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Feeling the Air, II

Feeling the Air II

Constable, Hampstead Heath with Bathers, 1821-22, iphone detail

In New York in the fall, making my way through the reorganized back rooms of 19th century European art at the Metropolitan Museum, I was pleased by two landscape recoveries.  Wonderful oil sketches by Constable that used to hang scattered in obscurity, somewhere past the Corots, have been hung together, with prominence.  And three Daubignys, for many years unviewable, now hang in a row, constituting a quiet assertion, long missing at the museum, that this is a painter worth contemplating.
    Constable and Daubigny are tied together in various ways.  An important exhibition of Constable’s oil paintings at the Salon de Paris in 1824 had an impact on the French landscape painters who were to become the Barbizon School, of which Daubigny was a part. Daubigny himself would have been seven years old at the time of this exhibition, but other contact with the work of the great British landscape painters was of significance for him at several key moments in his development.

Intersections are not only biographical.  A nice passage comparing the two painters turns up in a 1903 monograph on Constable by Robert George Windsor-Clive, earl of Plymouth.  Daubigny, writes Windsor-Clive, loved “the quiet tones of early morning and evening effects on the French rivers from a barge on the Oise or the Seine; translucent skies and clear reflections.  He seemed generally to prefer the bright though tender colours of spring and early summer, to the heavier and more sombre tones of August.”  Not so Constable, who chose “the sharper contrasts of midday light, the angry storm-clouds broken by bright flashes of sunlight, and the heavy greens of midsummer.” Nevertheless, the two had something significant in common: “both artists approach Nature with the same honest intention of painting her, so far as they are able, as they see her.” [itals mine]  This was to be accomplished “not with the warm brown foundation and limited colour-scheme of the old school, but with the full perception and enjoyment of local colour both in shadow and in sunlight.”
    The phrase “as they see her,” could be put into the present continuous to bring out something of the painters’ particular quality – as they are in the act of seeing her.  These two, I think, have an unusual genius for making the viewer feel the air. Two of the works I studied at the Met may help me to try to say what I mean.

John Constable’s oil sketch “Hampstead Heath with Bathers,” was one of about a hundred such sketches that he made in that rural location in 1821 and 1822.

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The project was to suggest particular effects of atmosphere.  The text at the Met notes a beautiful fact, that Constable “called this practice ‘skying.’”

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The museum text also points out that Constable “often included a strip of land to contribute a sense of scale and depth.”  This sounds technical, even mechanical, as if it describes a scientific manual that overlays diagrams with little black stripes of measurement. But here, actually, is no mere strip of land, but a protected cove for bathers who are to be seen standing waist-deep in the water.

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The feeling of the sketch (it is a small one, slightly less than ten inches by a little more than fifteen) is that one is oneself wading in the water while the vast sky rushes overhead.  

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The sensation comes partly from the white brushstrokes over the blue of the sky, partly from the way the water gathers and reflects the other colors of the scene, partly from some elusive but definite feeling that the painter molded the paint to reflect the day he was in. The wind was in his eyes.  He wrote on the back of the picture, “July—noon—Hampstead Heath—looking north—wind south east.”

The Daubigny, as the Earl of Plymouth might say, eschews these sharp contrasts of noon and midsummer.  Here is a first sighting.  Distracted by the frame, the shadow cast by the museum’s overhead lights, the photo has the not-knowing-where-to-look quality of the first encounter:

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[Although my iphone pictures have their awkwardnesses, I still prefer them to the Met's online reproductions of these two works, which are curiously bleached of color.  The Constable is lacking the reds and purples that give the heat and excitement of the day, while the Daubigny is missing the cool, dark greens that settle the eyes for darkness.]

In the Daubigny, as in the Constable, figures come to water.  But in the Daubigny our imagination makes us not bathers, but someone who watches the cows returning to the village in the evening.

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The water feels entirely different in the two pictures – one all salt and wind, the other mild and still, for slaking thirst and for repose.  Nevertheless, the presence of water is of great help to both these painters, wishing, as they do, to paint the sky and its movements.  Reflections give a second view, and the looker-on, measuring the sky and its image together, may find it easier to guess and enter the feeling of the day.  One of the great beauties of the Daubigny painting is the way all its gentle forces meet and are reflected back to one another in this central convergence:  

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The light has a luminous yellow arriving from the sky.  Effects of light are entirely different depending on where you look in the picture. A lovely passage of sunset is here:

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I think it is this variety of atmospheric effects within the work that eventually gave me an experience I associate with Daubigny. After looking slowly and with consideration, the painting seemed to show a later time, and to have become more tranquil.  As I became accustomed to it, it had the very effect on me that one sometimes observes in oneself in the evening.  Standing still, looking at the sky, or, especially, the sky and the water together, one feels that the world has, before one’s eyes, grown a shade darker, and that one is oneself aware of the world and a small part of it.  When I photographed what felt like my last understanding of the painting, it came to this:

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Looking for Daubigny

Looking for Daubigny

Landscape with Ducks, Metropolitan Museum.


For a long time when I went to the Met with a feeling for Daubigny, I went to the basement.  Although the museum owns thirteen paintings by Charles-François Daubigny, only one was on display, a part of the Robert Lehman Collection, itself displaced during years of construction. The painting was of an evening scene by a river. Across the river were two small figures, women, I remember them as washerwoman. Nearer, and more prominent, a line of dark ducks who swam purposefully toward their evening’s rest.  Nearer still, three birds on the bank, who have already settled. The sky’s tints of yellow and rose, seen again in the river’s last reflective shades make of the whole that tranquility one feels in the evening, lingering in its harmonies before returning home.    
    The Daubigny hung in a dark area, sort of an alcove made with temporary walls, alongside a Corot, and not far from a surprising Degas of some quite orange rooftops. Sometimes, uncertain about my own pleasure, I would look at the Landscape with Ducks and think 'it's too quiet, too pink,' and point out to myself that there didn’t seem to be a compositional difficulty, a challenge to go on thinking about. At other times, taken with its feeling for life, and the way the sky and space open up as sky and space really do, with a sense of air and moisture and of people and animals moving about, with the power of the yellows and the darkened trees, these questions didn’t worry me.  


The seeming easiness of seeing Daubigny is part of the difficulty of seeing him and this has to do with history as much as it does with his gentle, unassuming canvases. He was a part of the Barbizon school, at the time a group of innovative painters (Corot, Millet, Rousseau), who didn’t agree with the Academy that the only worthy subjects were regal men and women in neo-classical poses painted with exacting, lugubrious accuracy. Daubigny was actually the only one among the Barbizon painters to regularly paint outdoors, and he even constructed a barge studio in which he painted while drifting down the Oise, but all of them sketched outdoors and brought the refreshing plein air of nature into their work. These were mentors and models who mattered enormously to the Impressionists who came fast on their heels and, with their more radical innovations, soon eclipsed their Barbizon peres.  
    The rapid succession of changes made Daubigny and Corot something of a short link in the chain, easy to pass over in favor of what came after. The Barbizon paintings were loved by dilettante American collectors, and it became a badge of honor among the new critics of the 20th century to despise these works. Daubigny himself was overshadowed by the greater scope and popularity of his close friend Corot.  
    Still, I thought that after the great Corot show at the Met in 1996-7, more interest in Daubigny would soon follow, but he goes on being very difficult to get any sense of. About four years ago at the Musée d’Orsay (which holds nineteen Daubigny paintings), I asked at the information desk if any of them were seeable. The man at the desk seemed somewhat surprised as he paged through the records on his computer to discover that they were all either in the “fonds,” in storage, or loaned out to the regional museums in the French system.  All except La Neige, of course, and that one we both knew well.  



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The only really prominently displayed Daubigny is his astonishing Snow, sometimes called Winter, painted in 1873, a year or so before his death.  Long a supporter of the Impressionists (he stood up for their paintings at the Academy and introduced them to Durand-Ruel, who would be their gallerist and champion), Daubigny was, as he matured, not afraid to be affected by the work of these younger men.  More than any of their other predecessors, he might fairly be called a late-blooming Impressionist himself, and a few of his late works have a force and power and idiosyncrasy of vision comparable to those of the much better-known Impressionists.    
    It is hard to convey the impact of La Neige with a reproduction on a screen.  It is a very wide painting, hung low, and it hits you in the chest when you see it. The desolation, and the exhilaration of a winter landscape in the shortest days of the year. The mood like being in a Thomas Hardy novel: you’ve walked all day, your feet are cold and damp. You come upon a great field of crows having their sociable end to the day, calling out news to one another as they step briskly about on the damp ground, landing in the trees they share as nighttime roosts. The sun is almost down and in the thick gray sky, a few clouds are of a sudden lit, a dash of rose. The long stretch of drab white snow, the mud showing through, bits of broken grass, the sense of the road, the heavy talkative presence of the birds, the thick cold sky. No one has ever done this better. And yet we hear almost nothing of Daubigny.  


On Photography I

On Photography I

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone.


After years of scorning people who come to museums and take pictures – souvenir-hunters! they don’t even look at the paintings! – on Tuesday I found myself in the Impressionist rooms at the Met zealously photographing details with my iphone held up in front of the canvases.  I had two impulses, or justifications: it seemed expedient – I was in New York for a day only, had a mere hour with the pictures – this was a way to take notes.  And at the same time, or even before the thought of expediency occurred to me, I also knew that having details of paintings is very helpful if you are going to post about them.  Already the fact of keeping this notebook is changing the way I go to museums.

The second picture I took showed me that the modest magnification of the iphone makes an enormous difference in what you can see.  I started with some little Boudin figures at the beach:

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I have always felt that if you wait long enough and give yourself patiently to the act of looking your eye will learn to see at this level of detail.  But here, presto, the machine could do it instantly – and then looking at the painting with the naked eye I could see it all myself, trained, in a second, by the clarification of the machine.

As I went on, taking pictures of Constables and Daubignys, and made my way to the Pissarro room, I began to experience some of the pitfalls of the new method.  The iphone camera overclarifies.  It sharpens contrasts, defines edges where the paint is deliberately ambiguous.  So that I was in fact learning to see a painting that wasn’t the painting I was looking at.  I had to try to compensate in the other direction, photographing so quickly that the camera had not yet quite had time to resolve the image, and this seemed to more clearly approximate the paint as it was actually there.

Still, the exciting thing was that I could actually keep track of the sequence of my observations.  For example, I saw this beautiful Pissarro from 1874, the year of the first great Impressionist exhibition, painted at Pontoise, one of Pissarro’s favorite places to paint.

I saw the picture whole:

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Then my eye went to this passage of paint in the foreground:

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Then to the cowherd of the picture’s title:

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A cart further along:

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Paint to right foreground, the yellow, blues and lavendars:

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Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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[ Technology suggests and constrains.  I find I am limited in the number of images I can post.  Just at this moment of drama, when we are about to see further into the picture, I will have to ask my reader to wait.  The rest of the sequence will be found under Pissarro, On Photography II ]