Art history is nothing if not ironic.
Back when Charles and Anna Taft were amassing the collection they would give to the people of Cincinnati along with their home (now the Taft Museum of Art), they avoided Impressionism.
It was too experimental and daring — too untested by time — for them as they started buying at the turn of the 20th century.
“They were not trying to collect the latest avant-garde paintings,” says Lynne Ambrosini, Taft Museum’s curator. “They were trying to provide models of the Great Masters to share and help uplift the arts in Cincinnati by exposing local audiences to the best of the best. From their perspective, Impressionism had not yet passed the test of time.”
One artist who did past that test for them was Charles-François Daubigny, a more conventional French landscape painter who lived from 1817-1878. They bought several works by him, including the 1861 oil painting “Ferryboat near Bonnières-sur-Seine.” It was an important score when they got it in 1907.
With time, Daubigny’s name has faded from memory. But now he’s back as the central figure of a show Ambrosini has spent some 14 years organizing.
The irony is that its premise is that Daubigny deserves renewed prominence as an influence on Impressionists. Not only has Impressionism now “passed the test of time,” but it has also far eclipsed the more realist French landscape painting that preceded or was created concurrently.
The resultant exhibit Ambrosini created, Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape (on display at the Taft through May 29), is outstanding for bringing together multiple pre-20th-century paintings by several artists and from various sources, including European museums. She shared curation with colleagues at the Scottish National Gallery and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, which both loaned work and will get the show after the Taft.
This has 55 paintings and serves as both a retrospective of Daubigny’s work — some 40 are by him — and as a show with a broader theme: that Impressionism was an evolution, not just a rebellion.
The exhibit has a “blockbuster” presentation, with timed tickets required, partly because of the 15 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Monet, Pissarro and especially Van Gogh, a great admirer of Daubigny. His three oil paintings from 1890 here are strong examples of his work.
But I do hope people spend some time with Daubigny — and with the show’s narrative. I find Daubigny to have been as much an ally of the Impressionists as a precursor — his finest work here is from the 1870s, when Impressionism was underway. Trained in the academically approved landscape painting of the day — historical or invented settings — he rebelled against it and moved toward naturalism. Something like the early panorama-sized “The Harvest” from 1851 may seem staid now, but the broad brush stokes used to depict the horizon give it a certain modern etherealness.
The exhibition’s section titled “River Paintings 1857-1870” shows paintings he made outdoors on a floating studio boat. His 1865 “Sunset on the Oise” isn’t nearly as daring a depiction of sunset as Monet’s nearby “The Seine at Bougival, Evening,” from 1869, but you can see an influence.
The exhibit’s last two galleries are revelatory. Working confidently in the 1870s at the seaside town of Villerville, Daubigny made a series of paintings that slowly build until traditional subject matter is (almost) transcended as painterly vision focuses on the encompassing autumnal glow as the sun sets on the water. The large 1876 “Sunset near Villerville” seems to me a wonderful place to stop to remember and respect his work, even if the show includes some 1877 work.
Van Gogh clearly respected Daubigny’s work, after first seeing it in 1875. The show ends with Van Gogh’s 1890 “Daubigny’s Garden,” full of the vigor and turbulent vitality of his brush strokes and love of the color green. This painting can be seen as the start of the greening of Daubigny’s reputation, which continues with this show.
DAUBIGNY, MONET, VAN GOGH: IMPRESSIONS OF LANDSCAPE continues through May 29 at the Taft Museum of Art. More info: taftmuseum.org.