Master of tranquillity
AROUND the time when the young painters who would become known as ``Impressionists'' were beginning to offer their paintings for exhibition, Camille Corot was saying to his pupils (Berthe Morisot and her sister among them), ``Never lose sight of your first impression, what it was that actually moved you.'' His tranquil landscapes had found great favor with art buyers. Indeed, when the pellucid, silver-misted forest scenes of his late style were the most popular, one might hazard that no art museum and no wealthy home whose owners wished to be considered of the highest culture in France, England, and the United States was without one of his exquisite gems.
Times change, tastes change. Today it is Corot's equally calm, unimpass-ioned figure paintings that attract attention. In New York's Metropolitan Museum, I counted four of these to only one landscape and one large biblical scene. And this is two more than the two Corot is known to have exhibited during his lifetime. Just why he insisted on keeping about 300 of these paintings of women, with an occasional man or child, hidden in dim corners of his studio is unclear. The best explanation seems to be that he preferred to be known as a landscape painter.
Like his landscapes, his serene figure paintings seem at first to be so similar as to be almost interchangeable. But that would be the judgment of a casual, unthinking observer. The paintings are like seashells - the similarities in no way detract from the real but subtle differences. Each subject must have moved him in a unique manner because he remarked late in life, ``I keep in my mind and heart a copy of all my works.''
This small painting, approximately 20 by 14 inches, is painted in oil on a wood panel. His model is dressed in a peasant costume that may be like the ones the women in Italy wore when he sketched them on his first trip there in 1825. But this one was painted in the late 1860s or '70s. It is much broader in technique and less detailed and objective in style than his early studies.
The quiet, introspective mood is achieved as much by the elegant color harmonies as by the careful arrangement of the figure. Varying shades of a warm, soft yellowish- or brownish-green establish the background hill, the stone bench, and the skirt. The white of the sleeved tunic is muted sufficiently that the beautifully modeled face tones are not overtaken. Her scarf or cap is rose-beige from a distance but more like yellow ochre examined up close. The embroidered patches on her sleeves are duller shades of the same color. A black outer garment gives strength to the figure, while touches of brick-red edging give an unexpected liveliness. Her book is a dull bluish-green and, surprisingly, is the coolest note in the painting.
To Corot, the tones and color harmonies of a painting were of paramount importance, and in a systematic manner he distinguished 20 degrees from the most vigorous to the lightest tone.
Although he was interested in drawing and painting from an early age, it was not until he was 25 that he was permitted by his parents to leave their world of business (his father was a cloth merchant, his mother had a fashionable and prosperous millinery establishment) to study art.
After three years' study in Paris with landscapists in the classic tradition of Nicholas Poussin, he went to Italy for a three-year sojourn. When one sees one of his female figure paintings in the pose of the Mona Lisa, one remembers that this very French artist had early training in Italy. He made two more trips there and a brief one to Holland many years later. Several of his figures also call to mind Vermeer and De Hooch. But always in the end one feels there is nothing academic or derivative about them. They are expressive of a very individual vision of the human figure as being as felicitous as a landscape.
When Camille Corot won a second-class medal at the Paris Salon of 1833, his father decided that his son must have talent, increased his slender stipend, and stopped telling friends, ``Camille amuses himself with painting.''
Corot was unusually untroubled, kind, and gentle - painting at dawn and at dusk in the forests of Fontainebleau, painting in his studio at Montparnasse in Paris. He was generous with his time and advice to younger painters and liked to refer to himself as ``Papa Corot.'' When Daumier had gone blind and was about to be evicted from his house, Corot purchased it for him. When the widows and children of Millet and other painters were in need, he helped them out. He also gave funds for a home for foundlings after the war of 1870.
It was very fitting that when, in 1874, he did not receive the highest Medal of Honor from the Salon (the academicians never really liked his work), his disappointed friends had a gold medal cast. They presented it to him in a personal ceremony. Corot responded, ``It is a very happy thing for a man to feel himself beloved like this!''