Thursday, September 3, 2015

MWA XXXIV: Daubigny's Sandpits

Returning to our Monthly Work of Art posts, I thought I would share this beautiful landscape painting that is part of the Columbia University art collection stewarded by my department of Art Properties. Measuring approximately 31 x 57 inches, the painting is entitled The Sandpits near Valmondois (Les Sablières près de Valmondois) and is by the French artist Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878). Signed and dated 1870, the painting depicts a bend in the River Oise near the village of Valmondois, located about 23 miles north-northeast of Paris. These were areas where Daubigny spent parts of his childhood and adulthood. The artist is loosely associated with the Barbizon school, which included other famous painters such as Corot and Rousseau. These men introduced a new aesthetic for naturalistic landscapes that depicted the forests around Fontainebleau, frequently painting outdoors and capturing nature as it appeared. Prior to the 1830s, landscape painting exhibited at the Salon always was historical or narrative, and frequently represented a classical scene. These artists were considered radicals in their day for challenging this tradition, but gradually taste turned in their favor and naturalistic landscape paintings came to dominate not just the exhibitions but also the homes of the rising middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic. Daubigny favored depictions of river banks rather than forests, and his paintings are often seen today as precursors to the Impressionists with their sketch-like depictions of nature and beautiful sun-lit scenes.

The focal point of this work at first appears to be the fisherman in the center foreground of the painting. His fishing pole points diagonally across the river toward a boat colored with a dab of red paint. Further up the riverbank one sees the eponymous sandpit and sand barge, and to the left of those a village which likely is Valmondois. Together the sandpit and barge create a triangle with the fisherman and the boat, suggesting that at the heart of this tranquil scene is the juxtaposition of labor and leisure. It has been noted by scholars that, at the time Daubigny would have painted this work, the Oise River valley was growing industrially and thus losing its bucolic charm. In response to this, the artist frequently removed these signs of labor so as to present instead a peaceful landscape. Here, however, he has not so much as removed the elements of industry but minimized them so that the viewer focuses on the fisherman and a life of leisure in the countryside in spite of this change.

I have an article on this painting and two other works from the Columbia art collection coming out soon in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, a free, peer-reviewed e-journal. When it is released I will put a link to the article where you can read more about this important work in the collection.

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