By the end of the 1860s, Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891) had painted with several of the founders of French Impressionism, and had a major impact on their styles and plein air painting techniques. However, he continued to work outside their circle, where he was well-received critically but not a commercial success.
Jongkind’s watercolours, such as this Landscape near Nevers from 1871, continued to be the medium in which he was most innovative. It would be easy to mistake this as a modern gestural watercolour with the use of water-dispersible stick media.
The architectural details in his oil painting of the Church of St. Médard on the Rue Mouffetard in Paris, from the same year, are relatively tight and traditional. But the sky above is a study in shafts of light, with a marvellous scrubbly arch of inky cloud. As a commercial painting, though, this was doomed to failure: few Parisians would even know of this modest High Gothic parish church, let alone want to pay for a view of it. But this was the Paris that Jongkind loved to paint.
In the early 1870s, Jongkind tried a series of atmospheric nocturnes, which gave him even greater scope to develop his painterly style. The painting above shows Overschie in the Moonlight, what was then a village on the edge of Rotterdam, in 1871. That below is a second View of Overschie in Moonlight from the following year. Does it remind you of Vincent van Gogh’s work of over fifteen years later, perhaps?
During the 1870s, Jongkind painted in both Paris and the Netherlands, apparently spending more of the winters in the latter, where he painted Canal in Holland in Winter in 1873. He first visited the Dauphiné region of France that year, and returned there repeatedly afterwards.
In 1874, Jongkind was invited to join the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, but he declined. This seems to mark the start of his decline, in which he slowly succumbed to episodic depression and heavy drinking.
In 1878 he bought a summer house in a town near Grenoble, living during the winter in Paris.
This watercolour of a Fishing Boat from 1878 is so gestural that it might most appropriately hang alongside works from the early twentieth century. Tragically, Jongkind continued to lapse into increasingly severe bouts of depression and alcoholism, and these wonderful works came less and less frequently.
Jongkind paint throughout the 1880s, as this watercolour of the Road near La Côte-Saint-André from 1885 attests. But he was now forgotten, and finally died near Grenoble in 1891. When Impressionism was promoted so heavily in the late twentieth century, his name was excluded and his works left in obscurity.
I hope that this short series to celebrate the birth of Johan Jongkind two hundred years ago today has shown how he anticipated Impressionist style well in advance of those currently considered to be at the forefront of the Impressionist movement. Many of its innovations – plein air paintings which appeared sketchy and impromptu, abundance of light and rich colour, their visible brushstrokes and unfinished appearance – were first developed and brought together by Jongkind.
Several of the Impressionists paid tribute to his influence on their style and technique. His watercolours in particular show a looseness and emphasis on mark-making which was seldom seen in the paintings of others until the early twentieth century, long after his death. I simply cannot understand why his works are not more widely shown, and better appreciated. If anyone led Impressionism during the 1860s and early 1870s, it was surely Johan Jongkind.
Association of the Friends of Jongkind
Sillevis J (2002) Jongkind, Aquarelles, Bibliothèque de l’Image. ISBN 978 2 914 66135 5. (An excellent in-depth account of his watercolours, extensively illustrated, and very reasonably priced. In French.)