Art review: Inspiring Impressionism: Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh

Identifying the influence of Charles Daubigny on Impressionist greats Monet and Van Gogh makes this a fascinating, must-see, exhibition

Claude Monet's Spring (Fruit Trees in Bloom), 1873

That modern art springs from Impressionism is a universal belief. That Impressionism was a revolution without precedent is also part of the accepted story. Following what we believe to be the example set by the Impressionists, we think of newness in art as a primary measure of value. As always, though, such generalisations don’t really stand up to close inspection. Really there is nothing new under the sun. Even when it seems to be at its most revolutionary and when its claims to be so are most strident, the art of the present has its roots in the art of the past. That at least is the argument that shapes the major exhibition, Inspiring Impressionism: Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh.

Inspiring Impressionism: Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh | Rating: ***** | Scottish National Gallery

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This could be yet another Impressionist dog-whistle show, cynically titled to bring in the crowds, disappointing after the door. There have been one or two like that, but this is not one of them. In fact it is a fascinating exhibition and offers a genuinely fresh perspective on this overworked subject. The key to this freshness is the quality revealed in the work of Charles François Daubigny and the continuity the show establishes between what he did and the work of the younger generation of landscape painters –thus purposefully undermining the accepted generalisations.

Charles François Daubigny's Soleil couchant sur, c. 1865

Daubigny was a landscape painter who enjoyed considerable success in the official Salon where he first exhibited two years before Monet was born. Unlike most of the Salon artists however, he took a friendly interest in the work of the younger painters when they came onto the scene. He also influenced them, in particular Monet, though Pissarro and Sisley also feature here, but latterly he was also himself influenced in turn by them to lighten and brighten his palette. The exhibition also makes a good case for his influence on Van Gogh. He belonged to an even younger generation, so although Daubigny himself died in 1878, his influence extended well after his death.

Daubigny’s name may not be as familiar as those of the younger painters whose work he helped shape. Nevertheless, I am sure, going around galleries you may often have been stopped as I have been by a painting that seems to make a clear and poetic statement even in a crowded wall and which turns out to be by him. He favoured simple scenes, often unglamorous on the face of it, but which he managed to make romantic all the same, an effect often achieved by his subtle handling of light. This was an important part of the example he gave to the younger painters and the National Gallery’s own small painting, A View of Herblay is a good example of this approach. Herblay is on the Seine and it is dawn on the river. Reflecting the sky, its still surface fills the foreground. In the distance a lazy column of smoke rises from a boat while the village on the river bank is still in shadow. This is a small picture however. One of the revelations of the show is how good Daubigny is on a really big scale, particularly in a double-square format that he pioneered. In pictures like the spectacular Moonrise at Auvers, for example, this gives his landscapes a panoramic feel without losing the dignity and stability of classical composition. (Though he is often quite starkly simple in his compositions, there is always balance, a point in which he differed from his younger admirers.) The Banks of the Oise at Auvers is another good example of this big, double-square format. It is a cool, green picture with the river again providing a foreground of reflections in water and Pissarro’s Banks of the Marne in Winter hanging alongside shows how closely the Impressionists followed his example.

In Monet’s case this example was practical as well as aesthetic. Daubigny built himself a painting boat. It was the view from it that gave him his watery foregrounds. (There is a mock-up of the boat in the last room of the show and a lovely set of etchings gives a humorous account of his boating life and adventures.) Following him, Monet built his own painting boat. There are two delightful paintings of it among the dozen or so Monets in the exhibition. More importantly though, Monet also adopted the reflective, river foregrounds that the boat made possible. Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt is a really beautiful example of this and also of his painting at its most atmospheric. Its whole luminous foreground is the water of the river reflecting the pinks and blues of the sky. Later of course the water foreground became the whole subject of his waterlily paintings.

Though that is not explored here, it does suggest how far-reaching Daubigny’s influence was and this also included some of the subjects that we think of as most typical of the Impressionists. One of the most striking of his works here, for example, is of a wide field of poppies. Monet followed him and one of his ever popular paintings of poppies is here to prove it, but so did Van Gogh and there is also an example of a poppy field by him. Daubigny also painted orchards in blossom every spring and here too both Monet and Van Gogh followed. The National Gallery’s own Orchard in Blossom by Van Gogh is joined here by another from this series while Monet’s Spring (Fruit Trees in Bloom) hangs between them to make a lovely wall.

Charles-François Daubigny's Villerville-sur-Mer, 1864 Salon, 1872

Van Gogh spent the last days of his life in the little town of Auvers. He had gone there ostensibly to be in the care of Dr Gachet, but the fact that Daubigny’s house was in the town seems also to have been part of the attraction. In Auvers he adopted Daubigny’s double square format for some of his most memorable paintings. That this was a direct homage to the older artist is borne out by the fact that he approached Daubigny’s widow to make a painting of the garden of his house and for this he used this format. Mme Daubigny is in the picture standing beyond a flower bed and lawn. The houses of the town and the church are visible beyond. Wheatfields near Auvers and Landscape near Auvers in the Rain are also both spectacular examples of the way he used Daubigny’s format to create the great surging landscapes that were to be his last pictures. His very last painting, Crows over a Cornfield, is part of this same series. It is not here, but it too is in the double square format and even the circling crows in Van Gogh’s picture have a precedent in Daubigny’s sombre painting, October. It is also a picture whose mood seems to match and so perhaps helped inspire the “sadness and extreme loneliness” that Van Gogh told his brother he was trying to express in these last great paintings.

• Until 2 October

Vincent van Gogh's Field with Poppies, 1890
Charles François Daubigny's Soleil couchant sur, c. 1865
Charles-François Daubigny's Villerville-sur-Mer, 1864 Salon, 1872
Vincent van Gogh's Field with Poppies, 1890