Summary of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
The hazy landscapes and poetic mythological tableaux of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot mark an important period of transition in French painting, from the academic Neoclassicism of the early 19th century to the vanguard developments of its later decades, when truth to life, and to emotion, became a more important marker of artistic value than historical or moral significance; and when landscape painting came into its own as the defining genre of the age. Corot was too old to be directly associated with the movements - Realism, Impressionism - which articulated this shift, and was connected with the academic institutions which they spurned. But the lyrical expressiveness of his work, its focus on the natural world, and its movement away from a sharp academic style, made it an important exemplar for the artistic radicals of the late-19th century.
- Although he was an academic painter schooled in Neoclassicism, Corot's landscapes were hailed as having predicted the advances of Impressionism. They became renowned for their soft color-palettes, often rendered with such a low level of tonal contrast that they approached a monochrome effect. The resultant dreamlike quality reflected his desire to stay true to his "first impression" of a landscape, an aim carried much further by Claude Monet and others later in the century.
- Corot was also involved in the development of Realism, making periodic trips from the late 1820s onwards to the Fontainebleau Forest, where he met and befriended the Barbizon School of painters. These artists were attempting to divest the French landscape of its historical and mythological baggage, painting only what was there, in a spirit of rapt attentiveness to nature. Following his initial association with the group, Corot began producing increasingly naturalistic landscape paintings, with a strongly emotive draw that predicts many of the subsequent efforts of Millet, Courbet, and others.
- Corot was an early advocate of painting en plein air, working with his easel on location in order to capture his first emotional response to a particular scene or setting. This was a technique later made famous by Impressionist painters such as Monet, as well as by Corot's pupils Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot, who often paid homage to Corot's techniques as showing them how to capture their own first reactions to a natural setting.
Progression of Art
The Bridge at Narni
For any European painter of the early nineteenth century, the Italian landscape held an almost mystical appeal, having been immortalized by Neoclassical painters such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. For the young Corot, fresh from his artistic training, an early trip to Rome and the surrounding areas (1825-28) fulfilled all his expectations of the Mediterranean countryside, and he produced hundreds of paintings and sketches during his time there. The Bridge at Narni is a perfect example of his style during these Italian years: using traditional academic compositional methods, Corot leads the viewer's eye into and around the canvas with his winding river and carefully considered use of light.
The work is partly significant in indicating Corot's deep absorption of Neoclassical principles as a student in Paris. The idealized Mediterranean setting is rendered quasi-mythological by the inclusion of Roman ruins, the eponymous bridge being the Ponte d'Augusto, built under the Emperor Augustus around 27 BC. The artfully arranged figures in the foreground, meanwhile, seem more like the inhabitants of some classical arcadia than contemporary Italian citizens. This work is also interesting in teaching us something about Corot's compositional methods: though the painting was completed in the studio, the same scene is the subject of a related oil sketch - now held at the Louvre - which Corot composed en plein air in the Umbrian countryside, spending a great deal of time and energy rendering his subject first-hand.
Exhibited at the Salon of 1827, The Bridge at Narni was one of Corot's early successes, while his technique of painting on location would become a hallmark of his practice. It was also highly influential on the later emergence of Impressionism. Painters such as Claude Monet and Corot's pupil Camille Pissarro would never forget the lesson set forth in works such as this: that a painting, however laborious its execution, must always "remain faithful" to the artist's first impression of the subject.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Hagar in the Wilderness
In this painting from 1835, Corot depicts a scene from the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. Hagar was the servant of Abraham, whose wife Sarah was unable to conceive. Wanting a child, Abraham had a son with Hagar, only for Sarah to bear him a child of her own, Isaac. Jealous, Sarah banishes Hagar and her son Ishmael to the Beersheba Desert, where they almost die of thirst, only to be saved by an angel at a spring. Corot depicts the moment of Hagar's final breakdown; as the angel approaches in the distance, she beseeches God to pity her.
Hagar in the Wilderness is partly an exercise in dramatic tonal contrast, with the light cutting across the arid landscape dividing the whole canvas in two. At the same time, the biblical themes and motifs, and the stylized postures of the characters, suggest the abiding influence of Neoclassical landscape painting. Corot's academic training had instilled in him a Neoclassicist's appreciation for religious and mythological landscapes, and also a sense of the moralistic narrative function of painting. One critic summed up the intended aims of the piece in noting that it "satisfies my spirit and gives me food for thought". However, the story of the painting's composition also reflects Corot's interaction with the burgeoning Realist style in French painting. Though the setting is imaginary, the inexplicably lush desert trees are reminiscent of sketches made around this time of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where Corot met and befriended the Barbizon School of artists, associated with the movement from Romanticism to Realism in French landscape painting.
Displayed at the Salon of 1835, Hagar in the Wilderness was praised for its originality and display of technical skill, earning Corot instant fame and wealth. It thus represents the moment in his career when he acquired the sudden status of a Salon painter, a status which would remain with him even as his work became more naturalistic and non-academic in theme and composition.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Forest of Fontainebleau
This tranquil landscape painting depicts the Forest of Fontainebleau in central France, complete with bovine inhabitants, and a distant cowherd leading his charges to water. It has the look of a work composed on location, but the careful combination of horizontals and verticals betrays the meticulous planning that went into the piece. Nonetheless, this is an important painting in indicating, both in theme and style, Corot's engagement with the school of painting then associated with Fontainebleau.
By the 1840s, that is, the area was synonymous with a new movement in landscape painting, the Barbizon School, named after a village on the forest's outskirts. Caught between Romanticism and Realism, artists such as Théodore Rousseau, Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, and Jean-François Millet were attempting to strip the landscape of its historical and mythological associations, creating a style of art that would celebrate the natural world on its own terms. Though often pigeonholed as a nostalgic, retrograde movement in relation to the pointedly modern Impressionists, the Barbizon painters' rejection of academic and Neoclassical traditions was revolutionary in its time, as was their commitment to working en plein air. Corot's made trips to Fontainebleau throughout his life, indicating the depth of his connection to the group, who, like him, were seeking to elevate landscape painting within the hierarchy of genres propagated by the academy, contributing to the nineteenth century's reputation as 'the century of landscape'.
Perhaps this was already paying off, as Forest of Fontainebleau was accepted at the Salon of 1846 despite its non-mythological subject-matter, and its eschewal of Neoclassical tradition. It earned the praise of the Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, who placed Corot at the forefront of modern developments in landscape painting, and of various other critics. Indeed, it is arguably a work which speaks to the modern viewer to a greater extent that Corot's youthful Neoclassicism, abandoning grand allegory to capture the quiet dignity of the natural world.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A woodland grove bathed in early morning light is the setting for this theatrical composition from 1850. Curtains of foliage enclose the scene, which is populated by dancing figures in classical dress. To the left, a reveler raises his glass in a toast, hinting at the possible subject-matter: the Bacchanal, a festival in honor of the Roman God Bacchus, patron of wine, ecstasy, and unbridled pleasure; the painting's subtitle, "The Dance of the Nymphs", hints at a supernatural and potential sexual connotation to the image. Delicate touches of pigment are used to pick out the leaves of the trees, which seem to sway gently in the breeze, epitomizing Corot's signature soft style. Captured in hazy colors, the landscape takes on a dreamlike quality, seeming somewhere between fantasy and reality.
That dreamlike impression may partly reflect the fact that the painting was inspired by two very different scenes: the Villa Farnese in Rome, where Corot made early studies similar to this piece; and a typical mise en scène of the Paris Opéra, where Corot frequently attended ballets and concerts. The original, French title for the work, Une Matinée, reinforces the latter suggestion, referring both to a time of day and a type of performance. In compositional terms, the work retains the obvious vestiges of Corot's Neoclassical training, particularly in its mythological subject-matter, but is adventurous in eschewing precise reference to any particular event, story, or person, instead evoking the general mood or air of classical myth.
