Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
Souvenir de Mortefontaine (1864), Louvre
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (July 17, 1796 – February 22, 1875) was a French landscape painter and printmaker in etching. Corot was the leading painter of the Barbizon school of France in the mid-nineteenth century. He is a pivotal figure in landscape painting and his vast output simultaneously references the Neo-Classical tradition and anticipates the plein-air innovations of Impressionism.
Corot was the leading painter of the Barbizon school of France in the mid-nineteenth century. He is a pivotal figure in landscape painting. His work simultaneously references the Neo-Classical tradition and anticipates the plein-air innovations of Impressionism. Of him Claude Monet exclaimed "There is only one master here—Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing." His contributions to figure painting are hardly less important; Degas preferred his figures to his landscapes, and the classical figures of Picasso pay overt homage to Corot's influence.
Historians somewhat arbitrarily divided his work into periods, but the point of division is never certain, as he often completed a picture years after he began it. In his early period, he painted traditionally and "tight"—with minute exactness, clear outlines, thin brush work, and with absolute definition of objects throughout. After his 50th year his methods changed to focus on breadth of tone and an approach to poetic power conveyed with thicker application of paint, and about 20 years later, from about 1865 onwards, his manner of painting became full of mystery and poetry, created with a more impressionistic touch. In part, this evolution in expression can be seen as marking the transition from the plein-air paintings of his youth, shot through with warm natural light, to the studio-created landscapes of his late maturity, enveloped in uniform tones of silver. In his final 10 years he became the "Père (Father) Corot" of Parisian artistic circles, where he was regarded with personal affection, and acknowledged as one of the five or six greatest landscape painters the world has seen, along with Hobbema, Claude Lorrain, Turner and Constable. In his long and productive life, he painted over 3,000 paintings.
Corot approached his landscapes more traditionally than is usually believed. By comparing even his late period tree-painting and arrangements to those of Claude Lorrain, such as that which hangs in the Bridgewater gallery, the similarity in methods is seen. Compared to the Impressionists who came later, Corot’s palette is restrained, dominated with browns and blacks (“forbidden colors” among the Impressionists) along with dark and silvery green. Though appearing at times to be rapid and spontaneous, usually his strokes were controlled and careful, and his compositions well-thought out and generally rendered as simply and concisely as possible, heightening the poetic effect of the imagery. As he stated, “I noticed that everything that was done correctly on the first attempt was more true, and the forms more beautiful.”
In the 1860s, Corot became interested in photography, taking photos himself and becoming acquainted with many early photographers, which had the effect of suppressing his painting palette even more in sympathy with the monochromic tones of photographs. This had the result of making his paintings even less dramatic but somewhat more poetic, a result which caused some critics to cite a monotony in his later output. Théophile Thoré wrote that Corot “has only a single octave, extremely limited and in a minor key; a musician would say. He knows scarcely more than a single time of day, the morning, and a single color, pale grey.” Corot responded:
“What there is to see in painting, or rather what I am looking for, is the form, the whole, the value of the tones…That is why for me the color comes after, because I love more than anything else the overall effect, the harmony of the tones, while color gives you a kind of shock that I don’t like. Perhaps it is the excess of this principal that makes people say I have leaden tones.”
In his aversion to shocking color, Corot sharply diverged from the up-and-coming Impressionists, who embraced experimentation with vivid hues.
In addition to the landscapes (so popular was the late style that there exist numerous forgeries), Corot produced a number of prized figure pictures. While the subjects were sometimes placed in pastoral settings, these were mostly studio pieces, drawn from the live model with both specificity and subtlety. Like his landscapes, they are characterized by a contemplative lyricism, with his late paintings L’Algerienne (Algerian Woman) and La Jeune Grecque (The Greek Girl) being fine examples. Corot painted about fifty portraits, mostly of family and friends. He also painted thirteen reclining nudes, with his Les Repos (1860) strikingly similar in pose to Ingres famous Le Grande Odalisque (1814), but Corot’s female is instead a rustic bacchante. In perhaps his last figure painting, ‘’Lady in Blue’’ (1874), Corot achieves an effect reminiscent of Degas, soft yet expressive. In all cases of his figure painting, the color is restrained and is remarkable for its strength and purity. Corot also executed many etchings and pencil sketches. Some of the sketches used a system of visual symbols—circles representing areas of light and squares representing shadow. He also experimented with the cliché-verre process—a hybrid of photography and engraving. Starting in the 1830s, Corot also painted decorative panels and walls in the homes of friends, aided by his students.
Corot summed up his approach to art around 1860, “I interpret with my art as much as with my eye.”
The works of Corot are housed in museums in France and the Netherlands, Britain and America.
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