The Dreamy Landscapes of Corot

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AFTER many years of semi-oblivion, the world of exhibitions has turned again to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and his fellow landscapists, the pre-Impressionists, many of whom we associate with the Barbizon painters. However neglected, they were never actually forgotten and could be found in permanent collections - particularly Corot.The English, with John Constable and Richard Bonington, came earlier than the French to the recognition of landscape painting as an art peculiar to itself. Landscape was considered adjunct to a painting - a background for a historical scene or a religious work until, near the dawning of the 18th century, the artists came to see that nature could be painted for itself, needing no embellishment. Camille Corot was born in 1796 of humble parentage - an advantage from the point of view of longevity in that revolutionary period. His mother was a milliner, his father a cloth merchant; neither in danger of the guillotine. They were Parisians, thrifty and capable, and with their three children constituted a loving, strongly united family. Camille was sent to school in Rouen for several years; later he would immortalize the place through his paintings. Though Corot wanted to be a painter from an early age, this did not seem economically feasible to his parents, and he was put to work in a shop when he was in his teens. However, this servitude did not last long; when he was in his mid-20s he received a small allowance from his father and was able to devote his entire time to his art. Corot made a number of long journeys, studying, sketching. Eventually this included several long stays in Italy, and many purely French excursions: Ile de France, Normandy, Rouen and its environs, Fontainebleau, Chartres, and the region surrounding Ville d'Avray. Everywhere he worked on landscapes, architectural studies, and portraits of local village people. He painted lakes and, above all, trees. He loved the open woodland within or at the edge of a forest, enchanted with the mysteries and apparent sim plicities of what he saw. Corot's cathedrals, such as Chartres, are perfect representations, not only of the edifices, but of what they implied in piety and faith. His sketches, which he would later turn into paintings at home, reveal his principle of first determining the general trend and significance of his subject, leaving the details until later. Nature was to Corot a perpetual wonder. He was conscious of bird song while he worked in a glade. He loved those filmy, delicate, blue-green branches he painted, with the gentle girls dancing below, the grace and modesty of his touch deeply moving to the viewer. Always prolific (he painted over 3,000 pictures in his lifetime), he lived until 1875, loved by his contemporaries, who found him wonderfully charitable, kind, and good-humored. Even the proud, class-conscious Eugene Delacroix forgot his snobbery when he was with him, admiring his lovely scenes, the versatility of his themes. In his journal, he wrote: "Corot is a true artist. One must see a painter in his own studio in order to have an idea of his merits. I saw there, and appreciated quite differently, pictures I had seen at the Salon, which had then impressed me but slightly. His large 'Baptism of Christ' is full of simple beauty. His trees are superb. I spoke to him about the tree I have to do in my 'Orpheus.' He said I should let myself go a little and do whatever comes to me naturally; that is what he generally does. He does not admit that one can attain beauty by infinite efforts.... Corot ponders long over a subject: His ideas come to him and he adds to them while working; that is the right way to do things." France had been dominated artistically for decades by the Paris Salon, which during the earlier part of the 19th century was still intent upon heroic scenes, historical canvases, portraits, and the like, all executed in the classical tradition. Those who complied vied for the Prix de Rome, a coveted honor that launched artists at once on a successful career. The power of the Salon was expressed by the choice of categories of painting that were considered eligible for the competition for the Prix de Rome: Not until 1817 was landscape included in this list. Even then, it was not truly important in the eyes of the established artists. From 1830 until 1848 there was continuous struggle to give pure, idealized landscape works their due. It took the Revolution of 1848 and the Republican victory finally to achieve this, as the Salon, a bastion of conservatism, fina lly began to partake of the democratic emotions that had swept the nation. That landscape painting was at last properly accepted was, in itself, an acknowledgment of the importance of individualism. Corot's first major works accepted in the Salon recorded his impressions of Italy, and were often classical or religious in theme, showing the influence Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin exerted on him. In the '30s and '40s, some of his pictures of the forest of Fontainebleau were accepted, as well as his canvases of young Italian girls. But it wasn't until 1846, when he was 50, that his talent was really acknowledged by this august body. In that year, he was awarded the Legion of Honor. BARBIZON was the name of a hamlet on the outskirts of the forest of Fontainebleau, where many of the newer, freer painters lived and worked together. This pre-Impressionist movement, known as the Barbizon school, included such notable artists as Eugene Boudin, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jules Dupre, Jean-Francois Millet, Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, and Constant Troyon. These artists were often mistrusted by the public, considered revolutionary in a social sense with their studies of peasants, especially Mi llet. Corot often worked alongside this group, but stood apart, with his gentle ways, his dreamy pictures, which were always more soft and delicate while retaining a certain "poetic freshness." He insisted that an artist must be faithful to his own inspiration, and must never be in a hurry. In the years that followed, these men were to be played down in the world of art dealers. S. N. Behrman, in his amusing and informative book on art dealer Joseph Duveen, writes of this phenomenon: "When the 20th century began, the American millionaires were collecting mainly Barbizons, or 'sweet French pictures,' and English 'story pictures. Duveen changed all that. He made the Barbizons practically worthless by beguiling their luckless owners into a longing to possess earlier masterpieces, which he had begun buying before most of his American clients had so much as heard the artists' names... . Of the Barbizon school, only Corot and Millet now have any financial rating, and that has greatly decli ned." The two beautiful landscapes reproduced here, "The Moored Boatman: Souvenir of an Italian Lake" (1861) and "The Pond and the Cabussud House at Ville d'Avray" (1855-60) were both done when Corot had attained a high point in his mastery of composition, light, and technique. The first, from his memories of Italy, not in itself especially Italianate, but rather a "typical Corot." The second gives us a view he saw down the road from his own home. In 50 years, he drew and painted this same scene at least 40 times. According to art historian Kermit Champa, an ardent admirer of the artist, in the mid-1850s, the works by which he is best known began to appear: those consisting of superimposed veils of trees, water, wet atmosphere, and small strips of land with everything made to move or to hold still in response to idyllic figures or groups of figures strategically positioned." Extremely interested in photography, then in its earliest stages, Corot began to examine the way a camera used light and to paint accordingly. He softened the hard edges of his buildings - every scene was made nebulous, mysterious, so that an individual and unmistakable quality came into his work. Those gray, heavy days he depicts with sky and buildings reflected in still water, under tall diaphanous trees, impart a pensive sense of content, beauty, and calm. No wonder his work was never really forgotten .

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