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 - 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 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York