‘Inspiring Impressionism’, is a major exhibition currently on at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. It tracks the development of Impressionism through the careers of Charles-François Daubigny, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh, respectively proto-, archetypal, and post-Impressionist. Each represents a distinct phase of the movement, between which the exhibition draws connections while covering half a century of painting.
The first room of the exhibition is focused primarily on Daubigny, the least well-known of the trio, and confronts the curator’s greatest challenge: convincing us that he is as important as his successors. His landscapes are well painted, with a great feeling for complex skies, thick clouds interacting with bright suns. The horizon line is often midway down the composition, stressing the dominance of nature over man, a notion inherited from the Romantics, who had always enjoyed popularity in the Salon. Indeed, Daubigny eventually became a juror on the annual Academy show, his landscapes having transitioned from being deemed aesthetically radical to fine examples of the French School, not so very far from Constable. To a contemporary audience, the upset Daubigny caused is hard to fathom: his views of the Seine, Oise, and Auvers are detailed, naturalistic with brushwork carefully rendering trees and foliage. ‘Banks of the Oise at Auvers’ (1863) is the best of them, the thicket of dark green trees to the left introducing a note of cool menace to the tranquil atmosphere. Daubigny appears interested only in capturing the countryside’s transient beauty.
Of course, Monet could be accused of the same, his obsessive painting of haystacks and ponds more concerned with light than humanity, but his bold approach, with dramatic, sweeping brushstrokes and a promiscuous, burning palette, is what gives his canvases their dramatic impetus. There are no true Monet masterpieces on display in the exhibition, but his ‘Sunset on the River Seine at Lavacourt, Winter Effect’ (1880) is the finest here; the orange sun, its rays reflected on the river, conveyed with rough daubs of paint straight from the tube, recalls Japanese prints in its intensity of colour. It acknowledges plainly Monet’s pivotal earlier work, ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872) (its title inspiring the name of the movement as a whole), which boasted a similarly striking sun illuminating an otherwise muddy landscape. In comparison, Daubigny is too careful, wishing to portray the leaves in the trees, when Monet knew we see in generalities, his great aesthetic discovery. Daubigny’s paintings which were contemporaneous to Monet’s are looser, dirtier, more clearly ‘impressions’ than earlier works, but still fundamentally in good taste and acceptable to the Salon at a time when Monet and his compatriots like Pissaro (also in the exhibition) were being rejected.
The last key room places Daubigny alongside van Gogh, the latter an admirer of the former, even painting his gardens, and positions him as the ‘natural’ conclusion to a process Daubigny had begun. There is no deviation from the traditional, evolutionary art historical narrative used to explain Impressionism, nor any challenge posed to the idea that the style was about nature: landscapes are the only genre represented, ignoring Monet’s frank, bruising cityscapes. The exhibition offers a neat summary of itself here, hanging Daubigny’s ‘Fields in the Month of June’ (1870) in the centre of a triptych flanked on the left by Monet’s ‘Field with Poppies’ (1881) and to the right by ‘Poppy Field, Auvers-sur-Oise’ (1890) from Van Gogh. The motif of a poppy field is central to all three works and allows for us to understand just as clearly the differences between them as it does the similarities – Daubigny’s fastidious observance of each flower, Monet’s fluid, gestural approach, Van Gogh’s penetrating, subversive, graphic depiction. The determined experimentation of Monet and Van Gogh contrast with Daubigny’s innovation inside accepted boundaries, and this aesthetic clash off-balances the exhibition.
As a kind of post-script, the SNG has as its final room a recreation of Daubigny’s Studio Boat, from which he painted many of his landscapes. It’s bizarre, almost childish, not terribly illuminating and robs a whole room from the exhibition space, leading one to speculate there were not enough paintings to fill the walls. Certainly, the exhibition is composed of minor or middle-ranking canvases and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries in the main part of the SNG, while smaller, are superior in their range and quality.
‘Inspiring Impressionism’ makes a convincing case that Daubigny was an important influence on the Impressionists, but despite selective quotes praising Daubigny, taken from letters by Monet and Van Gogh, it never quite explains why he alone is focused on and not say, Gustave Courbet. The gap in quality between the three painters is undeniable and makes for an interesting but not wholly cohesive exhibition, seeming to omit as much as it includes.