Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

Early Paintings of Corot

Salander-O’Reilly Galleries
20 East 79th Street
New York, NY 10021

May 5 to June 5, 2004

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Lake Como and the Town 1834  oil on canvas, 11-3/8 x 16-1/2 inches Courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Lake Como and the Town 1834 oil on canvas, 11-3/8 x 16-1/2 inches Courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries

“He is the rare and exceptional genius and the father of modern landscape painting,” noted Delacroix noted in 1861. “He is still the strongest, he has anticipated everything,” Degas affirmed some 20 years later. “There is only one master here…Compared to him, the rest of us are nothing, absolutely nothing.” (Monet, 1897) The object of all this adulation is Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and at least a couple twentieth-century artists seemed to have agreed: Picasso actually owned several of his paintings, and in 1912 Matisse listed his favorite masters as Goya, Dürer, Rembrandt, Manet, and yes, Corot.

Surprised? Corot obviously supplied these painters with what they asked of art, but his star has sunk considerably since–“The official Corot is generally a bore.” (Robert Hughes, 1996) Corot’s low-key paintings, with their traditional subjects, their unflashy brushwork and subtle colors, won’t grab those looking for demonstrative technique or psychological undercurrents. Unlike Manet or Courbet, his images never hint at subverting an existing order-Rule No. 1, of course, for any relevant art. And in regards to Rule No. 2, Corot’s work illuminates absolutely nothing about the connection between artist and audience, unless you find the escapist fantasy of feathery trees and mist-drenched lakes to be a kind of social commentary.

Matisse and Degas knew of what they spoke, however. Corot’s virtues are formidable, though they assume a kind of communication between painter and viewer instead of explicating it. Like Courbet, Rembrandt and other masters, Corot was supremely conscious of the geometric relationships of forms and colors, and for the receptive viewer his paintings communicate a remarkable vitality of gesture and scale, whether the subject be trees, figures, panoramas, or interiors. While not subversive, Corot’s work is certainly innovative. Unlike Claude Lorrain’s logical spatial recessions, his energized space is full of the contradictions of observed light; he “subverted” traditional notions of space by coaxing a purely empirical experience of nature, somehow untrammeled, through a classical discipline of forms and intervals. His quiet paintings are indeed the most powerful connection between neo-Classicism and Impressionism. (And you’ll notice that Matisse’s list includes no painters from either of these schools.)

For those who delight in this lyrical language of form, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries’ Early Paintings by Corot was one of the season’s real treats. The fifteen small oils date mostly from the artist’s first stay in Italy, the period from 1825-28 that marked the culmination of his years of study. He apparently considered these works just studies (exhibiting only one of them during his lifetime), but their crisp brushstrokes, bold delineations of masses and nuanced, planar colors make them among his most widely praised paintings today.

“Lake Como and the Town,” (1834) is the latest painting here, but it reflects the broad attack of his early style. Its motif-a cluster of domes and towers nestled under ragged mountains viewed across a glistening alpine lake-is nothing if not picturesque. Corot’s impulse, however, is not to render the scenic but to uncover its rhythmic meaning. He actually explained his approach: he first established outlines, then tones, then colors, and finally qualities of finish. One can sense the start of the process in the stark outlines of distant peaks that, crossing the image’s full horizontal dimension, eerily mirror the jagged shoreline at the viewers’ feet, elasticizing the painting’s entire middle space. Swathes of tones within this space separate elements into two camps: those areas warmed by sunlight, and those deprived of it. Subtle colors further differentiate the tones, and as these dozens of colored patches shift with the dictates of the light, their sequences also gather somehow into the “real” impulses of objects in space and light; gestures attain weight, so that mountains (wedges of elusive, mauve-green-gray shadows among warm, olive-hued flanks) lumber gracefully above the staccato, horizontal facets of buildings (pale pinkish flicks among somber reddish-umber shadows.) Close up on the canvas’ right edge (one can almost touch it) a dark tree trunk runs up the vertical dimension, rhyming playfully with the tiny, distant verticals of towers.

