Corot Painting Analysis Essay

A superb plein air painting of this scene on the River Tiber is part of the foundation that Corot laid for Impressionism.

PainterJean-Baptiste-Camille (Camille) Corot
PaintingView of Rome: The Bridge and Castel Sant’Angelo with the Cupola of St. Peter’s
Year1826-7
Mediaoil on paper mounted on canvas
Dimensions 26.2 x 43.2 cm (10.5 x 17 in)
Collection Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco
Link

The Painting

Rome, the Sant’Angelo Bridge over the River Tiber, the cupola of St. Peter’s straight ahead, and on the right the cylindrical mass of Castel Sant’Angelo.

The sky is blue with faint wisps of high cloud to the left. Sunshine lights the middle distance, on the right in particular, and the far distance, falling from the left (south). The river is broad, its surface smooth and reflective, flowing from the lower right of the painting up and towards the left, passing under the bridge which is slightly to the left of the centre of the paper.

The bank on the left of the painting has a series of high buildings, eight to ten stories tall, whose dull walls drop to the water. In front of them are slopes of rubbish, and the bank in the foreground is similarly dark and dull with shade. Between the edge of the rubbish and the left end of the bridge is a small boat, with a man at each end, broadside on and silhouetted.

The bridge has three full arches, through which the opposite bank can be seen, bright in the sunlight. There are also single smaller arches at each end. Behind the bridge are various substantial buildings, at the back of which, standing high and proud on the skyline just to the left of the centre of the painting, is the cupola of St. Peters, with a lower and smaller cupola on each side of its base.

The opposite bank passes from the (western) end of the bridge in the centre of the painting in a broad sweep to the right edge. It consists of grassed terraces and pale earth, and at its left end (just to the right of the centre of the painting) is the protruding end of the fortifications which enclose the base of the castle.

The cylindrical fortified tower of Castel Sant’Angelo is in the upper right, circled by reinforcements at the base of its massive walls, and an overhanging gallery around its top. Various buildings are atop the tower, above which is a dark statue of the Archangel Michael, his wings outstretched, on a tall white plinth. Another small monument is visible just to the left of the base of the castle.

The river surface shows slightly blurred reflections of the bridge and buildings beyond, including St. Peter’s, the fortifications along the opposite bank, and Castel Sant’Angelo. The view is taken from the north-east of the bridge, on the ‘left’ bank, probably close to the Piazza di Ponte Umberto I, looking towards the south-west (‘right’ bank). The painting is sketchy rather than finely finished, and appears to have been painted plein air.

The Painter

Camille Corot was born in Paris to a middle-class family on 16 July 1796. After an apprenticeship as a draper, he worked in the trade until he was 26, when his father funded him to set up a studio and learn landscape painting. He initially studied under Michallon, but after the latter’s death in 1822, he transferred to Michallon’s teacher, Bertin.

He travelled to Italy to paint in the Campagna between 1825 and 1828, during which he completed more than 200 drawings and 150 paintings, mostly plein air. On his return to France he concentrated his efforts on getting work accepted for the Salon, and travelled widely to paint throughout the country. From 1829 onwards he painted for periods in the Forest of Fontainebleau, with the Barbizon School.

Although he had paintings shown at the Salons in 1831 and 1833, reception remained cool, and he returned to Italy for further campaigns in Venice and the Roman Campagna. He started to achieve critical acceptance in the 1840s, with Baudelaire his vociferous champion. He was awarded the cross of the Legion of Honour in 1846, and a medal from the Salon in 1848, following which he became a member of the Salon jury, then an officer in 1867.

Among his many students were Pissarro and Berthe Morisot, and he finally achieved commercial success and recognition as an elder statesman in French art. He gave money in charity to support the elderly Honoré Daumier, the family of Millet, and others. He was awarded a gold medal in 1874, and died in Paris on 22 February 1875.

Context

Corot started his professional career as a painter at a critical period, as romanticism and ‘glossy Salon realism’ were reaching their culmination, and he died at the height of Impressionism. Although he never embraced the latter style, his later works in particular remaining less highly chromatic and retaining the darkness of the Barbizon School, he laid the foundations for Impressionism and taught two of the movement’s key painters.

His first, probably greatest and most lasting, accomplishment was to build on the tradition of plein air oil painting in the Roman Campagna. This had been established by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Thomas Jones and other pioneers in the late eighteenth century, was handed over to Michallon, who in turn taught and inspired Corot. This is further detailed in my article on the plein air pioneers.

Corot’s years in Italy were formative in his own development, and one of the key elements that he put in place to hand on to Pissarro and other Impressionists. Apart from Degas, whose eye problems made it increasingly difficult for him to work in sunlight, all the Impressionists were avid plein air painters, essential if they were to paint impressions and fleeting effects of light on the landscape.

Although Corot’s studio and later work continued to use and depict the effects of light, often to great effect, it was in his plein air work in Italy that he used his highest chroma colours, and portrayed light most overtly, a style which naturally led on to the sketchy, high-chroma work of the Impressionists.

He also played a key role in the transition from the Barbizon School style to the early landscape paintings of the Impressionists. This can be seen clearly in the paintings of Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, and others during the 1860s. Corot’s own style changed at this time, as he developed his purer and increasingly impressionist ‘souvenir’ landscapes, as well as painting more traditional subjects such as myths.

In total he completed over 3000 paintings, sufficient for most to rate him as one of the six greatest Western landscape painters of all time.

Significance

Corot’s earliest plein air works are truly prodigious in their quality, and his development of the art. By the time that the Impressionists were painting outdoors, after 1841, oil paint was widely available in far more convenient metal tubes. But when Corot was in Italy he enjoyed no such luxuries: paint came in small bladders which were far less portable and much messier to work with. Painting plein air in oils during the 1820s was difficult, cumbersome, and perverse in the extreme.

Given that Corot had only started formal instruction in painting in about 1821, to be producing work of such high quality in just five years was remarkable. Aside from the technical issues, a plein air painter has to work quickly whilst the light remains fairly constant, and has very limited opportunity for corrections. Whilst some of his Italian plein air works may have taken more than one session, which can allow time to scrape and rework passages, as he painted on fragile paper the opportunities would have been much more limited than when working on more robust canvas.

Great experience is the normal requirement for such successful and expressive plein air paintings, which enables the painter to quickly sketch the motif with accuracy first time round. To have reached such fluency so early in his career is a good indication not only of great artistic talent, but also of enormous technical skill.

We are very fortunate to be able to appreciate these astonishing and expressive paintings today, as well as enjoying the effect that they had on painting in the rest of the nineteenth century.

References

Most of the recent literature dates back to the 1990s and events celebrating Corot’s bicentenary, with disappointingly little since.

Rehs Galleries’ Lyrical Landscapes
Corot at The National Gallery, London
WikiArt
Wikipedia

Conisbee P, Faunce S and Strick J (1996) In the Light of Italy. Corot and Early Open-Air Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 067941. (Building on Galassi’s account of Corot, broadens out to consider many of those active at the time. Superb reproductions, excellent essays, but more limited on Corot. Available secondhand but getting expensive.)
Galassi P (1991) Corot in Italy. Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 049572. (Based on his dissertation, this is an exceptional account of Corot’s time and work in Italy. Superb reproductions and a thorough bibliography. Available secondhand but getting expensive.)
Jones K et al. (2008) In the Forest of Fontainebleau. Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 138979. (An excellent account of the Barbizon School and its associates and successors, with fair coverage and reproductions of Corot’s work.)
Pomarède V and Bonfair O (1996) l’ABCdaire de Corot et le paysage Français, Flammarion. ISBN 978 2 0801 2466 1. (Slightly larger than the other small books, in French, with an interesting and insightful collection of snippets about Corot, with good but small illustrations.)
Pomarède V and de Wallens G (1996) Corot. Extraordinary Landscapes, Gallimard. ISBN 978 2 07 053379 4. (A little and thin book but a surprisingly high-quality biography with a lot of additional material, and an excellent bibliography. Sadly all the reproductions are small, but it is excellent value nonetheless.)
Reinhard-Felice M ed. (2011) The Secret Armoire. Corot’s Figure Paintings and the World of Reading, Hirmer. ISBN 978 3 777 438412. (Large format, excellent reproductions, focusses on figure paintings with fascinating essays too.)
Selz J (1996) Camille Corot. Un rêveur solitaire. 1796-1875, ACR Edition PocheCouleur. ISBN 978 2 867 7007 12. (Another little book, in French, with small reproductions, but a worthwhile detailed biography and appreciation.)

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Tous les demi-savants, après avoir consciencieusement admiré un tableau de Corot, et lui avoir loyalement payé leur tribut d’éloges, trouvent que cela pèche par l’exécution, et s’accordent en ceci, que définitivement M. Corot ne sait pas peindre.—Braves gens! qui ignorent d’abord qu’une oeuvre de génie … une oeuvre d’âme—où tout est bein vu, bien observé, bien compris, bien imaginé—toujours très bien exécutée …
Baudelaire, Curiosités Esthétiques

 

We went to Corot’s studio… . Corot is a true artist. One needs to see a painter in his own place to have an idea of his merit. I saw there, and appreciated in quite a different way, pictures which I had seen in the Salon and which had made but a moderate impression on me.
—Delacroix, Journals (1847)

Schiller likewise used the term “sentimental” in an idiosyncratic sense. The sentimental poet—in whose ranks Schiller arrayed himself—is one who entertains not false emotions but elegiac ones: cut off from the immediate enjoyment of nature by self-consciousness, he longs to recapture it. “The poet,” Schiller wrote, “either is nature or he will seek her. The former is the naïve, the latter the sentimental poet.”

The complicated and highly artificial nature of modern society, Schiller thought, encouraged the sentimental (in his special sense) and made the appearance of naïve poets a vanishing rarity. The naïve in general he associated with childhood and its spontaneous, unselfconscious enjoyment of nature; the sentimental he associated with the reflective craving for these benisons. When we ask what is so pleasing to us about the contemplation of “a modest flower, a stream, a mossy stone, the chirping of birds, the humming of bees, etc.,” Schiller answers that they represent not only “our lost childhood, which … fills us with a certain melancholy,” but also the ideal of prospective freedom and unity, which affords us “the sweetest enjoyment of our humanity as an idea.” In other words, such simple contemplation of nature reveals a moral as well as an aesthetic ideal, the ideal of a life unblemished by conflict, limitation, and stormy self-consciousness.

Among important nineteenth-century artists, perhaps none has the reputation of fulfilling Schiller’s ideal of naïve genius more fully than Corot, whose bicentennial this year has sparked renewed interest in his art and has provided the occasion for an ambitious traveling retrospective and other exhibitions centered around his work.

As of this writing, New York is the home to three such events. The largest is “Corot” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the last stop for a retrospective of some 160 paintings representing every phase and direction of Corot’s long and prolific career.[1] At the Brooklyn Museum is “In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting,” a collection of 130 paintings of the Italian landscape in and around Rome and Naples by forty-eight European artists.[1] Featuring nineteen small pictures painted by Corot on his first trip to Italy in the late 1820s, “In the Light of Italy” comprises works painted between 1780 and 1840. It includes canvases by Corot’s first teacher, the precocious and ill-fated Achille-Etna Michallon (1796–1822), and several important works by Michallon’s teacher, the Neoclassical academician Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), whose influential theories on landscape painting Corot imbibed in his formative years as an artist. Finally, there is a small but exquisite exhibition of some thirty late paintings by Corot at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in Manhattan; several of these works, which date from the mid-1840s, are for sale and nearly all represent Corot at his most concentrated and intense.

Corot’s popularity also helps to explain why he has so frequently been associated with fashionable artistic schools or movements in which he doesn’t really belong. For example, Corot is often nominated as an honorary Barbizon painter; but, although he made many pictures in and around Fontainebleau, his dreamy, often nymph-filled paintings are really very different in mood and ambition from the anti-Neoclassical plein-air landscapes of central Barbizon figures like Théodore Rousseau or Jules Dupré.

Again, Corot’s landscapes, especially his late, silvery Souvenirs, are often cited as proto-Impressionist works. There is no doubt that many of the Impressionists greatly admired Corot. The catalogue for the exhibition at the Met begins with famous statements by Monet and Degas as epigraphs: “There is only one master here—Corot,” Monet said in 1897: “We are nothing compared to him, nothing.” And Degas, not someone given to making excessively generous comments about other artists, declared in 1883 that Corot “is the strongest of us all, he foresaw everything.”

I invite Nature to come spend several days with me; that is when my madness begins. Brush in hand, I look for hazelnuts among the trees in my studio; I hear birds singing there, trees trembling in the wind; I see rushing streams and rivers laden with a thousand reflections of sky and earth; the sun sets and rises in my studio.

It is in this sense that Clement Greenberg, writing in 1942, was right to compare Corot to “a symbolist poet,” who “does not try to create a specific world but rather to awaken in the spectator limitless associations, muting the contrasts of light and dark lest things become too definite.”

It is a testimony to Corot’s specifically artistic vitality that aspects of his work have appealed to temperaments that differed radically from his own. Corot was no more a Realist than he was an Impressionist— much less, in fact; and yet there are Realist elements in some of his paintings and we know that his works held a great fascination for Courbet (and vice versa: Corot greatly admired Courbet). In 1866, Emile Zola impatiently wrote that “if M. Corot could kill, once and for all, the nymphs of his woods and replace them with peasants, I should like him beyond measure.” What is surprising is not the existence of such complaints —and Zola’s was hardly unique—but that Corot’s reputation rose above them essentially unscathed.

There are technical, painterly reasons for Corot’s widespread appeal: the misty modulations of light in his late landscapes attracted the Impressionists; the stripped-down modeling and simplifications of his Italian landscapes and his figure paintings attracted modernists from Gauguin and Van Gogh to Cézanne, Juan Gris, and Picasso. It is easy, for example, to see why the young Picasso admired Corot’s dark, brooding Mademoiselle de Foudras, a remarkable late portrait from 1872 that Picasso copied in 1920.

In his important essay on Corot in The Development of Modern Art (1905), the German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe repeatedly stressed the childlike element in Corot’s character and his art. Corot worked playfully, Meier-Graefe noted, with a “fancy characteristic of boyhood.” And although he was a year older than Delacroix, “nothing of the wild period”—the excess, the galloping Romanticism—“had touched him. A virginal soul dwelt in the sturdy body.” Corot was, Meier-Graefe concludes, “a child; we cannot describe his nature more exactly.”

These elements in Corot’s character (and work) can be overstressed. But the essential picture is correct. Cheerfulness was always breaking in. Corot’s art, Meier-Graefe wrote, “was like a smiling, well-protected coast, on which the waves ripple gently and never break in fury.” No doubt his sense of security had its origin in part in Corot’s circumstances and upbringing. Corot was born in Paris, the second of three children and only son of increasingly well-to-do merchants. His mother was a fashionable milliner of Swiss origin, his father the son of a wigmaker who ably ran his wife’s business, catering to the beau monde from a shop on the rue de Bac. A revealing portrait of Corot’s mother from the mid 1830s is included in the Met exhibition. Madame Corot sits in a fashionable blue dress with puffed sleeves, one of her magnificent bonnets perched atop her dark hair, its ribbons dangling untied down to her waist. This is a businesslike rather than a maternal creature: self-possessed, competent down to the tips of her elegantly gloved hands. She leans slightly forward with an expression of wry, impatient concentration—having just sat down, one feels, or else just about to rise. Altogether a formidable lady.

Camille was sent to boarding school in Paris at the age of four and then, in 1807, to school at the Collège de Rouen. An indifferent student, he completed his formal education in Poissy in 1814 at the age of eighteen. Although he was beginning to take an interest in art, at the behest of his father he worked in the cloth trade in Paris for nearly eight years. It may be tempting to apply the cliché of young-artist-rebels-against-bourgeois-parents-with-their-obtuse-commercial-ambitions to Corot, but it wasn’t like that at all. For one thing, Corot was an extremely dutiful son who didn’t have a rebellious bone in his body. For another, as Vincent Pomarède observes in his excellent essay for the Met’s catalogue, Corot’s experience in the cloth trade “clearly contributed to the formation of his aesthetic sensibility and taste, since it meant eight years spent in the world of fashion, where texture and exact colors of fabrics matter a great deal.” (Years later, toward the end of his life, Corot was delighted to discover evidence of his fame in a Parisian draper’s shop selling fabric in a color called gris-Corot, Corot gray.)

Physically, Corot was blessed with an exceedingly robust constitution and was as productive and energetic in his late seventies as in his fifties. An avid and tireless traveler, he lived simply and dressed, it is said, like a peasant. (So much for his mother’s finery.) By all accounts, he was devoted to his family, especially to his older sister Annette-Octavie and “la belle dame,” his mother, on whom he doted—and on whom he was financially dependent—until her death in 1851.

There is a quality of fathomless silence in many of Corot’s paintings, an essential stillness that impresses one as contemplative or quietly melancholic by turns. Yet Corot himself was intensely sociable, generally preferred painting with friends around him, and was remarkably generous. In 1868, when Daumier was on the point of being evicted from his apartment because he could not pay the rent, Corot bought a small house in Valmondois and gave it to him. It is also worth noting that he seems to have suffered not at all from artistic hauteur or temperament. When someone complained that one of Corot’s models “prattled, sang, laughed, and didn’t stay put,” the painter said, “It’s just that changeability that I love in her… . I am not one of those specialists who makes set pieces. My object is to express life. I need a model who moves around.”

Meier-Graefe describes Corot as “devout” and tells us that he attended Mass regularly. Gary Tinterow notes in his essay for the Met’s catalogue that in his later years Corot was accustomed to read Thomas à Kempis’s devotional classic The Imitation of Christ before retiring. “It is this book,” Corot said to a friend,

that has helped me lead my life with such serenity and has always left me with a contented heart. It has taught me that men should not puff themselves up with pride, whether they are emperors adding this or that province to their empires or painters who gain a reputation.

Nevertheless, Corot’s Catholicism was clearly of the world-affirming, Mediterranean variety. As Meier-Graefe puts it, “although a good Christian, he was not a bad Pagan Greek.” So it is that, although Corot never married, he was hardly indifferent to female beauty. Writing from Rome in 1827 to a friend, he mentions an occasional dalliance with a local girl (“expensive”) and dilates on the charms of Italian women: “les yeaux, les épaules, les mains et les culs sont superbes.” Admitting to the same correspondent that a certain girl “pleased me greatly and still does,” he explained that “I have only one goal in life that I want to pursue faithfully: to make landscapes. This firm resolution keeps me from a serious attachment.” For some, the spectacle of Corot’s apparently unflappable contentment was an irritation. Writing in 1855, when Corot was widely celebrated, Edmond de Goncourt fumed that the painter was

the happy man par excellence. When he is painting, happy to paint; when he is not painting, happy to rest. Happy with his modest fortune before he inherited; happy with his inheritance when he inherited. Happy to live in obscurity when he was unknown; happy with his successes …

and, Goncourt sneered, happy with his models: “et tirant tous les mois son coup avec quelque sale modèle qui vient le voir.”

In a much-quoted passage from his 1853 monograph on Corot, the painter’s friend Théophile Silvestre noted that “Corot sometimes exaggerates even to himself the cheerfulness of his character, while I see the melancholy so often present in his work and the expression of sadness that occasionally takes possession of his features.” Again, though, it is a dreamy, seductive melancholy one senses in Corot’s work. In a letter written in 1835, when he was thirty-nine, Corot hinted at some nameless sorrow and confided that his spirits “now lean toward sadness and melancholy.” But such expostulations are extremely rare in Corot’s correspondence, and one comes away feeling that whatever sadnesses he experienced were soon incorporated into an overarching spirit of affirmation, shadows necessary to set off an abiding luminosity.

Corot always placed a great premium on spontaneity. In a notebook entry made in Rome circa 1828, he wrote that “I have noticed that whatever is finished at one sitting is fresher, better drawn, and profits from many lucky accidents, while when one retouches this initial harmonious glow is lost.” There are some remarkable pictures made in a single sitting, including a small gem on view at Salander-O’Reilly. But in fact Corot often took great pains and many sessions to achieve the freshness and harmonious glow he sought. Vincent Pomarède describes a four-stage process:

He began outdoors, blocking in the subject fairly completely, usually in pencil but sometimes in oil; then in the studio, using oils, he repainted from memory, making the drawing and the effects of light and shadow more precise; next he returned to the site to analyze in detail various elements of the landscape; finally he retouched the painting in the studio, sometimes over a period of years.

