Corot: Lessons learned en plein air

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The burgeoning plein air movement of today has dramatically narrowed the gap between what was at one time an enormous gulf between studio and plein air paintings. A clear distinction between larger works created in the studio and the smaller plein air studies became less distinguishable beginning with the Impressionists. They taught us that no one theme is better than another, that completion does not depend on the degree of finish, and that painting large works directly from nature without supporting literary or narrative overtones was totally acceptable. Artists of today are still influenced by this philosophy. (Click images to enlarge)

Camille Corot painting en plein air.


It was not so for Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). Although he lived during the rise of Impressionism his training was classical…that of the 1700’s. Classically composed, idealized landscapes were the only acceptable works if one sought acceptance and recognition from the French Salon shows of the day.

Many believe that Corot was one of the first, if not the first, to paint landscapes directly from nature. Actually, Corot’s first lessons began in 1822 with the artist Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822). Michallon was Corot’s age but a very accomplished artist whom Corot learned much from. Unfortunately, the training was short lived as Michallon died the same year Corot began his studies. Michallon stressed that Corot paint with scrupulous care everything he saw before him.

Achille Etna Michallon – “Study of a Tree” – Oil


Preceding Michallon’s influence was Pierre-Henry de Valenciennes (1750-1819). He painted en plein air as a means of understanding the unifying effects of light. He recommended painting the same view at different hours of the day so as to observe the changes that light produced on form. Hmm, does that remind us of Claude Monet’s hay stack and cathedral paintings?

Pierre-Henry de Valenciennes – “Landscape of Ancient Greece” – Oil (1786)


Although Corot didn’t know it at the time, his plein air work, those sketches that were unacceptable for competition, and were seldom shown to others, became the forerunners and inspiration for a whole generation of artists that followed. It was only in Corot’s later years that those studies were greatly appreciated and admired.

Corot, during his lifetime, spent several years painting in Italy. He was an ardent worker, painting outdoors morning to evening, spring to autumn. Winter’s were spent in his studio working up larger, “finished” paintings from his sketches. Writing from Rome, he once said, “The sun casts a light which makes me despair. I become aware of the utter impotence of my palette. Honestly, there are days when I feel like throwing the whole thing to the devil.”

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) – “View of Genoa from the Promanade of Acqua Sola” – 11.5″ x 16″ – Oil


His approach to painting on site was to first rapidly draw in the large masses. He set himself to “take in a group at a glance; if it stayed in place for only a short time, well, at least I had got its character, its general unconscious character. If it remained longer, I was able to fill in more detail. People get up and go away, the sun moves, shadows change, colors alter. Nothing is absolutely still or the same for very long, but some things, notably at a distance, change, or seem to change, more slowly. Their appearance is more amenable to scrutiny and if observed at the same time of day and in the same kind of weather they can come to seem almost fixed. Corot quickly came to accept the principles that these facts imply. He preferred, as he was always to prefer, a distant grouping of his main subject.”

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) – “Willows on the Banks of the Scarpe” – 18″ x 15″ – Oil


He generally kept the foreground of his paintings simple and well in front of him, and the main attraction of the painting nearly 200 yards away. “At a distance objects not only seem to hold their appearance exactly, but the very space that separates them from the eye serves to simplify their forms. This simplification of form was important to Corot. He came to cherish, by virtue of his classical training and a certain instinctive feeling, wholeness of form and wholeness of effect. His landscapes are often informal but never intimate.” It was his desire to see the simplified whole of every scene. He tended to ignore the foreground as an element to be recorded. What he often did was vaguely suggest its character in subdued tones that are in harmony with the main background elements.”

Next week: The conclusion.

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


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