The last boat I saw in the galleries on the Mound was a canoe that the Scottish painter Jock McFadyen had been using to explore viewpoints around the waterways of London. Now another vessel has sailed in, a full-scale recreation of the studio boat built in 1857 by the French painter Charles-François Daubigny, from the bow of which he ushered in the movement that would come to be known as impressionism.
Daubigny, a now sorely neglected artist, established an entirely novel approach to landscape painting that was to influence Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne and also, quite explicitly, Van Gogh. Inspiring Impressionism has an admirably clear narrative and it places Daubigny back where he belongs, at the fulcrum of modern painting.
The boat, which was far from Daubigny’s only innovation, was important. Up to that point, landscape painting had been a studio-based practice that sought to lead the eye to a distant horizon. The landscape was usually idealised, often framed by picturesque motifs and mostly seen from an elevated position. By placing his easel on an unsteady boat in the middle of a river, and painting directly from life, Daubigny assaulted these conventions.
Seeing the landscape from this low viewpoint meant a closer horizon and a flatter perspective. Making compositions with only water in the foreground (something even more evident in his seascapes), instead of the usual receding planes of land, meant that he had to employ an entirely tonal approach to explain distance. The fundamental language of landscape painting was being altered.
It was not only in his composition that Daubigny forged new paths. His physical technique also stood apart from that of his predecessors in that it was far looser, bolder and more energetic. His paint gallops across the canvas in textural leaps, with highlights smeared on with a palette knife.