|1. Life and work
Having made his debut at the Paris salon of 1827, Corot continued to exhibit there regularly. Many of these paintings were purchased by the state for provincial museums and by important collectors like emperor napoleon III. Corot was made a knight of the Legion of Honor in 1846, an officer in 1867, and a knight of the order of s. Michael at the Munich international exposition in 1869.
After a classical education at the Collège de Rouen, where he did not distinguish himself and an unsuccessful apprenticeship with two drapers, Corot was allowed to devote himself to painting at the age of 26. He was given some money that had been intended for his sister, who had died in 1821, and this, together with what we must assume was his family’s continued generosity, freed him from financial worries and from having to sell his paintings to earn a living. Corot chose to follow a modified academic course of training. He did not enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts but studied instead with Achille Etna Michallon and, after Michallon’s death in 1822, with Jean-Victor Bertin. Both had been pupils of Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, and, although in later years Corot denied that, he had learnt anything of value from his teachers, his career as a whole shows his attachment to the principles of historic landscape painting which they professed.
Following the academic tradition Corot then went to Italy, where he remained from November 1825 to the summer of 1828, the longest of his three visits to that country. In Rome, he became part of the circle of painters around Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny, who became a lifelong friend. With d’Aligny, Edouard Bertin and Léon Fleury, Corot explored the area around Rome, visiting Terni, Cività Castellana and Lake Nemi, and produced some of his most beautiful works. He adhered to Michallon’s dictum to paint out of doors directly from the motif and made oil studies of the Colosseum (1826; Paris, Louvre), the Farnese gardens, Caprarola (1826; Washington, DC, Phillips Col.), the bridge at Narni (1826; Paris, Louvre) and the Castel Sant’Angelo (1826; San Francisco, CA Pal. Legion of Honor). From Rome he successfully submitted two canvases to the Salon of 1827: the Bridge at Narni (Ottawa, N.G.), which is based on an oil study and modeled after Claude, and La Cervara (Zurich, Kunsthaus). These pictures were the first of over 100 that Corot showed at the Salon during the course of his career. His submissions ranged from early paintings that emulated Claude and 17th-century Dutch masters, through biblical and literary subjects such as Hagar in the Wilderness (1835; New York, Met.), Macbeth (1859; London, Wallace) and bacchanals inspired by Poussin, such as Silenus (1838; Minneapolis, MN, Inst. A.), to the evocative reveries of his later years such as The Lake (1861; New York, Frick) and Souvenir of Mortefontaine (1864; Paris, Louvre). In later years, he was on the Salon jury and used his influence to help younger artists.
Corot was an inveterate traveler; he toured France in the summer, working on studies and small pictures, which provided the impetus for the larger, more commercial exhibition pieces he produced in the winter. This habit was established early and continued throughout most of his long life. He made two more trips to Italy (1834 and 1843) and visited Switzerland frequently, often in the company of Charles-François Daubigny, whom he met in 1852. With Constant Dutilleux (1807–65), he went to the Low Countries in 1854 and in 1862 travelled to London for a week to see his pictures on show at the International Exhibition. Corot continued to travel until 1874, with a break from 1866 to 1870 due to gout, gradually restricting his journeys to northern France. He visited friends, relations and collectors, seeking both new and familiar sites to paint and producing more and more souvenirs, whose popularity ensured brisk sales.
Corot’s reputation as a painter of careful and sincere landscapes grew steadily throughout the 1830s and 1840s. He received generally favorable if lukewarm criticism from a wide range of critics until 1846, when Baudelaire and Champfleury began to write warmly about his art. Ferdinand-Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, bought a picture from Corot as early as 1837 and in 1840 the State purchased another in the manner of Claude, his Shepherd Boy (1840), for the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Metz. Corot also produced a number of religious works during the 1840s, including St Jerome in the Desert (1847; Paris, Church of Ville d’Avray) and the Baptism of Christ (1847; Paris, St Nicholas-du-Chardonnay). The turning point of his career, however, came with the accession to power of Louis-Napoléon. Following the unrest of 1848 Corot was elected to the 1849 Salon jury, and in 1851 (the year before he became Emperor Napoleon III) Louis-Napoléon bought from the Salon Corot’s Morning, Dance of the Nymphs (1850; Paris, Louvre). Collectors and dealers, among them Paul Durand-Ruel, began to be interested in his work, especially in the plein-air studies; the first of these to be exhibited was View of the Colosseum (1826; Paris, Louvre) at the Salon of 1849.
By the early 1850s, Corot’s reputation was firmly established, and he moved away from landscapes in the Neo-classical style to concentrate on rendering his impressions of nature. His exhibited pictures and plein-air studies grew closer together in motif and execution. High points of this development are Harbour of La Rochelle (1851; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.) and Belfry of Douai (1871; Paris, Louvre). Concurrent with his landscape work were figure pieces, ranging from the straightforward Seated Italian Monk (1827; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.) to the seductive Marietta, the Roman Odalisque (1843; Paris, Petit Pal.). The series of bathers, bacchantes and allegorical figures of his later years are among his most provocative and intellectual works. He also painted several allegories of painting entitled the Artist’s Studio (1865–8; Paris, Louvre; Washington, DC, N.G.A.; and Lyon, Mus. B.-A.).
Corot painted many portraits of family and friends throughout his life, but he regarded these as private works and did not exhibit them. Capitaine Faulte du Puyparlier (1829; Cincinnati, OH, A. Mus.) is one such example. His decorative work was also mainly created for family and friends and included the summer-house at his parents’ house at Ville d’Avray (1847), Decamps’s studio in Fontainebleau (1858–60) and Daubigny’s house in Auvers (1865–8), though the best known is the suite of six Italian landscapes (Paris, Louvre) originally executed for the bathroom of the Roberts’ house in Mantes (1840–42). Among the few commissions from those outside his immediate circle were the two panels of Orpheus (Madison, U. WI, Elvehjem A. Cent.) and Diana (ex-Met., New York; priv. col.), made in 1865 for Prince Demidov’s dining-room in Paris. Corot’s landscape motifs and style were well suited to this type of work; his feeling for composition through mass and tonal values translated easily into a larger scale.
Corot accepted criticism philosophically and embraced his eventual fame and fortune with equal unconcern. Although he frequently sat on the Salon jury, he was in general too bound up in his own art to engage in the artistic controversies of his time. He cared little either for the work of his academic contemporaries or for the more avant-garde canvases of Rousseau and Millet. A notable exception was Courbet, with whom he painted in Saintonge in 1862 and whose Covert of Roe-deer (Paris, Louvre) he championed at the 1866 Paris Salon. Corot’s generosity towards less fortunate artists was also famous. In the 1860s, he helped to buy a house at Valmondois for the near-blind Daumier.
2. Working methods and technique
Corot’s career can be divided into two parts. The period before c. 1850 was a time of experimentation with various styles and models. After this date, his subject-matter was more limited and the difference between plein-air and studio work lessened. The harsh light of his earlier paintings became softer and more diffuse. Corot’s reputation has always rested on his ability to paint light and to render subtle gradations of tone and value convincingly. While his first trip to Italy sharpened his perception and manual dexterity, he had always been sensitive and responsive to the various effects of light, and his lifelong practice of sketching out of doors forced him to respond and adapt to its vagaries.
Corot developed a shorthand system whereby he could record the relative values he observed in nature: in his pencil sketches, circles represent the lightest areas of the scene and squares the darkest. Color notes were of little use to an artist whose interest was mainly in tonal relationships. He drew constantly, recording scenes and figures in sketchbooks (37 of which are in the Louvre, Paris) as well as on larger sheets. Seldom, however, did a particular sketch serve as a model for a painting. Until c. 1850, he used a hard pencil, exploiting the hardness to record the structure of a tree or the geological history of a rock. Sensitive portraits in pencil date from the first part of his career, for instance Study of a Girl (1831; Lille, Mus. B.-A.). His paintings from this earlier stage are of two types: plein-air and studio work. The plein-air pictures are small and generally characterized by a creamy, if thin, paint surface, by rapid brushstrokes that carry a limited range of colors, chiefly ochre is, yellows, and greens. Corot’s insistence on tonal values eschewed a wide range of hues. His oil studies are notable for the unity achieved through atmosphere and tone. The studio pictures, on the other hand, are large, ambitious works whose subjects were often taken from classical mythology: Diana and Actaeon (1836; New York, Met.), the Bible: the Destruction of Sodom (first version 1843, second version painted over the first 1857; New York, Met.) or poetry: Homer and the Shepherds (1845; Saint-Lô, Mus. B.-A.), which was inspired by André Chénier’s L’Aveugle. These studio pictures have come to be overlooked in favor of the plein-air studies, and while it is true that their execution is less fluid, their atmosphere not as convincing and their figures often stiff in appearance, they are nonetheless strangely moving and reveal an unhackneyed earnestness of purpose.
