Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2004
Michael Marlais, John Varriano, and Wendy M. Watson Valenciennes, Daubigny, and the Origins of French Landscape Painting Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 2004.
Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Mass., September 7–December 12, 2004
Charles-François Daubigny (French, 1817–1878). The Water’s Edge, Optevoz, ca. 1856. Oil on canvas. Gift in memory of Mildred and Robert Warren. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Mass. Photo by David Stansbury.

At the start of the exhibition Valenciennes, Daubigny, and the Origins of French Landscape Painting, visitors are presented with a minor masterpiece by the mid-nineteenth-century French landscape painter Charles-François Daubigny, a remarkably fresh and boldly rendered vision of a modest corner of the French countryside at Optevoz, in the Bas-Dauphiné region of southeastern France. Painted around 1856, The Water’s Edge, Optevoz depicts a local fishing pond, rocky, overgrown, and devoid of human intervention. The handling of the paint is rough and direct—most clearly apparent in the brilliantly expressed sky—giving the canvas the feeling of an artist’s informal sketch, an open-air study never meant to be appreciated by anyone but the painter himself. Yet Daubigny surely saw it as a fully resolved artistic statement, completing it with a signature and inscription. Such works by Daubigny and his contemporaries—devoid of a narrative subject and celebrating the signs of the painter’s craft—mark a new departure in French art, so goes the usual account, that leads directly to the Impressionist revolution of the 1870s, and later, to nonobjective art.

The shakiness of this well-worn narrative need hardly be pointed out, and—to its credit—this lively if somewhat crowded exhibition challenges the degree to which a naturalist painting like Daubigny’s The Water’s Edge can be seen to have truly overturned earlier traditions, or whether it is better understood as a logical culmination of what might be called the secularization of painting in the Western tradition. The curators present this problem by organizing the show around two key works in collection of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum: the Daubigny and a newly acquired painting by Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, Classical Greek Landscape with Girls Sacrificing Their Hair to Diana on the Bank of a River, dating to 1790. Depending on your point of view, Valenciennes’s idealized and hyperrefined style is either the exquisite realization of landscape as high intellectual art (he is referred to in the catalogue as the “David of landscape”) or a cloyingly derivative convention. Classical Greek Landscape was produced during a period when the artist was at his strongest, and it beautifully epitomizes the “paysage historique” that the artist propounded incessantly. It is as artful and contrived as Daubigny’s painting is seemingly naturalistic and spontaneous. The whole is meticulously rendered in the artist’s typically polished technique that betrays no sign of his labors: a limpid cool light bathes the scene, and the composition is exquisitely balanced. Though relatively small in scale (indeed, it is roughly two-thirds the size of the Daubigny), the painting is monumental in ambition—one might say hubris—purporting to conjure up an impression of ancient Greece, replete with (admittedly anachronistic) classical temples, pyramids, statuary, and maidens ritualistically cutting their hair in homage to Artemis. In the exhibition, the sources Valenciennes utilized in his composition, from the architectural elements to the statue of Artemis herself (based on the Roman so-called Diana of Versailles in the Louvre) are usefully presented alongside the painting via Giovanni Battista Piranesi prints and a bronze copy of the sculpture. The organizers have also reunited the picture with its pendant, Italian Landscape with Bathers (Nausicaa), from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Valenciennes submitted them, along with three related paintings, to the Paris Salon of 1791 (remarkably, both retain their original matching frames). They form a pleasing—if somewhat predictable—pairing, one ostensibly Greek (despite its Roman architecture), the other “Italian” (despite its Homeric subject); one in cool early morning light; the other in a warm afternoon glow; in each smaller figures lead the viewer’s eye into and through the landscape.

If to modern eyes the Boston painting is the more attractive of the two, it may be because it more readily anticipates the ruddy naturalism associated with such later artists as Daubigny. As Michael Marlais reminds us in his essay in the catalogue—which also includes lively chapters on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century landscape by John Varriano and on Valenciennes by Wendy Watson—the commonplace and all-too-easy paradigm opposing the “classicism” of Valenciennes and his followers to the “naturalism” of a new generation of landscapists that emerged in the 1830s needs to be questioned—or at least problematized. There are many links one can draw between the two traditions, the most obvious one being (as has long been acknowledged) the practice of painting oil sketches en plein air, a custom that, if certainly not invented by Valenciennes during his sojourns in Rome in the 1770s and 1780s, was given renewed vigor and prominence through his example: less in the extant oil sketches themselves (several excellent examples of which are featured in the exhibition), which were not exhibited publicly until the twentieth century, than in the painstaking lessons in the art of landscape expounded in his opus Elemens de perspective pratique à l’usage des artistes (first published in 1800; a slightly later edition is included in the show), a primer that remained a practical studio manual right up through the Impressionist generation.

The value of the Mount Holyoke exhibition lies in its willingness to complicate any easy categorization of landscape over time, preferring instead to mix it up, literally and figuratively. There are not only paintings, oil studies, and drawings but also prints, photographs, postcards, and illustrated books, all offering a sweeping survey of landscape traditions from the late Renaissance to the dawn of Impressionism. This is an ambitious brief, to be sure, resulting in an installation in which didactics win out over aesthetics—the uninitiated may find it a bit of a whirlwind—yet the cumulative effect is true, one suspects, to the colliding ideologies, precedents, proclivities, and market demands faced by landscapists at any one time. One of the delights of the show is the way its clusters of related objects invite the visitor to engage with the artists as they work with their sources and imagine their art: the group of plein air oil sketches is one; Valenciennes’s sources for the Mount Holyoke picture another; there is also a wonderful wall of studies—oil sketches, charcoal drawings, lithographs, even photographs—devoted to trees; and what amounts to something of a miniexhibition devoted to Daubigny’s work at Optevoz in the mid-1850s (Marlais’s essay is very good here). This method serves the exhibition well, given the constraints under which the organizers were clearly operating: nearly all the works were borrowed from museums and collectors in New England, underscoring the riches of the region while leading to some regrettable inclusions: both Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, for example, are represented only by weak copies of original works. The show would have been more strongly focused—certainly less crowded—if the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century works were omitted altogether. Nevertheless, these are minor complaints to what is a thoroughly commendable exhibition, which, along with the small illustrated catalogue, adds a good deal to our critical understanding of landscape art in the Western tradition.

Richard Rand
Senior Curator, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute