Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)
A Day in the Life
of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was one of the great exponents of 19th century French landscape painting. Although he produced a number of fine portraits, figure paintings, and etchings - all much neglected aspects of his art - he is best known for the luminous clarity of his plein-air painting. A huge influence on his contemporaries as well as later artists, including the great Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), Corot's poetic style of unaffected naturalism bridged the gap between the romantic Arcadian tradition of Neoclassical art and the plein-air purity of French Impressionism. He remains one of the world's most popular and most famous painters.
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A Day in the Life
of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
It is noontime. The sun has kindled the
world. The air is heavy, drowsy, still. The flowers bend their heads.
The birds are hushed. Only a single sound is heard - the hammer of the
blacksmith in the village. Ding! Ding! How rhythmically it beats upon
the anvil! And now the hammer is silent. The hour of rest. The painter
goes to his lunch at the farm. A thick slice of bread and butter, cheese,
eggs, ham. Ah, but it tastes good! And then, after this wholesome lunch,
a brief nap. He dreams of his paintings. Later on he will paint his dreams.
And now the sun is sinking in the west.
It goes down in a splash of yellow, orange, scarlet, cherry, purple. A
pretentious and vulgar display. Not a scene for this artist. For he prefers
Nature in her quieter moods. And so he sits down under a poplar and waits.
During these early years (1820s), landscape painting was divided into two schools or styles: the Italianate Neoclassical school of Southern Europe which promoted idealized imaginary views often populated with mythological, or biblical figures; and a more realistic school derived from the Dutch Realist tradition - more popular in England and Northern Europe - which remained faithful to the real nature rather than the idyllic version. In both cases, artists typically began with a few outdoor sketches and preliminary studies, which were then completed in the studio. The English landscape painting school - led by John Constable and J.M.W. Turner - was especially influential in its preference for realism over neoclassicism.
Corot studied briefly (18211822) under the painter and teacher Achille-Etna Michallon (1796-1822) and also Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842), both of whom had been pupils of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) a devotee of Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain and the classical tradition. Working en plein air in the forests of Fontainebleau and in the villages like Ville-d'Avray to the west of the French capital, as well as in his studio, Corot readily absorbed this classical style in his drawing, sketching and composition, but added his own poetry and unaffected naturalness to his painting. But this poetry was infused with realism - his notebooks reveal copious studies of trees, rocks, and plant forms, demonstrating his focus on the reality of the countryside.
A Student of Nature
During the late 1820s and early 1830s, Corot concentrated on producing large landscapes for submission to the Paris Salon, whose preference still lay with realist painting in a classical academic style. He began by reworking and expanding his Italian oil sketches to incorporate Neoclassical elements, as in his first submission, View at Narni (1827). This derived from a quick, natural oil sketch of a ruined Roman aqueduct, in dusty bright sun, which he reworked into an idyllic pastoral setting. Although the Salon accepted this work and other submissions from him in 1831 and 1833 (one portrait and several landscapes), the reception accorded his works by the critics was generally cool, so Corot paid two more visits to Italy to develop his style further. The result was his biblical picture Hagar in the Wilderness (1835), depicting Hagar and the child Ishmael saved by an angel from dehydration in the desert. Although derived from another of his Italian studies, the boldness of his composition and painterly method impressed the critics.
Despite these ups and downs, Corot went
on in his own way, listening to none and befriending all. His father had
increased his income to two thousand francs. But Corot spent it all -
on others. He was the extravagant brother of all the needy young artists
in Paris. He fed them, clothed them and later even bought a house for
one of them. To meet these charities - he never called them charities
but tokens of his friendships - he was obliged to borrow from his father
large sums of money over and above his allowance. "Someday,"
he said, "I will sell my paintings and then I will repay you."
But his father merely opened his purse strings and smiled. Who ever heard
of an artist being able to pay money to a businessman? Of what good were
artists, anyhow? To the end of his days, he was convinced, Camille would
remain a foolish, unpractical and improvident child.
Corot's pictures were great because they came out of the goodness of his heart. And, little by little, the public grew to understand the greatness of his pictures as well as the goodness of his heart. They began to buy his canvases, and he gave his earnings to his friends. And what friends! There was Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-78), one of the earliest exponents of plein air painting, who painted and played and jested with him through life and who upon his deathbed whispered, "Adieu. I go to heaven to see if friend Corot has found me subjects for landscapes." There was Henri Rousseau, Le Douanier, (1844-1910) of the massive head and the heavy beard, the artist whose merry face still bore the traces of an early hunger - a hunger to which Corot's generosity had helped to put an end. There was Diaz - Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pella (1807-76) - whose richly coloured paintings matched the colourful richness of his name, the man of the crippled leg and the energetic heart, a Spaniard who looked like a pirate and painted like a god, a black-haired John Silver who had begged upon the streets, who was now enjoying the cup of success to the brim and who, upon a tragic day, was to die from snakebite. There was Baudelaire, the apostle of Romanticism whose genius verged upon insanity - or, as some of his more malicious critics would have it, whose insanity verged upon genius. And then there was Gustave Courbet, whose vanity was even greater than his genius.
Through the 1840s, Corot strove to overcome his critics and mask his disappointment when his works were rejected by the Salon. But then in 1845, Baudelaire declared Corot to be the foremost member of the "modern school of landscape painting". In 1846, the French government awarded him with the cross of the Légion d'Honneur. "Incredible!" exclaimed his father when he heard of this. Corot himself remained as unaffected by this recognition, as he had been by his earlier failures. It merely enabled him to sell his paintings at will and to fill his purse for the benefit of his friends. In 1848 he was awarded a second-class medal at the Salon, but more and more of his contemporaries, including Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), began acknowledging his artistic status. In 1848, Corot was elected a member of the Salon and public recognition swiftly followed, greatly enhancing his financial worth.
Occasionally, he demanded fairly good prices from patrons and art buyers - one thousand francs, three thousand francs, ten thousand francs. But he generally priced his pictures in accordance with his needs at the moment and not in accordance with their intrinsic merit. On the whole he rather underestimated his worth. He would have been not a little surprised could he have foreseen, when he sold his Lac de Garde for eight hundred francs, that within thirty years this painting would fetch two hundred and thirty-one thousand francs!
Corot himself refused to grow old. He expected, as he said, to reach the age of one hundred and four. He had an insatiable appetite for work. At the age of 77 he still climbed the four flights of stairs to his art studio on the Rue Paradis Poissoniere. In the winter of the following year one of his dearest friends, D'Aligny, died. There was a blizzard during the funeral at the cemetery of Montparnasse. But the old painter, with the snow whipping into his white hair, refused to leave until the end of the ceremony.
At last his health began to give way. He still went regularly to his studio - not, however, to paint, but to be among his beloved pictures. "If I only had the strength now!" he said to his friend Robaut. "You have no idea of the things I could paint ... I see what I have never seen before. New tints, new skies, new horizons ... Ah, if I could show you these immense horizons!" Three weeks later, on February 22, 1875, he passed on to these new horizons. "I go on hoping," he said just before he died, "that there will be painting in heaven." He was buried at Père Lachaise cemetary in Paris.
The creator of several famous landscape paintings, Corot's enduring popularity as a landscape artist bears witness to his unique creative ability to represent nature in all its beauty. An important contributor to modern French painting, a wonderful observer of light and clouds, and one of the greatest masters of plein-air oil sketches, he also produced some enchanting figure paintings and portraits (eg. the masterpiece Woman With a Pearl, 1869). He exerted a strong influence on mid-19th century landscape art, including Impressionist landscapes, and on painters including Camille Pissarro (1830-1903, Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Eugène Boudin (1824-98), and Berthe Morisot (1841-95). Let the final word go to Claude Monet (1840-1926), who once declared: "There is only one master here - Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing."
Works by Corot hang in many of the world's best art museums.
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