A Morning is taken to represent a key turning point in Corot's career, and was his first widely successful landscape in which he turned attention away from historical and mythological subject-matter. It also signals an important transition in nineteenth-century landscape painting more generally, away from allegorical narrative scenes towards the naturalistic, anecdotal work of the Impressionists.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Souvenir of Mortefontaine
In this lyrical work from 1864, dappled light plays across the branches of a towering tree, which bows down under the weight of its leaves, forming a kind of secondary frame within the canvas. To the left, three figures gather around a sapling, reaching up for its offerings: the harvest, a traditional subject of French landscape painting, is rendered with a dreamlike intensity, the boundaries between human bodies and foliage lost in a soft haze of color. The effect suggests the symbiosis of nature and humankind, while the still water of the lake, perfectly reflecting the trees beyond, lends an air of tranquility.
Carefully composed with purposeful asymmetry, this painting partly demonstrates Corot's continued affinity with the compositional tropes of Neoclassical landscape painting, even during the final decades of his career. But it has none of the allegorical grandeur of that style, instead offering precisely what its title promises: a memory or imaginative reverie, in this case returning the viewer - and the artist - to the Mortefontaine region of northern France, where Corot had perhaps travelled in his youth. He exhibited nearly thirty "souvenir" paintings between 1855 and 1874, most of them conveying the same, gentle ambience as this piece. Some art historians have linked the blurriness of these works to Corot's late interest in landscape photography, which, given the available technology at the time, rarely achieved a crisp image.
Made at the height of the painter's popularity, Souvenir of Mortefontaine was shown to great acclaim at the Salon of 1864, and was one of Corot's first works to be acquired directly from the artist by the French state. It is a perfect example of the lyrical, anecdotal style of his later landscapes: those which predict the advances of Impressionism more than any others, as he combined naturalistic and Romantic elements with the overall color harmony later associated with Monet. That Corot was able to integrate these effects alongside the lessons of Neoclassical forebears such as Claude Lorrain indicates his position as a lynchpin in the history of French painting: a bridge between the academic style of the early 19th century and the avant-garde advances of the 1870s onwards.
Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris
Though he is most readily associated with the emergence of landscape painting, Corot also produced beautiful figure paintings and portraits, particularly towards the end of his life. Though unfinished and unsigned, Sibylle ranks among his most accomplished works in this genre, in particular demonstrating his familiarity with the High Renaissance style of Raphael. The title of the work might seem to have classical connotations - sibyls being mythical seers - but was in fact assigned by one of painting's early owners, and may be the name of the model.
The pose used for the painting closely resembles Raphael's Portrait of Bindo Altoviti (1515), thought in Corot's time to be a self-portrait. Like many of Corot's portraits, this piece is also characterized by bold color contrasts, making it markedly different from his later landscapes, with their soft tonal palettes. The mood conveyed by the piece is exemplary of Corot's portraiture: neither allegorical nor intended to inflate the status of the sitter, it nonetheless conveys an unaffected empathy, and an emotional quality perhaps owing something to his Romantic affiliations, while the robust colors and strong outlines lend the girl's gaze a striking intensity.
Sibylle was never shown publicly in Corot's lifetime, but it was highly praised by later writers, with one critic describing his model as a "pensive Italian beauty, made to bring to life all the novels that you would want, [who] clasps to her breast a little bouquet of the simplest symbolism." The same critic added that "Corot experienced, remembered, and understood - I would go so far as to say, equaled - Raphael, infinitely more than Ingres did." To describe Corot not only as the equal of Raphael, but also as a more accomplished portraitist than the most famous nineteenth-century portrait artist, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, is high praise indeed, and sums up the respect and affection felt for Corot by critics and public alike by the end of his life.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Biography of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Born into a well-to-do family in Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was raised in the millinery shop owned and operated by his parents. The business was fashionable and successful, his mother's hat-making earning her a considerable reputation among the Parisian elite, and Corot's childhood was passed in a comfortable and creative setting. However, though he received a classical education at the Collège du Rouen, Corot was a listless student, described by early biographers as shy, awkward, and unimpressive. At his father's insistence, he took up an apprenticeship to a draper - his father's trade - but found it unfulfilling and dull, and duly enrolled in evening drawing classes at the privately run Académie Suisse. Though his parents were reluctant to allow him to pursue a career as a painter, they relented after the death of their younger daughter, even granting him an allowance, so that he could devote himself to his studies with a degree of financial independence.
In 1822, the 26-year-old Corot joined the studio of the landscape painter Achille Etna Michallon, rejecting the academic prestige of the École des Beaux-Arts. In the event, Michallon died unexpectedly and tragically young just three months after Corot commenced his training, but Michallon's Neoclassical technique - he had studied under Jacques-Louis David - and love of nature would have an abiding influence on his pupil. Corot later recalled making his "first landscape from nature" under the influence of Michallon, "whose only advice was to render with the greatest scrupulousness everything I saw before me"; he went on to study, as Michallon had, under Jean-Victor Bertin, a celebrated historical landscape painter. Under Bertin's tutelage, Corot continued to draw from nature, and made copies of botanical studies and other engravings. These years were dedicated to capturing nature in action: settling himself on the banks of the Seine, or in the forests surrounding Paris, Corot made quick sketches of the landscape, and detailed studies of the regional flora.
As was the tradition for young artists, Corot travelled to Italy in November 1825 - the first and longest of three trips - spending several highly productive years there. Drawn to the ruin-spotted landscapes of Rome, he made oil sketches of the Colosseum, the Castel Sant'Angelo, the Farnese gardens, and various other landmarks. In 1827, his first successful submission to the Paris Salon, The Bridge at Narni (1826-27), was sent on from Rome; he would go on to show around 100 times at the Salon. In total, he completed over 150 works during his three years in Italy, cultivating his skills as a plein air painter, and absorbing the lessons of Claude Lorrain and other classical landscapists. On his return to France in 1828, Corot developed a new resilience and dedication to his career. He famously decided never to marry, writing to a friend that "[a]ll I really want to do in life [...] is to paint landscapes. This firm resolve will stop me forming any serious attachments."
His first Italian tour under his belt, Corot established an annual routine: sketching outside in the spring and summer, he returned to the studio to work through the winter, striving to make a name for himself as a landscapist at the Salon. His travels across France proved just as fruitful as his Mediterranean sojourn: an 1829 visit to the rural commune of Barbizon, the first of several, put him in contact with the budding school of landscape painters based there, and offered him his first glimpses of the rugged Fontainebleau Forest surrounding it. Trips to Chartres, Ville d'Avray, and Normandy were similarly important, allowing him to explore the diverse terrain of his home country, and to perfect his mastery of light, composition, and tonality. A second, six-month trip to Italy - this time to the north - inspired him to greater stylistic heights: many of the major works that followed are notable not only for their Mediterranean setting, but for their markedly Neoclassical style, incorporating literary and religious motifs into the natural setting, as in Hagar in the Wilderness (1835). Corot's historical landscapes of the 1830s were well-suited for the Salon of the day, and he steadily developed a reputation as an accomplished painter of large-scale landscapes.
The late 1830s and early 1840s was a period of Corot's gradual ascension within the art world. Early critics were often cautious in their praise of Corot, with significant exceptions such as Edmond de Goncourt, and the poet Charles Baudelaire who, in his Salon review of 1845, crowned Corot as the leader of the school of modern landscape. From this point onwards, Corot became more and more ingratiated in the Parisian art scene, with important acquisitions by the State and members of the aristocracy contributing to his visibility. His relationship with the official bodies of the art world was strengthened by Louis-Napoléon's rise to power following the 1848 uprising, after which Corot was elected to the 1849 Salon jury; by 1851, Philippe de Chennevières was declaring him "the greatest landscape painter of our time". At that year's salon, Corot displayed a work that marked a turning point in his career, Morning (1850). Acquired by Louis-Napoléon himself, this painting was nominally on a mythological theme, but narrative had become secondary to the nuanced atmospheric effects for which Corot would become revered.
