The text by Cyril Barrett included in A Shorter History portfolio clearly identifies this image as the bust of Charles-François Daubigny (1817–1878), a landscape artist much admired by Vincent van Gogh, and the painter responsible for putting Auvers-sur-Oise on the cultural map. Daubigny moved to Auvers in 1860, when he moored his studio-cum-houseboat on the River Oise. He was followed to Auvers by numerous artists, including Cézanne, Pissarro, Daumier, Corot, Monet, Van Gogh and Dr Gachet (an artist himself, as well as Van Gogh’s doctor). Later on, Daubigny moved into a house, notable for its beautiful walled garden, famously painted by Van Gogh, and the house itself has become an art museum. Daubigny had trained as an engraver before turning to painting, so it seems appropriate that Farrell decided to devote one of the eight etchings to him. Farrell’s engraving with aquatint is, however, from an impossible perspective, looking out on to a landscape which is not that of Auvers. As such, its combination of realism and fantasy raises a number of puzzles.
Daubigny’s statue stands on a hill, on a small triangle of green and quite close to a high stone wall, behind which stands the Church of Notre-Dame which features so frequently in Van Gogh’s last landscapes. Behind the wall, the hill continues to rise steeply towards the massive Gothic-style church, with its distinctive, stout bell-tower. Following the wall to the right, a road leads up to the cemetery where Vincent and his brother, Theo van Gogh, lie, in adjoining, very simple, ivy-framed graves. To the left, another road leads to the inn where Vincent lived and died. In Farrell’s etching, Daubigny’s bust is seen from behind, from an imaginary (and also impossible) point where the church wall stands—as, indeed, it also stood when Farrell first visited Auvers. Farrell has adopted a viewpoint that has flattened out the gradient of the land.
In the distance, more or less directly behind the church, but not viewable from this (impossible) spot, there is the winding path where Van Gogh shot himself, shortly after painting Wheat Field with Crows. It’s almost as if Farrell has turned the Daubigny statue around so it can look out towards the wheat field, with its vertiginous yellow surface, its troubled blue sky and ominous crows. The curved shape that winds so disruptively across the middle distance of the Farrell’s image echoes the equally disturbing shape that marks out the path across the yellow foreground of the wheat field, and towards the (invisible) spectator, in Van Gogh’s painting.
There is, however, an untitled oil version of this image by Farrell, dating from 1978, in which the birds are lacking, and where the blue of the distance clearly reads as sea—another impossibility, since the sea is far from the inland town of Auvers. In real life, in front of the statue a road leads down towards the bridge over the brown and green river. The only reminder of Van Gogh in this version is the strong yellow colour which, once again, winds horizontally across the middle of the painting. A speech-bubble appears, comic-like, out of Daubigny’s mouth, but it contains no words; and the yellow strip—which seems to invite an added phrase or symbol—is also blank.
There’s also a very different watercolour of the Daubigny bust from 1979 which provides yet another improvisation on this same theme. This shows the bust of Daubigny seen from the front (from an entirely possible perspective), and not from the imagined perspective over the top of the Church and its wall. This time the watercolour is in shades of green, grey and brown, but with the colours of the palette in Daubigny’s left hand also filled in. In addition, there’s also an edition of seventy-five lithographs of the Daubigny bust seen from behind. These also date from 1979, and are in the same colour range of green, brown and grey as the watercolour. In these, the background fades into mist, and it is clear that the artist is looking down on the bust from the top of the Church wall in a way that seems entirely possible. In the lithographs, there are no birds, and the details of the landscape are obscure. Here we find also, for the first time, the curious numerals and lines drawn at the left-hand base of the stepped plinth of the bust, with the lines also extruded to the right-hand side.
In the 1979 lithographs these lines read like topographical markings. In the 1982 etching, however, the hill has been rendered less steep, and the numerals and lines seem more abstract, suggesting perhaps lines of music on a score. If this was Farrell’s intention, then it is appropriate, since the celebrated annual classical musical festival of Auvers-sur-Oise had its foundational year in 1979.
Farrell’s tendency to return again and again to rework this Daubigny image from different perspectives, and with different colours, media, and horizons, suggests that it was important to him. But Cyril Barrett’s commentary raises new questions. Barrett, like Micheal’s brother David in his 2006 biography, indicates that what bothered Farrell was that Daubigny’s paintings were inferior to those of Van Gogh, but that it is Daubigny who is honoured by the town with a statue, while Van Gogh had no such monument. This was seen by Farrell as an example of a different kind of politics, that of inequality in the art world.
It’s true that Farrell was visiting Auvers in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and thus before the current tourist industry around Van Gogh was properly underway; but, even so, this account rests on an error. There is, in fact, a sculpture of Van Gogh positioned elsewhere in the town, on the pedestrian route between the railway station and the Town Hall, and in the public park now named after Van Gogh. The statue is in bronze and is by the Russian/French sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890–1967). Given that it was inaugurated in Auvers in 1961, it seems odd if Farrell was unaware of it—especially because Zadkine was an expatriate artist who had been based in La Ruche, Montmartre, in the same Paris studios from which Farrell produced some of his most celebrated works (including early versions of Miss O’Murphy), a mere four years after Zadkine’s death. However this may be, it seems that this etching engages with the question of artist as hero. Farrell seems to be identifying strongly with Van Gogh, and Daubigny has become the artistic establishment against which the artist–outsider needs to rebel in order gain authenticity. As such, it is the absent Van Gogh who haunts this image—over the horizons of its impossible topography and also in its margins and its blanks. Daubigny—the “hero” of Auvers-sur-Oise—is central to the picture frame, but is curiously displaced from the landscape of the town.
Text courtesy of Christine Battersby, Reader Emerita in Philosophy