During the decade 1850–60 Corot sought new subjects and new means of expression and experimented with more overtly allegorical subjects, such as Melancholy (Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glypotech) and Antique Idyll (Lille, Mus. B.-A.). He was also introduced, through Dutilleux, to Cliché-Verre, an experimental medium that combined the techniques of printmaking and photography. Robaut (1905) listed 66 compositions produced by this method, for which Corot chose subjects closely related to those of his oil paintings. The opportunity to experiment with tonal relationships in a new medium and the speed and novelty of the process must have appealed to Corot, who was not particularly interested in the technical aspects of traditional printmaking. Félix Bracquemond helped to bring some of Corot’s etching plates to a point where they could be printed. At the same time, Corot also freed himself from some of his self-imposed constraints, such as the hard graphite pencil for drawings and the choice of academic subjects for Salon paintings, and experimented with different means to render observed or, in later years, remembered effects. He began to sketch in charcoal, smudging it in order to soften the contours of objects and to suggest their dissolution by light and atmosphere.
Souvenir of Mortefontaine (1864; Paris, Louvre) epitomizes Corot’s later painting style and combines his favorite motifs: a still body of water, hills and trees dimly visible on the distant shore, a gracefully leaning tree with diaphanous foliage and a note of color provided in the clothing of the figures to the left . The paint is thinner than before and the color range reduced to grays mixed with greens, yellows and whites. In contrast to such early paintings as Hagar in the Wilderness, which were based on the Italian countryside, Corot’s later works are only vaguely reminiscent of places; their moist, diffuse atmospheres defy particularity and are rather an invitation to personal reverie.
Corot’s style became very popular in the Second Empire. His name came to be associated with a kind of painting that was soft, hazy and subdued, with simple compositions evoking a tranquil mood. His images of private meditation and mysterious women and his reiteration of music and dance subjects have much in common with the spirit of the Rococo revival. Although he had no atelier, other artists were welcome to copy his pictures, either as learning exercises or as a means of producing works for sale. Corot even signed some of the copies made by younger, less fortunate painters in order to increase their value. This practice has complicated the connoisseurship of his oeuvre, as have the numerous forgeries and unauthorized copies of his works.
Antoine Chintreuil and Paul-Désiré Trouillebert were the most faithful followers of Corot, whose fidelity to the effects of light also had a great impact on younger artists such as Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot (who took lessons from him in the early 1860s) and Claude Monet. Monet’s series of early morning views of the Seine painted in the 1890s are particularly evocative of Corot’s Souvenir of Mortefontaine.
Paris Bib. N. Cab. Est., 3 vols. Yb3 949 [Robaut’s invaluable notes for the cat. rais. of 1905]
T. Silvestre: Histoire des artiste’s vivants (Paris, 1856)
A. Robaut: L’Oeuvre de Corot: Catalogue raisonné et illustré, précédé de d’Histoire de Corot et de son oeuvre par E. Moreau-Nélaton, 4 vols. (Paris, 1905); supplements compiled by A. Schoeller and J. Dieterle, 3 vols. (Paris, 1948–74)
L. Delteil: Le Peintre-graveur illustré, v (Paris, 1910)
P. J. Angoulvent: ‘L’Oeuvre gravé de Corot’, Byblis (summer 1926), pp. 39–55
G. Bazin: Corot (Paris, 1942, rev. 3/1973)
P. Courthion, ed.: Corot raconté par lui-même et par ses amis, 2 vols. (Geneva, 1946)
A. Coquis: Corot et la critique contemporaine (Paris, 1959)
Barbizon Revisited (exh. cat., ed. R. L. Herbert; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A., 1962)
Figures de Corot (exh. cat., ed. G. Bazin; Paris, Louvre, 1962)
J. Leymarie: Corot (Geneva, 1966, rev. 2/1979)
M. Hours: Corot (New York, 1970, rev. 2/1984)
Hommage à Corot (exh. cat., ed. M. Laclotte; Paris, Grand Pal., 1975)
P. Galassi: Corot in Italy (New Haven and London, 1991)