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Origins of French Landscape Painting at Mount Holyoke College

ART TIMES Nov, 2004
(Photos Courtesy Mount Holyoke College Art Museum)

IT IS FITTING that an exhibit tracing the evolution of landscape painting — from one of a “walk-on” part to that of leading role on center stage — be presented at an institution of learning such as Mount Holyoke College for, in both concept and presentation, such a show effectively serves as the ultimate learning tool.

"Landscape" by Charles-Francois Daubigny (Oil on panel). (Gift of Mr. Roger L. Putnam, Jr. Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA. Photo by David Stansbury)

Though its title* suggests that this evolution begins with the French painter Pierre-Henri Valenciennes (1750-1819), the exhibit’s first entry in fact takes us back to its earlier Italianate roots with Joos van Cleve’s (or in the manner of his “school”) “Holy Family,” dated ca. 1510, indicating both the scope and the depth of thought that went into its production. From a purely logistical point of view, Holyoke’s recently renovated Art Museum, in both its spacious lay-out and intimate gallery size not only make for a wonderful opportunity to present the work in its best light, but also allows the viewer an almost ‘hands-on’ view of each individual piece. A particularly welcome touch is the several vitrines, which include both books and period artifacts. For the visiting landscape artist, the inclusion of a tiny, traveling paint box — I judge not more than 3 inches long by 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch wide — that contains tiny trays for six separate colors, is a curiously special treat, especially when compared to the considerable baggage carried by today’s well-armed plein airiste.

The approximately 100 works — paintings, etchings, lithographs, engravings, photographs, drawings (in pencil, ink, charcoal, conte crayon, chalk) — even a bronze “Artemis” — show in detail the long (but, as the excellent little catalogue that accompanies the show indicates, relatively seamless) development of the initial use of scenery as “background” to a place of prominence and self-sufficiency. As presented, the exhibit admirably and effectively points up both landscape painting’s classical roots, as well as its gradual disengagement from those roots.

Appropriately, Charles–François Daubigny is given prominent place, his imposing “The Water’s Edge, Optevoz” (the college’s very own addition to the show), in my view, the centerpiece of the exhibit. Daubigny’s personal (and considerable) “liberation” of landscape painting from academic limitations of convention and invention is well documented in the twenty-three works (etchings, paintings, drawings) of his that make up a good portion of the show. Of painterly interest are his meticulously wrought etchings that served as preliminary studies for later paintings, showing just how much he relied on well-grounded draftsmanship before striking out on studio-finished renditions. Of historical interest (at least to the on-site landscape painter), is the bound volume of prints, “Voyage en bateau” (located in a vitrine in a separate gallery featuring prints) that contains work he produced while sitting in the houseboat he called his “botin” (little box) — an on-site method anticipating Monet’s use of a bateau in later years.

Daubigny’s first-hand familiarity with his motifs gives us, perhaps for the first time, scenes that can literally be “stepped into,” since they in fact exist in actuality. Hitherto, landscapes were “concocted” from a repertoire of exemplars passed down from master to student. Although as anyone who ever worked “in the field” knows that a one-to-one relationship is neither desirable nor possible, the fact is that in such a painting as his “The Water’s Edge, Optevoz,” Daubigny is relying more on actual sight than on conventional formula, and is depicting a specific and recognizable piece of landscape located in southeastern France.

The Waterís Edge, Optevoz" by Charles-Francois Daubigny (Oil on canvas) ca. 1856. (Gift in memory of Mildred and Robert Warren; Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA. Photo by David Stansbury)

If Daubigny’s “The Water’s Edge, Optevoz” forcefully monopolizes the viewer’s attention, there is yet much more to see in “Valenciennes, Daubigny, and the Origins of French Landscape.” One should take the time to linger over Daubigny’s wondrously “modern” (oil on panel) “Landscape”; Jean-Victor Bertin’s delicately rendered lithographs, “Willow Tree” and “Spruce”; Narcisse Virgilio Diaz’s “Country Road with Peasant Woman” (or his “Forest at Fontainebleau” which seems but a step away from the broken brushstrokes of full-blown impressionism”; the lovely “Tree Study” by Henri-Joseph Harpignies (as well as his “Sous bois” which seems as if painted yesterday); or Jean Charles Joseph Remond’s enchanting “Town on a lake” — to name but a few you might not want to pass by too quickly.

When we consider that Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is given credit for putting in writing the very first commentary on landscape painting, we can see that this most beloved of genres has indeed come a long way toward making an impressive name for itself. Kudos to Wendy M. Watson, curator of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, and to her two colleagues, Michael Marlais and John Varriano, for this important exhibition and for the informative essays each have contributed to the accompanying catalogue. Whether you are a landscape painter or simply a lover of their handiwork, this is a show you will surely want to include in your list of “things to do”.

*“Valenciennes, Daubigny, and the Origins of French Landscape Painting” (thru Dec 12): Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Lower Lake Rd., South Hadley, MA (413) 538-2245.

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