1851 also saw the death of Corot's mother, just four years after the death of his father. The painter had been supported by his parents well into his forties, and with his mother's death he finally moved out of the family home, taking a new apartment and studio in Paris. His sense of freedom and mobility renewed, he began to travel extensively through France, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, widening his social circle to take in more artists and critics, such as the Barbizon painter Charles-François Daubigny. From the early 1950s onwards Corot also began taking on students, albeit on a fairly informal basis. His pupils, including the Impressionist Camille Pissarro, praised him as a generous and talented teacher; Daubigny, having passed a summer in Corot's lodgings, described him in a letter to a friend as "a perfect Old Man Joy". Seen by all as cheerful and warmhearted, Corot was surrounded by a supportive group of critics and artists. The writer Théophile Silvestre, however, would confess his concerns about the depth of Corot's contentment in an 1853 monograph, writing 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."
The last 15 years of Corot's life were his most critically and commercially successful. Turning his attention to literary motifs, he produced a number of large-scale figural compositions, such as Macbeth (1858-59) and Dante and Virgil (1859), earning him the reputation of a 'poet', his paintings described as "reveries" and "musings on nature." This phase in Corot's work was described by critics as demonstrating his extreme sensitivity to nature, with one going so far as to write: "[t]his is not a landscape painter, this is the very poet of landscape [...] who breathes the sadnesses and joys of nature." Some works, such as Souvenir of Mortefontaine (1864), are inventions from the studio rather than studies from life, though he also continued to paint en plein air. Corot's work of the 1860s also represents a considerable movement away from color, as he increasingly simplified his palette, painting at times in a near monochrome: perhaps indicating his newfound interest in photography and cliché-verres (drawings rendered on photographic plates). The public took notice of this shift, with a Parisian drapery even marketing one of their fabrics as "Corot gray."
During the late 1860s Corot suffered from a number of health issues that restricted his ability to travel. Bound to his studio, he began to develop another aspect of his practice: figure painting. Corot's figurative works demonstrate the scope of his training and taste, blending the lessons of the Renaissance masters with the themes and moods of literary romanticism. While some of his figures, such as Agostina (1866) and Sibylle (1870), are posed for half-length portraits, other figure paintings incorporate the tropes of his landscape work, such as Repose (1859) and Bacchante by the Sea (1865), which include mythical-seeming bathing figures. Though Corot was known above all as a landscapist, his figure paintings were admired by artists such as Edgar Degas, who wrote of Corot in 1883: "[h]e is still the strongest. He anticipated everything."
The 1870s saw the birth of the Impressionist movement, and a shift in the public perception of Corot's work. Though still admired, and in many ways perceived as a precursor for the new style, his art was, almost as a result, increasingly seen as belonging to the past, a retrograde form of painting in light bound to the era of the Third Republic. Rather than earning him scorn, however, his oeuvre was nostalgically praised by younger artists as an emblem of a simpler time, while Corot himself acquired a kind of grandfatherly reputation. The young artists' affection for him might partly have reflected the fact that, as an established member of the Salon jury, Corot was an active defender of Impressionism throughout the 1860s-70s. At the same time, he remained creatively active in the years before his death, from a digestive disorder in 1875. His contribution to the Salon of 1874 earned him excellent reviews, and, in the words of art historian Gary Tinterow, he "lived his last days as if he were preparing for beatification," surrounded by students, friends, and admirers. Corot would be fondly remembered in the following decades, elevated to the status of a kind of patron saint of French landscape painting.
The Legacy of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Though he presented himself as a man at odds with the modern world, Corot's impact on the art of the late-19th-century and early-20th-century avant-gardes should not be underestimated. Despite his old-world classicism, he was considered by fellow artists and art-world figures such as Alfred Barr (founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York) as a progenitor of Modernism. Barr claimed that Corot's influence on the trajectory of European painting was on par with that of Paul Cézanne; certainly, Corot's plein air work was foundational to the birth of Impressionism. Claude Monet stated in 1897 that "[t]here is only one master here - Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing"; in the final decade of his life, the Impressionist generation came to refer to him as "Père Corot." His own students included the Impressionist Berthe Morisot - who, despite the general restriction of women to painting interiors, inherited her teacher's taste for composing landscapes on location - and Camille Pissarro, whose use of dappled light and delicate brushstrokes bear the clear traces of Corot's influence. Corot must be acknowledged as a pivotal figure in the history of modern art, a link between the traditions of Neoclassicism and the directions that followed.