“In a certain sense a picture is but the record of an artist’s life, the autobiography of the man. All the power of Michelangelo’s art which so impresses us is but the power of his personal character, and the grandeur of Rousseau’s landscapes is only the record of Rousseau’s lofty mind. Study the canvas closely, and in it you will find the man. It is chiefly the man, his views and ideas, that make the canvas glow with life, and not the bare facts – the alphabet which he uses in speech.” - John Van Dyke, “How to Judge of a Picture” (1889)
If you follow this blog at all, you most likely know that I am a huge fan of Jean Baptiste Camille Corot’s work (1796-1875). I’m not a fan of all of it, mind you, but certainly a significant portion. I clearly remember sitting in John Simoni’s Art History class at Wichita State University when I was introduced to Corot. I was barely 20 years old.
What is it about a particular artist’s work that leaves such a lasting impression? As artists we can point to the subject, the composition, the drawing, values, color, technique, etc…but these things, as Mr. Van Dyke says, are merely “the alphabet which he uses in speech.” Without the character, the very soul of the artist using that alphabet in an extraordinary way, there is no art…certainly no masterpiece. That’s what I’m grappling with concerning Monsieur Corot. What is it, beyond his use of the alphabet that has created this enduring bond that I have with his work?
In an effort to discover that, I have begun to copy several of his works…two, being completed so far. Unfortunately, the copies are made from online images, so how true they are to the originals, I’m not sure.
Interestingly, my copies stir up the same emotional reaction within me that his originals do. In copying his subject, composition, drawing, values, color, edges, and technique…did I also inadvertently capture something else? I find this question extremely interesting.
As you can see, the two online images of Corot’s painting show significant color differences, I chose to make a copy somewhere in between.
Generations of artists have made a strong emotional connection with their audience. For centuries artists have copied the works of their idols, not only to grasp their techniques but also to discover the deeper intangible. Most all critics of Corot’s work describe it as lyrical or poetic, but what do they mean?
Lyrical: Having the form and musical quality of a song, and especially the character of a song like outpouring of the poet’s own thoughts and feelings, as distinguished from epic and dramatic poetry.
Poetic: Art of rhythmical composition, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevate thoughts. Corot had exquisite taste…maybe the result of his intense love of classical music. His character was also one of gentleness and kindness…all undoubtedly finding their way into each of his paintings. Mr. Van Dyke expresses it this way, “Something of the man, whatsoever he may be, finds its way into his work and tinctures the whole. This is individuality, and when in art it is so strong that it commands us, it is sometimes called genius.”
In making these copies, I made a few important discoveries.
a. Palette was very limited. I was surprised how many mixtures consisted of Black, or variations of Cobalt Blue and Burnt Siena.
b. My primary palette consisted of Cobalt Blue, Burnt Siena, Yellow Ochre, Chromium Oxide Green, Black, and Titanium White.
c. There is absolutely no consensus concerning Corot’s actual palette. I’m not sure anyone really knows, but all my color choices are found among the various lists I’ve seen.
d. Value shapes are grouped together. Within each value shape there is very little variation, however within each is displayed an amazing sensitivity to the slightest value, color, and/or color temperature change.
e. Contrast is wisely used to achieve a clear focal point.
f. There is no intense color. All mixtures are grayed to some degree.
g. There is a wonderful and thoughtful variation of shapes, value, and edges. Broadly rendered areas contrast with areas of very refined detail.
Corot’s early work differs substantially from his later works. Some believe his interest in photography, and its monochromatic tones, influenced his choice of the rather suppressed palette of his later years…making his paintings less dramatic but more poetic. I believe drama is created by contrast of value, not color; his later works do not lack drama, however, I agree they are much more restricted in color. (Maybe that’s why listings of his palette vary so much because those creating the lists were looking only at particular paintings, and not the whole body of work).
Here’s a list of colors, gathered from various sources that are believed to have been on Corot’s palette. You can see the confusion. Even the National Gallery’s list is in conflict with others. It’s really hard to know definitively what colors Corot actually used, but these are the ones I’ve seen mentioned…and we can be assured they were not all on his palette. I believe many of his paintings could be reproduced using only a handful of these…as I have already discovered.
Lead White, Flake White, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Prussian Blue, Vermillion, Red Lake, Robert’s Lake (Rose Madder), Burnt Siena, Raw Umber, Cassel Earth (Van Dyke Brown), Raw Siena, Yellow Ochre, Naples Yellow, Dutch Yellow, Yellow Lake, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Chrome Yellow, Verona Green, Emerald Green, Chromium Oxide Green, Black.
Not all critics appreciated Corot’s muted paintings…calling them monotonous. Theophile Thore, a French journalist of the time, 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 gray.” In response, Corot stated: “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 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 principle that makes people say I have leaden tones.”
“An artist has the ability to sense and feel, and place upon canvas what he alone sees. He becomes an interpreter of hidden beauty, a revealer of unknown truths, a translator of an unwritten language. When he does that, we come to look upon him as the possessor of what is called ‘poetic feeling’. There is something of the poet in him; he sees farther, deeper, and truer than other men; and, not content with external form, he strives to bring forth the spirit of nature.” - John Van Dyke – “How to Judge of a Picture” (1889)
I believe there is much to be gleaned from making copies of the works of artists we most admire. For me, there is much to be learned from Corot. How about you?