Corot: From insignificance to greatness

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It should be a story of encouragement for all of us who are considered just average. This is the story of a man who didn’t begin his art training until he was twenty-six. He was self-conscious and shy, just average in school, and never an outstanding employee.

His father, sadly aware of his son’s mediocrity and lack of interest in the family business, finally relented and allowed his son to pursue an art career. The qualities in this man that were not average were his stubborn persistence, belief in himself, and an unwavering dedication to hard work. These are the qualities that elevated Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot from relative insignificance to one of the most esteemed artists of his day…so much so that he was loving addressed as “Papa Corot.” (Click images to enlarge)

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot


Once he was permitted to pursue painting, he was focused and relentless. His lack of curiosity in anything other than painting was monumental. He never read newspapers and he took little interest and no part in political life. He was, however, a great lover of music, particularly that of Beethoven, Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. Before a fine vista of great beauty, he would often be heard singing and exclaiming: “What harmony! What grandeur! It is like Gluck.”

“One should go to the fields and not to pictures,” he once remarked. “Work hard and work steadily. You must interpret nature with entire simplicity and according to your personal sentiment, disregarding what you know of the old masters or of contemporaries. Only in this way will you do work of real feeling.”

Corot was unwavering in his dedication and direction of painting. “There was perhaps no art that Corot cared for quite as much as his own.” That wasn’t the case for most of his critics. They considered his work boring and unimaginative. It took 18 years before Corot received his first major award…the purchase of  Le Petit Berger by the state for the Museum at Metz.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot – “Le Petit Berger” (The Little Shepherd)


By the 1850s, when Corot himself was in his mid fifties, his fame was gathering momentum. He had a string of pupils, among them a young Pissarro, and there were many imitators…a sure indication of respect and admiration others had for his work. Several times he had been selected to be on the Salon jury. He was awarded a first class medal at the Paris World Fair of 1855, but the single act that broke down the last barriers of formal opposition and created a great demand for his work, was the purchase by Napoleon III of his painting, La Charette: Souvenir de Marcoussis.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot – “La Charette: Souvenir de Marcoussis” – 39″ x 51″ – Oil


“By the 1860s, American clients had added their voice to the general clamour. And when he had sent 28 paintings to an American sale in 1858, Corot had been so amazed at the high prices that he suspected some trickery. So popular did he become that he was obliged to rent a ‘secret’ studio where he might work undisturbed. As the years went by Corot grew into the venerable, white-haired ‘Papa Corot.'”

Corot was to live until 1875, passing on at the age of seventy-nine. His father, who was so resistant to his son becoming an artist, never lived to see him receive the Legion of Honour…France’s highest decoration, a globally renowned order of merit given to citizens who have demonstrated exceptional service to the country through contributions to the public good, and having achieved universal recognition.

Corot, to me, is such a great example of…It’s not where you begin, but where you end up that counts. One doesn’t have to be born with great talent, smarts, privilege, or exceptional opportunities to ascend to great heights. Through hard work, a vision, and focused persistent dedication, almost anything is possible.

Material for this article art excerpted from the book “Corot” by Keith Roberts, published by Spring Art Books, London.


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