Strategically hung opposite the entrance, this small sketch quietly gleams from across the room. Its brilliance lies not in heightened “realistic” description but in a luminous comprehension of plastic rhythms. It neatly illustrates a point: though often considered a “tonal painter” Corot is actually a superb colorist. No tone in this sketch exists apart from color, which becomes the engine that drives the rhythms.

Another gem in the exhibition is “Venice: Santa Maria della Salute from the Campo della Carita,” (1828), in which brisk hues and strokes cohere as gondolas and canal receding towards a distant church. Their hues vividly capture the Venetian atmosphere, but the visual weight of these forms also initiates a larger rhythm in which dark swoops of prows oppose lights of domes, again animating the middle space. Eighty years later Monet was to depict the same kind of scene on his trip to Venice, and while his surfaces are more luscious and his atmosphere richer and denser, he rarely attained this sketch’s agile sense of rhythm and scale. In the Corot one arrives at details in their appointed time; as the waters of the canal recede into the painting’s depths, the eye rests finally upon a small patch of distinctly darker blue, and the pause lends a restive breadth to the whole shimmering plane leading up to it. One suspects that the artist reveled not just in the exotic stimuli of a scene, but also in what each element meant.

The same might be said of “Cloudy Sky,” (1826-28), a study of scuttling clouds that irresistibly begged comparison with the paintings upstairs in Salander’s concurrent exhibition, Constable’s Skies. Corot can’t match the churning volumes and empassioned brushwork of the English master, but again, he imparts something else: a sense of pacing-in this case, of moving from streams of clouds compressed along the lower edge to a broad and vacant portion of sky above, which the artist punctuates with a single, self-contained cloud. If there’s more Sturm und Drang to Constable’s skies, then Corot’s image has more of the fleet-footed variety of classical representation.

In later years, of course, Corot’s style turned increasingly towards the feathery, mist-drenched landscapes that (in the words of Vincent Pomarède, curator at the Louvre Museum) “perfectly matched the tastes of the provincial middle classes of the late nineteenth century.” The sentimentality of description in many of these works can indeed by cloying, but it’s worth noting that in his later life Corot often worked simultaneously in different styles for paintings that ranged from large mythological scenes for the Salons to intimate portraits, and from hazy river scenes to crystalline town views. A second, deeper look at these paintings reveals the same Corot at work, who, never content with mere description, always located the mass of a tree with the authority of a master. It should be added that throughout his painting life he was a transparently clumsy stylist by the Academy’s standards; the irony is that his naïve modeling, so regularly condemned by his detractors up until his late, “fuzzy” paintings, was to become part of the appeal of his early work for later critics.

Was he a naïve sentimentalist, or a practical man absolutely secure in his priorities? Quite likely he was both. Contemporary accounts confirm that he was a deeply kind and modest man, but also a painter of great ambition and determination. He endured two decades of relative obscurity and sometimes venomous criticism (“…There are those who call that painting. They are very kind…”), but once his career blossomed in late middle age, he could be diffident to a fault. (“It would take so little to make it a real Corot. Here!” he purportedly exclaimed as he reworked and signed one of the countless “Corot” forgeries. His more noble gestures include buying a house for the elderly and destitute Daumier and providing for Millet’s widow.) It might be fair to say that he knew what mattered to him privately in art and publicly in life, and found ways of accommodating the two.
Now if only Corot had been slightly more obliging, he would have produced not just a bumper crop of paintings in the currently popular style, but also a whole secret cache for future tastes. Oddly, such a scenario did come to pass, in a sense. After the artist died at the ripe age of 78, the Paris art world was surprised to find he had been quietly at work on a large series of figure paintings. Many of these works, as luminous in color and expansive in gesture as anything he’d done, with possibly a newly meditative quality, are among his most extraordinary efforts. These late figure paintings happen to be Degas’ favorite Corots.

They also provoke a tantalizing notion. Someday, might they too become the occasion for a Salander-O’Reilly exhibition?