Several of you have asked for a little more information about Camille Corot, the French landscape artist I posted about a few days ago.
And I don’t blame you! Aren’t his paintings absolutely lovely?
No wonder artists such as Cezanne (who was a student of Pissarro, who was a student of Père Corot), Delacroix (“Oh, that one…he is not a simple landscapist – he is a painter, a true painter; he is a rare and exceptional genius”), Picasso (deeply influenced by Corot’s later figural works, which “provided the cubists with their quintessential human subjects”) and Monet (“There is only one master here: Corot.”) considered him one of the greatest artists of the 19th century.
In short, I think we could call him the consummate artist’s artist.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot was born in 1796 to a hat maker, Marie-Francoise, and her husband, Louis-Jacques, who managed both his wife’s shop and the money she brought to the marriage.
Young Corot grew up in a middle-to-upper class environment in Paris and attended boarding school in Normandy. He returned to Paris to work in the fabric industry, his father having expanded the millinery business his wife created to include fabrics. Most scholars agree that Corot learned much about both color and form during his early years working as a merchant.
But he really liked being outside.
He was influenced early in life by his older sister’s future father-in-law, who apparently mentored him on long walks out of doors when he assumed guardianship of the school-aged Corot.
His much-discussed love of nature, coupled with his easy-going nature (defaulting always to kindness, if not to chastity) and a tendency to sing aloud and even dance a bit, gives us an idea of what kind of person Corot was.
Commonly called Père Corot by the younger artists who sought both his company and painterly (fatherly?) advice, the French painter is remembered for his landscapes and his generosity to those less fortunate, or just in need.
And while few resources discuss it, there is evidence that Corot grew up in a home where Christianity was both taught and caught.
He never married, claiming that such a commitment would deny him the time and dedication he needed to paint. At the same time, he continued to live with and care for his parents until their deaths.
He never had to worry about generating income, since his father had agreed to supply him with an annual stipend.
But what’s interesting in terms of his financial situation (to me at least) is what we can infer from his actions: He consistently gave away much of his income to the poor, the hungry, and the sick. After he began selling his work later in life, this practice allowed him to be even more generous.
One of the many visitors to his studio / home at Ville-D’Avray had this to say of Corot in 1850:
“Corot is a man of principle, unconsciously Christian; he surrenders all his freedom to his mother – for he is a bachelor, and would be the happiest of men if he could go back to Italy. His mother prevents him, not lack of wealth, for he is rich…I accompanied him [to dinner] and along the way he enlarged on his views on ethics. It was a real course in practical philosophy. And what love of nature!” (Corot, p. 148)
Now. To the art.
Corot is known as…well, it’s arguable. He’s really hard to fit into one of those categories that art historians love, despite a general tendency these days to strenuously deny such labelling.
But I think we can safely call him a landscape artist.
You see, he was one of the first artists to embrace plein-air painting. This simply means painting out of doors.
His family bought a country home in order to escape Parisian summers (this was in the early 19th century, long before Napoleon III directed Baron Haussmann to ‘save’ Paris from the sewage running in the streets) in Ville-D’Avray, where Corot lived and painted until 1851, when his mother died and his sister and her family moved into the house.
But all those years he lived at Ville-D’Avray, he was able to take nature walks and return to his studio with ease. He could walk, look, observe, sketch, touch-up, and think at his leisure. This sort of life was conducive to both traditional studio practices and en plein air painting.
There are plenty of online resources discussing the difference approaches to landscape art in France in the early to mid-19th century. Suffice it to say that one style was more classicizing and the other more romantic.
The more classicizing style is represented by the clean, precise, academic lines of artists like Nicolas Poussin, who emphasized the idea of landscape, populating his idyllic scenes with important historical or mythological figures:
French painter Claude Lorrain took Poussin’s Classical style a step further and diminished the human presence in his work:
Lorrain was looking not just at Poussin but also to the Dutch painters of the 17th century, who were more interested in naturalism.
In this way, Lorraine’s work looks forward to Romantic landscape painting, and could be described as a sort of bridge between the more linear, architectural Classical landscape and the looming Romantic landscape that is less tame and yet even more natural.
It was precisely this focus on the natural – on real light, real trees, real leaves, real cows – that typifies the other French landscape style. This more realistic tendency shifts focus once and for all from imaginary landscapes and mythical figures to recognizable places and real people.
At this point in art history, we can see a shift from the Classical and the Romantic landscape styles to a specifically Natural style. This is called Realism, and is best represented by a few painters who were – surprise, surprise – influenced by Camille Corot.
For example, both Jean-François Millet and Theodore Rousseau painted with the Barbizon School, a group of artists loosely affiliated with the forest at Fontainebleau.
You will likely recognize Millet:
With the rise of Realism in French painting styles, we see Gustav Courbet and Edouard Manet both gain ground and break ground in their own respective ways.
So why all this seemingly unrelated information about Naturalism and Classicism and Romanticism and Realism in 19th century French landscape painting?
Are you confused yet??
Let me fix that: Corot synthesized all of these styles.
He began painting outside early on, and became completely committed to this practice while in Italy, and carried it with him back to France – in the manner of the Dutch landscape painters, who were collectively and overly interested in realism, detail, precision, and light in their work.
While in Italy he began to pay close attention to line, shape and form by incorporating architecture in his landscape – in the manner of Poussin, to whom line meant everything, and Claude Lorrain.
Who is just amazing.
Want to see another of his works?
And Corot returned to France and continued to sketch outside, looking at the actual scene he’d carefully chosen to paint, after which he’d return to his studio to paint the final work. He’d return once or twice to confirm his vision, but ultimately, he’d imagine what he wanted when he finished the work – in the manner of the rising Romantic school of painters such as Casper David Friedrich:
and Eugene Delacroix:
He also refused to separate real places and imaginary figures:
Of this practice he so dearly loved of mixing cows and nymphs by the ponds outside his window, Emil Zola noted that “If M. Corot agreed to kill off, once and for all, the nymphs with which he populated his works and replace them with peasant women I would like him beyond measure.”
Corot was among the first of the French artists to paint en plein air at Fontainebleau – in the manner of the Barbizon School.
Later in life, he turned to human subjects for inspiration:
and it is to these monumental figures that both Cezanne and Picasso look with fresh and curious eyes decades later.
Of course, Corot did this in a manner completely native to himself – how could he paint in the manner of Cezanne and Picasso?
And yet that’s what he did – long before they even thought about it.
You see, Père Corot really was an artist’s artist.
He really was a Father Figure to many of the more famous names we know and love in our own contemporary understanding of art history.
Monet was right: When it comes to landscape, there really is only one master, and that is Corot.