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Corot, Camille Jean Baptiste (1796-1875)
( Originally Published 1955 )
French landscape and figure painter, important as a transition between the early nineteenth-century tradition of classical composition and the later Romantic sensibility toward nature. An influential force amongst painters of the century, Corot nevertheless remained aloof from the doctrinal disputes which made turbulent the careers of most of his contemporaries. He was the son of a successful hairdresser. Started in business, he came late to painting when a small independent income was made available to him; again in contrast to his colleagues, he was never in want but rather assisted his friends financially in various ways. He started as a painter after nature, entered the studio of Bertin and in 1825 took a trip to Italy which permanently affected his style. The paintings of this early Roman period are in our day often considered his best. The Forum (Louvre) and the View of Narni (Louvre) are examples. He studied Italian landscape through the eyes of a nineteenth-century Poussin, composing it in discrete masses and planes and in a sort of gridwork of chiaroscuro. There is an odd dichotomy between the actuality of the forms and their rough abstract surfaces; between the expansiveness of the space and the gulfs or barriers he erects to our entrance into it.
On his return to France in 1828, he traveled about, mostly in Normandy and in Brittany, painting characteristic scenes of local color. The Harbor at Honfleur (Louvre) is an example which reveals a new feeling of plein-air brightness, but essentially the same detachment of his Roman period. This aloofness can be seen in the View of Chartres (Louvre) painted in 1830, the year of the Revolution. Much of the intricacy and fragility which we associate with the Gothic building is here played down in favor of a strongly cubic, chalky effect. Right-angle relationships are set up in the foreground and between the steeples and clouds so that the pointed asymmetry of the building is obviated.
During the late 1830's, perhaps as a result of a second voyage to Italy. Corot embarked on large historical subjects such as Hagar in the Wilderness (Metropolitan), which is thematically in the manner of Poussin. These did not come off. Then in the 1840's and 1850's his style changed radically to the filmy atmospheric studies for which he is popularly known. To judge from their subjects, e.g., Nymphs Dancing (Louvre), it suggests a new orientation around the personality of Claude Lorrain. A romantic sentimentality, absent formerly, pervades these studies; witness the title Souvenir de Mortefontaine. His cubic structures of former times still lurk in the background but they are now screened by a film of foliage. This effect is intensified by the technique of brushing over oils while they are still wet. Thus a veil is interposed between ourselves and the intimate vignette of nature, and we are invited to reverie. The veil thickens in some cases, e.g., The Pool at Ville d'Avray, so as to obscure our vision, repel our entrance. Certain accents are contributed to the general grayish tonality by the introduction of small figures with bright hats or vests. This period in his life brought him great popular and academic success. He received a series of medals and honors, and when he served on the, jury for Salons he was able to influence decisions in favor of promising young artists. In 1871 he performed a final, remarkable change in his style with the Belfry of Douai (Louvre). Here, although his static, planar elements are still present, the air is clear again and drenched in Impressionist light. The composition now is of the new clipped type in which one glances into a landscape that is not completely conditioned by pictorial relationships to the frame.
Corot is less known for his figure studies, a personal art which like Chardin's employed the human figure (in this case invariably female) as a source of pictorial experimentation. These studies follow in development the styles of his landscapes. They range from transformations of Raphael (Woman with the Pearl, Louvre) and statuesque portrait types (Agostina. Washington) to his middle style of nudes reclining in filmy landscapes.