While many landscape painters headed south to paint under Roman skies, a slow revolution was burning in the north, on the plains of the Low Countries, along the north French coast, and in the Île de France.
Eugène Isabey is little remembered now, but started his career painting in Honfleur, on the north coast of France. In 1842, he caught this exciting sky over The Town and Harbour of Dieppe, the laundresses in the foreground seizing a break between showers to get on with their work.
Gustave Courbet’s landscapes aren’t well known either, but his Gust of Wind from about 1865 shows a ‘leaning’ sky which amplifies the effect of windswept branches and creates the impression of wind.
His coastal paintings in his later career came to concentrate on waves breaking on the beach, above which there is a chaotic pile of clouds, in his Autumn Sea from 1867.
Charles-François Daubigny was from the same generation. Several of his pre-Impressionist landscapes feature extensive skies. This was painted on the Banks of the Seine, not far from Paris, in 1855.
In the 1870s Daubigny painted 25 moonlit landscapes, among them Moonrise at Auvers (1877) which shows some of his most remarkable chromatic effects.
The immediate progenitors of the Impressionist landscape were Johan Jongkind and Eugène Boudin, both of whom painted some exceptional skies.
If I had to pick one of Jongkind’s paintings which most heralded Impressionism, it would be this marvellous view of Étretat Harbour, painted in the rich colours of sunset in 1852, more than a decade before Monet. Unlike most of the later Impressionist views, it shows the famous chalk cliffs from the small fishing port and village, with a sublimely peaceful sky.
This much looser dusk River View in France from 1855 is claimed to have been painted near Pontoise, and shows an important Impressionist theme, of the industrialisation of the country around Paris. Its facture is decidedly rough, with obvious brushstrokes; in the distance are the poplars which Monet was to paint in series, with two windmills on the skyline of another richly coloured sky.
During the winter of 1864, Jongkind returned to his home country in the Netherlands, where he painted this Winter View with Skaters, whose low horizon would have been praised during the Dutch Golden Age.
In the summer of 1866, Jongkind travelled to the coast, where Isabey had painted over twenty years before, and painted this view of the Quay in Honfleur.
Jongkind was particularly enthusiastic to record the many changes which Paris and its suburbs were going through at this time. This view of Demolition Work in Rue des Franc-Bourgeois St Marcel (1868) was later turned into a successful etching, and has a rough-brushed sky.
Like Daubigny, during the 1870s, Jongkind painted a series of nocturnes which are dominated by their unusual skies.
Eugène Boudin was a pupil of Isabey who lived in Le Havre, on the Channel coast, and it was there in the mid-1850s that Boudin helped Claude Monet take his first steps towards becoming a landscape artist. Boudin’s skies never disappoint, and attained their zenith in his beach paintings of 1864.
In his Beach at Villerville from 1864, a large group of people are sat together on the beach, as if waiting for an entertainment to start, while the sun sinks in the glowing sky.
Another day, another party, and a very different sky becomes The Beach (1864).
The third painting of Boudin’s from the same year is On the Beach, Dieppe.
Like Jongkind, and the other pre-Impressionists, recognition of Boudin’s role has been slow in coming. His Fishermen’s Wives at the Seaside from 1872 heralds so many vigorously brushed skyscapes which were to appear on canvases over the next quarter century and more.
Landscape painters of the north of France, and the Netherlands, had shown how they too could paint skies as magnificent as those of the Campagna. It was now over to the Impressionists.