Spontaneity, or at least the look of spontaneity, is sometimes achieved through painstaking and meticulous labor.

Corot began exhibiting regularly at the Salon in 1827 and had his first notable success in 1835 with Hagar in the Wilderness, now in the Met. This large canvas (nearly six by eight feet) is an ambitious Biblical scene in which the figures—a despairing Hagar, the infant Ishmael, and, floating off in the distance, a ministering angel—are dwarfed by a parched and desolate landscape. It is a forceful but not, to my mind, an especially likable picture. In any event, it is hardly the sort of picture that we associate with Corot; indeed, as Meier-Graefe noted, “we scarcely recognize Corot here.” It is, in fact, one of the curiosities of Corot’s career that many of the works that first made his reputation now seem secondary, while some of the works we most admire were ignored or even scorned when they were first exhibited.

By the late 1840s, Corot’s reputation was firmly established. But his path to success was not unencumbered. In 1843, for example, his submissions (notably the melodramatic Destruction of Sodom) were rejected by the Salon. He was nominated for the Legion of Honor in 1846 (at the news of which, Corot’s father wondered whether he should increase his son’s allowance), but never received a first-class medal from the Salon. In fact, as Michael Pantazzi notes in his essay for the Met catalogue, “In a world used to official rewards,” Corot’s recognition was “inadequate.” “State patronage, which was less than enthusiastic for an artist of Corot’s stature, ceased in 1851 after the purchase of five pictures.”

The growth of Corot’s reputation really took place slightly to one side of the established system of patronage and reward. He made his first important sale in 1839 to the duc d’Orléans, but it was the enthusiasm of certain critics and fellow artists that assured Corot’s stature. Already in 1845, Baudelaire had singled him out as the leader of the modern school of landscape painters. In 1851 Philippe de Chennevières called him “the greatest landscape painter of our time,” and in 1853 Nadar referred to Corot as “always and eternally the master.”

What is it in Corot’s painting that elicited such enthusiasm? Meier-Graefe noted that “tone was Corot’s great medium,” “the Alpha and Omega of his development.” If he was sometimes called “the Rembrandt of the open air,” it was because, like Rembrandt, he made color out of a subtle modulation of light and shade. Baudelaire perceived something similar when, writing about the Salon of 1846, he noted that Corot was “plutôt un harmoniste qu’un coloriste,” a harmonist rather than a colorist. In a notebook entry from 1870, Corot himself put it this way:

What there is to see in painting, or rather what I am looking for, is the form, the whole, the value of the tones… . That is why for me the color comes after, because I love more than anything the overall effect, the harmony of the tones, while color gives you a kind of shock that I don’t like.

Corot’s mastery of “tone,” his skill as a visual “harmoniste,” is perhaps most obvious in his great, light-diffused landscapes, beginning with his 1850 masterpiece, Une Matinée, also called La Danse des nymphes, which is now in the Musée d’Orsay. This remarkable work, which has been cited as a possible source for Cézanne’s Bathers, is a kind of Dance to the Music of Time à la Claude. It also, as the Met’s catalogue notes, “represented the turning point toward Corot’s late, vaporous manner and an increasing reliance on dramatic effects of mood, the culmination of a development begun ten years before” with Corot’s Virgilian idylls, e.g., Paysage; soleil couchant (1840).

Corot was obviously fascinated by the spectacle of absorbed concentration that reading figures—particularly female figures —presented. “Nobody,” Pantazzi notes, “painted so many books.” Une Liseuse (1869–70), La Lecture interrompue (1870–73): in such pictures of women reading, or having just been interrupted reading, Corot uses books as something more than props: they are symbols of enchantment. Reading, in which we absent ourselves partially from the press of everyday life, provided a kind of intellectual correlative to the sort of experience Corot sought, with increasing success, to recreate in his gauzy landscapes: an experience of unity, of the timeless within time, the Arcadian ideal instituted in the precincts of contemporary life.

In any event, despite its lukewarm reception, Corot rated La Toilette very highly indeed, no doubt partly because of the immense efforts he expended on it. “You see the pains I take to hide the attachment [of the muscles] at the clavicles and sternum,” Corot recalled,

to soften the modeling of the ribs where it seems that the breasts just begin to swell; I try to go about it entirely differently from the usual way… . As this is not an anatomy lesson, I must bind together as seen in nature everything covering the armatures that make up and support the body, in order to put down only what I experience faced with these tissues of flesh that let one sense the blood beneath while they reflect the light of the sky.

