan, 1871, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Claude Monet, Houses on the Achterzaan, 1871, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Taft family owned three Daubigny (pronounced dough-bin-yee) paintings, so Ambrosini had been in contact with conservators at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. The museum oversees a private collection of late 19th century paintings owned by Hendrik Mesdag (1831-1915), a leading artist of The Hague School. The Mesdag Collection includes a large number of Daubigny works.

As a collector and painter, Mesdag was particularly interested in artists’ techniques and styles of painting, and by no coincidence owned 20 works by Daubigny.

“Daubigny was known for adopting new techniques and pigments,” Ambrosini explains. And she details how other technical innovations made him a painter fellow artists looked to – as well as a few collectors and curators. “Conservators also find him an interesting artist to study,” she continues. “He was very interested in the technical side of painting and wanted to push it further in his work.”

“The selection of only 40 works by Daubigny out of 2000+ was a challenging feat of discernment and – with five curators – a true negotiation! [We sought] those in the most pristine condition, the highest level of quality, and the most variety of pictorial elements, weather conditions, seasons of the year, and other factors. I am very pleased that one of the Taft’s pictures made the cut.”

—Lynne Ambrosini

As she did more research on Daubigny, Ambrosini says she was “amazed to see that he’d never had a major international exhibition; never been adequately studied.”

“No one really ever thought he deserved an exhibition like this,” the curator concedes. However, “the more I looked at his work and saw the diversity in it, it made me really want to give him his due and also re-examine the origins of impressionism.”  

Despite the dearth of attention paid to Daubigny, both Ambrosini and her contacts at the Van Gogh Museum had an interest in re-examining his work – particularly how he had an impact on subsequent generations of artists.

He acted as a mentor to younger artists and, Ambrosini says, “we exhibition organizers think that his role in the formation of Impressionism has been relatively overlooked.”

Practices such as plein air painting, loose brushstrokes and a more spontaneous approach, all anticipate Impressionism, the curator explains. Accordingly, the focus of much of the exhibition will emphasize early Impressionism, when Daubigny’s impact was “real and direct.”

In addition to “Impressions of Landscape,” the Taft’s Daubigny painting, the exhibition feature loans from numerous North American and European museums and private collections.

Coordinating the traveling exhibition involved intensive planning and inter-institutional collaboration. Of the 55 paintings on view, 40 are by Daubigny (only one of which is in the Taft collection) and the remaining 15 offer viewers the chance to make surprising comparisons between his work and that of iconic Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Vincent Van Gogh.

Attention to issues of light, weather, and atmosphere (in the second half of Daubigny’s career especially) allowed the artist to begin working in ways that would have an exceptional impact on future painters.

In 1857, Daubigny had a floating studio fabricated to his specifications, and this startling innovation allowed him to invent what Ambrosini refers to as a “new composition” in which you see the water rather than land in the foreground.

Ambrosini says, “you could draw a straight line from Daubigny’s watery paintings with reflections, to Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ [series] all the way to his time at Giverny.”

Less than 20 years later, Monet would take Daubigny’s example and set up a studio boat himself in 1872, “respectfully,” (Ambrosini assures us) modeled on that of Daubigny’s.

So not only were their final pieces similar in composition, Monet also imitated Daubigny’s procedural approach.

Like the criticisms leveled at Impressionists some decade or two later, Daubigny’s later work was lambasted as “too sketchy” or even “unfinished” by the art establishment at the time.

Ambrosini seeks to right those wrongs with this exhibition, and she says with no small amount of pride, “This is the most ambitious exhibition that the Taft has ever undertaken.”

With Cincinnati ahead of the curve, Ambrosini is poised to make Daubigny’s name as familiar to art goers as Monet’s has been for many decades. Better late than never.

“Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape” runs at the Taft Museum through May 29. The exhibition will then travel to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, and end at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in early 2017.

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