Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) is one of history’s greatest landscape painters. He attained that honored position, and public acceptance, rather late in life. In fact he was in his fifties before he began to make a living from painting.
Portraiture and figurative studies were important to him throughout his career. It is documented that even on his first trip to Italy in the 1820′s, he executed a number of fine studies of the local people.
There is no confusion that these are the works of Corot. This is what one would expect his figurative works to look like. There is the same restrained palette with strong emphasis on value rather than color. There is the same sense of perfect balance and solidity as found in his landscapes…and just as his landscapes are enveloped with a great sense of calm and melancholy, so are his figurative works.
In 1869 at the Paris Salon, Corot exhibited “Woman Reading in a Landscape”. Amazingly, during his 79 years, it was the only figurative work he ever exhibited…and even it was not well received or appreciated by the critics. These works were painted entirely for himself, and, although they are today highly esteemed, they were virtually unknown during his lifetime.
Corot greatly admired the work of Rembrandt and also found inspiration in Dutch seventeenth-century genre painting. There is a sculptural quality about his work, aided by his economy of color and densely applied paint. Picasso’s early work finds its roots in Corot. Degas, Renoir, Delacroix, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Millet…the list goes on and on…all influenced by and greatly admired Corot’s figurative works.
It’s interesting how tastes change. What was fashionable in Corot’s day, what made him a wealthy man, the paintings most prized by collectors…the poetic landscapes…now, are the least admired.
Totally unappreciated were his figurative works, and to a lesser degree, his landscapes painted directly from nature. Today, they are regarded to be among his best works.
So, here we are today, almost 140 years after his death. Critics have opined the predictability of his work, “The most repetitive of all artists”, they say. “He says things so well while having nothing to say.”
He was a tireless worker but not a risk taker. He loved accuracy but lacked curiosity. He was recognized as being truthful, stable, conscientious, persistent, obstinate, timid, shy, acquiescent, and non-competitive…yet with a strong sense of duty. In the midst of his great fame, he remained humble and was unimpressed with personal accolades. He was totally dedicated to his work. Although he never married, no scandal is associated with him. There were no secret wives or mistresses, but rather, those that associated with him always spoke of his kindness and generosity; maybe that’s because one of his most cherished and often read books was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. “It helped me to pass my life with so much calm and always leaves me with a happy heart”, he said.
For me, after first connecting with this man and his art in John Simoni’s Art History class at Wichita State University almost 50 years ago, I believe his well lived, conscientious, self-disciplined life is a direct result of his strong Christian faith. Corot, the man…and his work…still resonate deeply with me.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE