Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) in his day was considered one of the premier landscape painters of all time. Claude Monet said of him, “There is only one master here – Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing”. Because of his popularity, there are probably more forgeries of his work than of any other artist. As the story goes…of the 3000 or so paintings Corot produced, 10000 of them are in the United States.
Many art historians view him as a bridge between the Neoclassical and Impressionist movements. The fashionable art of Corot’s early career was Neoclassicism, a rather stiff, contrived, formulaic style of painting that sought to depict the landscape as more beautiful and harmonious than nature itself. It was an idealized landscape influenced by ancient Greece and Rome that featured classical ruins in a pastoral setting. The work of Claude Lorraine is a good example of this style of painting. Corot’s early work shows his influence.
Until Corot’s time, artists seldom painted en plein air. Instead they worked from sketches done on location. These were used to create their large paintings. This technique was also employed by Corot, but additionally he created hundreds of small color studies before the motif. This is what sets him apart from his predecessors. Still, Corot viewed these as merely studies for the important studio paintings to follow. Below is a good example of how Corot used his field studies as source material for the creation of “The Bridge of Narni”. This painting was prepared for the 1827 Paris Salon and was a remake along Neoclassical lines. The closeup view of the plein air work is now pushed back and submerged in an exceptionally refined pastoral setting.
Tastes in France were changing. People were tiring of the idealized, unreal depictions of the landscape. They sought something different, a more naturalistic view of things. Corot sometimes struggled with creating easel paintings from his plein air works. “There are some passages which are treated just as I’d wish and seem to me completely successful. So much so that I can’t bring myself to start work on the easel pictures for which I made these sketches.” Even though Corot viewed his sketches as nothing more than raw material for his “real” work…it is said that he showed them to friends and even lent them out to young painters. This is why they had such a wide influence in their day. However, he exhibited them only once during his lifetime, in 1849.
Corot exhibited sureness of drawing and an unerring feeling for values. It is said of him that he is one of the painters who have most intently scrutinized the very face of the earth. “We must always keep in view the mass, the whole that has caught our eye, and never lose the first impression which quickened our emotion. The design’s the first thing to get: next come the values – relations of forms and values. These are our starting point, then come the colors and, lastly, the details. It’s the masses and the general structure of the picture that interest me primarily. Only when I’ve seen it clearly as a whole do I turn my mind to subtleties of form and color.”
Next time…Corot’s later landscapes.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
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