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Monday, September 1, 2014

Johan Jongkind

Maas at Rotterdam, 1859, Johan Jongkind--28,000 francs.
As so often happens, this early work brought a good price only after his death
Anyone who tries to tell you that an artist's selling his or her works is unimportant deserves to spend a week or so in the shoes of a starving artist. Today, that might be difficult, given the easy availability of part-time jobs, dual-income families, and the so-called "social safety net." As recently as a century ago, and long before that, the stereotype of the "starving artist" was not only alive and well, but living in virtually every major city in the world. In fact, many such artists sacrificed their physical and mental health for their art--they would buy art supplies instead of food. Although it probably occurred more often than we know in past centuries, wives normally did not work outside the home to help support their painting husbands and hungry offspring. It was not considered proper in the first place, and secondly, jobs appropriate to women's limited abilities were simply not available. As I discussed yesterday, only the most highly trained and educated women could find work of any kind outside the home (outside the boudoir, that is).
The Seine and Notre-Dame in Paris, 1864, Johan Jongkind
Johan Jongkind, Self-portrait,
1860, watercolor sketch.
During much of his life as an artist, the Dutch-born Johan Jongkind was a starving artist. No, he didn't, in fact, starve, he lived to the ripe old age of seventy-two. Born in 1819, he died in 1891, but he probably died hungry. Today we often equate the "starving" artist with the "lazy" artist. I put both words in quotation marks because neither are absolutes. They are appropriate only in degrees, both now and then. Though Johan Jongkind never achieved any degree of success in his life, it was not for lack of trying--he was far from lazy. The Dutch seldom are. And it was not from a lack of talent. Virtually all his life Jongkind was looked up to as an artists by his peers and a host of younger artists whom he influenced. In fact, Jongkind might be considered as one of the most influential artists of the 19th century...certainly the most influential unknown artists.
Quay on the River Seine, Paris, 1862-63, Johan Jongkind.
The Seine wasn't quite so romantic then as now.
The list of artists upon whom Jongkind had a profound influence includes Monet, Manet, Sisely, Boudin, Courbet, Frédéric Bazille, Eugène Isabey, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Antoine Guillemet, and Karl Daubigny as well as many lesser-knowns. Notice that, even though Jongkind was Dutch, all the names above are French; and virtually all were, to some degree, involved in Impressionism. We often talk about Post-Impressionists, but in Jongkind's case, he might easily be called one of barely a handful of Pre-Impressionists (though the designation is not all the common). And if Impressionism was the most revolutionary development in 19th-century art, then it's not hard to see why this man and his work were so important.
Demolition of the Rue des Franes Bourgeois, 1873, Johan Jongkind.
 La Rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques
in Paris, 1879, Johan Jongkind.
Jongkind was almost exclusively a landscape and seascape artist hailing from the exceedingly long tradition of Dutch landscape painters. Other than the fact that he was born in the Netherlands and trained at the Dutch art academy in The Hague, little is known about Jongkind's early life. He first makes an appearance in 1845 when he took up residence in the Montmartre quarter of Paris. There he studied under Eugène Isabey and Francois-Edouard Picot, thus providing a French flavor to his otherwise thoroughly Dutch painting style. In 1848, he had work accepted in the Paris Salon where he came to be noticed by the influential Paris art critics, Charles Baudelaire and Émile Zola. Yet, with Parisian artists numbering well over ten-thousand during most of the 19th-century, acceptance into the Salon and critical approval by a couple French critics did not put pita 'neath the palate nor paint on the palette.
Houses along a Canal near Crooswijk, 1874, Johan Jongkind--Dutch Impressionism.
Windmill near Delft, 1857, Johan Jongkind
In 1855, Jongkind gave up. He returned to Rotterdam where he apparently had no more success than in Paris. So, in 1860, it was back to Paris for a second try. Renting a studio in the Montparnasse section of Paris he began experimenting with Impressionism. Jongkind would often go down to the Seine, set up his easel, and paint watercolor sketches of the then mostly undeveloped riverbank, which he then took back to his studio and repainted in oils. Critics today might argue that the watercolors are superior to his oils, but in any case, neither proved at all popular with the French bourgeois, for whom his work was, out of necessity, priced. Then, as now, there was the feeling that if it didn't cost a lot of francs it wasn't good art. Moreover, Parisians could see quaint views of narrow streets and the raw Seine riverbank, often by simply looking out their windows. They certainly weren't about to pay for such vistas. For their living rooms they wanted portraits, not crude looking landscapes sketched in oils. For their boudoirs, naked ladies disguised as Greek goddesses. Jongkind wasn't the only would-be Impressionist to run up against such an marketing stone wall, but he was likely one of the first.
Seascape with Ponies on the Beach, ca. 1862. Johan Jongkind.
(The same beach can be seen below in winter.)
Clair de Lune, 1886, Johan Jongkind
In 1862, Jongkind pulled up stakes again and headed for Honfleur on the Normandy coast, long a magnet for landscape artists, and far away from the decrepit street scenes of Paris. There he met with Sisely, Monet, and Monet's mentor, Eugene Boudin, as well as several of the other fledgling Impressionist at a rundown Norman health spa/hotel. They spent the summer painting and feasting upon one another's influence and enthusiasm for the new manner of thinking, seeing, and painting landscapes. It's unknown whether Jongkind ditched his watercolors in favor of painting in oils outdoors, but it was here that the early stirrings of Paris Impression first burst into full flower in all their works. Of course, none of these guys sold enough paintings to even pay for their paint, but, as they say, "a good time was had by all."
On the Beach at Sainte-Adresse, ca. 1865, Johan Jongkind. Painting on the beach in summer is not as pleasant as painting the same beach in the winter.
The Garden of Luxmbourg, 1887,
Johan Jongkind (possibly his
companion, Josephine).
Johan Jongkind struggled on, his lack of success and a long-standing battle with alcoholism sapping his health, if not his willingness to paint. He was represented in several of the Salon shows as well as the famous (or infamous) Salon de Refuses in 1863. His fellow artists even held a benefit art sale to help him out financially (which, in fact, didn't help him much). He was invited to exhibit in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874 but declined. By then his mental well-being was very much in question. Finally, in 1878, Jongkind and his long-time companion, Joséphine Fesser, retired to the tiny town of La Côte-Saint-André near Grenoble in southeastern France where he died in 1891. As is so often the case, within as little as 10 months after his death, Jongkind's paintings became highly sought after. Prices for his paintings and etchings ranged upwards from 40 to 200 times more than he had not been able to sell them for while alive. He'd typically earned little more than 3,000 francs a year; but just a year after his death his Maas at Rotterdam (top) sold for 28,000 francs and Canal at Brussels (below) for 17,000 francs.
Canal at Brussels (AKA The Harbor: the Brussels Warehouse District), 1874, Johan Jongkind--from completely unsalable to 17,000 francs in little more than a  year.

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