The result of this effort to indite his experience is an exquisitely balanced tone poem in which a beguiling sensuousness is is held in delicate, reflective suspension.

Some of Corot’s later, more atmospheric landscapes are less sensual but perhaps even more beguiling. To be sure, Corot flirted with what Meier-Graefe called a species of mannerism in some of his silvery dreamscapes. But the best of them resist mannerism with a suave tautness of composition and subtle modulation of tone. In L’Etoile du berger (1864), for example, or the justly famous Souvenir de Mortefontaine (1864), bought by Louis-Napoleon and now in the Louvre, Corot achieves an all-over unity of effect—a perfectly modulated surface—in which tone, form, and subject matter meld into one another in an expression of articulate visual yearning: a harmony of contrasts so skillful that it seems to resolve itself into a single note.

Corot’s mastery of tone and skill as a visual harmonist are evident in paintings other than his mist-filled landscapes. Indeed, Meier-Graefe rather deprecates these works in favor of some of Corot’s figure paintings, in which the tonal control is perhaps less blatant but just as consummate. Among the most famous are Femme à la perle (1858–68)—the decoration is actually a leaf, not a pearl—and La Dame en bleu (1874), both from the Louvre. Writing about the latter, Meier-Graefe called it “a perfect parure in blue,” noting that the striking effect of the blue dress was due as much to Corot’s subtle brushwork as to the color itself. La Dame en bleu is another “un-Corot-like” Corot, Corot in the tradition of Gainsborough, on the one hand, and looking forward to astringencies of Manet (an artist Corot didn’t care for), on the other.

Corot’s greatest strengths—his unfailing sense of composition, his mastery of tone, his “poetry”—have also been held against him by critics who insisted on a different standard of pictorial accuracy. “Poetry,” after all, can conceal a multitude of evils, or at least incapacities, in a painter. But Clement Greenberg was right that “there have been very few painters more fully in possession of their craft.” As some of his figure paintings show, Corot was technically capable of optical verisimilitude; but he was generally after other qualities, deeper accuracies. As he put it in a notebook, “I never hurry to arrive at details; the masses and the character of a picture interest me before anything else.” Curiously, his avid interest in the young art of photography reinforced this preference for masses and tone over detail: it was the spectrum of grays and revelation of tonality that Corot responded to in photography, not its anatomy of detail.

Why? The curators themselves give a clue when they note in their introduction that they sought to represent “every aspect” of Corot’s painted oeuvre in their retrospective. A “different kind of exhibition might have shown Corot only at his most ravishing,” they note, but they insist that this would have been “deceptive” because a “fundamental aspect of Corot’s work is that his drawing is sometimes awkward, his compositions sometimes formulaic.” Well, it is certainly true that the curators have treated viewers to some second- and third-rank Corots in this exhibition: some are mere curiosities, like Soissons: House and Factory of Mr. Henry (1833) or Cow in a Stable (1840–45), others simply imperfectly realized works.

 

Notes
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  1. “Corot” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on October 29, 1996, and remains on view through January 19, 1997. The show was first seen at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris (February 27–May 27, 1996), and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (June 21–September 22, 1996). A catalogue of the exhibition, with essays by Vincent Pomarède, Michael Pantazzi, and Gary Tinterow, has been published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Harry N. Abrams (496 pages, $60; $45 paper). Go back to the text.
  2. “In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting” opened at the Brooklyn Museum on October 11, 1996, and will remain on view through January 12, 1997. The show was first seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (May 26–September 2, 1996), and will travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum (February 21–May 18, 1997). A catalogue of the exhibition, with essays by Philip Conisbee, Sarah Faunce, Jeremy Strick, and Vincent Pomarède, has been published by the National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press (288 pages, $50; $27 paper). Go back to the text.
  3. “Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Late Paintings” opens at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York, on December 5, 1996, and will remain on view through January 13, 1997. A catalogue of the exhibition, written by Martin Dieterle, has been published by Salander-O’Reilly Galleries (48 pages, $20). Go back to the text.

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