All paintings tell a story. This is the story of Daubigny’s The Coming Storm, Early Spring.
Daubigny, The Coming Storm, Early Spring (1874), 17.5″ x 27″
Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), a father of the Barbizon School and a grandfather of Impressionism, is most well known for his plein-air landscapes.
Why choose Daubigny, much less this painting?
I’ve always been drawn to Daubigny’s representations of nature. It has been said, to paint, you first have to see the thing painted. The more a student or artist looks at paintings, especially similar paintings, the more one begins to see nature as if it was paint. I find that after looking a Daubigny’s landscapes I am more aware of the various aspects of the atmosphere in the sky. That awareness is something which tends to stay with me when I am out on location. I see nature as if it was paint. I cannot say the same after looking at, for example, Monet. That’s me, however, and you may well see differently.
The Coming Storm, Early Spring is a fine example of a turbulent sky, although the sense of atmosphere I mentioned above is not as apparent as in other paintings by Daubigny. At 17.5″ x 27″ this painting is fairly large for a plein air work. Even so, it retains a sketch-like immediacy.
I will not talk about Daubigny’s composition in this painting, mainly because the simple fact is that we cannot know what he was thinking. This painting may well have been an attempt at an exact reproduction of what he was looking at. Or, he may have repositioned things, added and removed in order to better make the point he was after. I could talk about leading lines, tone massing, spotting, golden sections, etc., but in all honesty that would simply be assumption. How well thought out the composition was in advance is something which we will never, with certainty, know. My opinion is that he simply saw a scene he liked and he painted it, making adjustments as he painted to suit his impression of the scene. Bear in mind that reverse engineering a painting is tricky. Without paint samples from the painting, all you have to go by are your eyes and your knowledge as a painter.
All paintings begin with a ground on some support and in this case it was colored on canvas. The color, as seen on the horizon in the image above, was either a light yellow ocher or raw sienna. It looks to be more of a campitura than an imprimatura.
A campitura is a ground which has colored pigment mixed directly into the white priming. This results in an even tone throughout the priming.
An imprimatura is a thinly applied color which is brushed or scrubbed on, over the white priming and after the priming has dried. Imprimature are often streaky looking and the white ground tends to show through, even in the more densely covered areas of the imprimatura. That said, one can certainly apply a smooth imprimatura but without seeing the edge of this canvas it is difficult to determine with certainty.
For more on campitura and imprimatura, see this post here.
Below is a closeup of the sky, in the near upper-left. You can see the colored ground showing through, in the center of the image. It looks a bit lighter than the ground as seen in the image above. I would not necessarily trust that, however, as the camera’s sensor may be lying to us here. The blue in the sky is quite saturated and the surrounding contrast is different than at the horizon.
Marc Dalessio prefers transparent red oxide imprimature. I have seen Constable’s with a similar colored ground so Marc’s choice is not without precedent.
After the ground came the lay-in.
Clearly this painting was not done using a window-shading method (finishing one area at a time). Rather, Daubigny appears to have worked up the canvas as a whole. However, working as a whole does not necessarily preclude layering.
Aspects of the first layer of paint can be seen in the image below.
This painting looks like it was begun with thinly applied browns, much like the way a seventeenth-century Flemish artist would have worked. The land, trees and even some of the water have an undertone with a brownish wash-like appearance, as if Daubigny began the painting as a brown-toned value study. You can see the browns underlaying many areas in this image. Look at the number ones in the image above.
The number two, near the bottom, shows us a second layer of paint. This is meant to represent water and it is thinly applied. You can see the brown tone showing through. You can also see, where that paint meets the brown of the shore, that the edge of this layer is crisp. This means that in all likelihood the brown under layer was dry. This does not mean that it was necessarily painted on different days. Paint, especially some earth tones, can dry quite quickly outdoors. This is all the more true if a drying medium is being used and the paint is thin enough.
The number threes show a similar effect: wet paint over dry.
Speaking of wet over dry, take a look at the image below.
Near the lower center you will see numbers one, two and three near each other. These are three layers, in order of application, wet over dry. The same is seen in one and two within the sky.
The number fours indicate areas where we can see wet on wet painting.
The downward streaks in the central third show us two other things. One, I believe that they represent distant rain. When you view the painting as a whole, the area looks like that. Two, if you look carefully, they show us that a medium was in use. The small dots on the streaks are reflections and this would not be so pronounced were drier paint being applied. Number two, in the trees, shows us that as well: thin, liquid paint.
We may also be able to determining whether Daubigny was left or right-handed. In the image below you can see a long, green streak of paint. Notice that, on the left part of the streak, it is denser than on the right and that the yellow under layer is progressively mixing with the green as the stroke moves to the right. This, again, is wet into wet. But it may also indicate that he was right-handed. As a left-hander myself, making that stroke, from left to right as the arrow shows, would be difficult. Not that it could not be done, just that it would look different due to how one would need to angle the brush. Regardless of all that, we have photographs of Daubigny at his easel and they show that he was indeed right-handed.
Let’s move back up into the sky, near the very top-center.
Much of the sky looks to have been painted in one shot, alla prima. The earlier image I showed had a second layer, a mid-toned blue painted over grey clouds. Not so here (above), nor even here (below).
In this image, above, which is a detail from just above the horizon, one can see the yellow-toned ground at number one. You can also see where clean brush hairs scraped off the paint at number two. The ground shows through and this character makes me think that Daubigny was using bristle brushes. Finally, at number three, you can see where a hair with white paint on it dragged over a darker area of wet paint. It picked up some of that darker paint, mixed in with it and dragged it farther on.
To conclude I will leave you with a detail from the lower left of the painting. It depicts two field workers, apparently trying to prepare the field before the rain comes. Look at the strokes of paint, daubs if you will (pun, daub – Daubigny).
If you’re into Daubigny, a year ago I did a post on Daubigny’s studio boat, Le Botin.