Amid the flamboyant world of 19th-century French painting, no scandal attaches to the name Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, no vivid anecdote or outrageous, in-your-face work of art. If Edgar Degas longed to be “celebrated and unknown,” it was Corot–a painter Degas greatly admired–who achieved this paradoxical wish. His self-effacing devotion to his art, and especially to landscape, helped to pry open the jaws of academic convention. He claimed to have “only one goal in life … to make landscapes,” a commitment that precluded any other “serious attachment,” including marriage.
Corot was born in 1796, and his 200th birthday is the pretext for two mesmerizing shows in New York this fall: a wide-ranging retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a more specialized show at the Brooklyn Museum built around Corot’s Italian visits. The son of fashionable Parisian modistes, dealers in hats and accessories, Corot lived comfortably on a trust fund until he himself became the fashion, both among wealthy industrialists (who treasured his visions of the very rural serenity they were threatening) and among the rising young stars of the impressionist generation–Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro–who revered “Papa Corot,” even as he disdained their “blinding use of color.” He died in 1875, a year after the first impressionist exhibition.
Corot is often referred to as a pioneer of plein-air painting, but as the Brooklyn show, called “In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting,” makes clear, the practice of making outdoor sketches in oil was well-established by the time of his first Italian campaign in 1826. The show places Corot in the company of an international cast of painters–including the little-known Welsh painter Thomas Jones, who produced some astonishing studies of moldering Neapolitan walls, with drying laundry dangling from balconies–all of whom worked outdoors in Rome and its environs from the 1780s to about 1840. But Corot could as well be called a pleine-eau painter, so fluid and watery are his works. The Tiber weaves among Corot’s Italian sketches of the 1820s, and, like several of the other painters in the Brooklyn exhibition, he pays obligatory homage to the falls at the Roman resort of Tivoli. Still, there’s something parched in these paintings, where the air is crisp and even the bodies of water have a solidity of form and contour that recalls and betrays the influence of Poussin.
Then, in 1835, after his return to France, Corot painted his Old Testament scene Hagar in the Wilderness–the first major painting in the Met show–which portrayed Ishmael and his mother dying of thirst in the desert. An angel appears above them, a sort of cosmic bartender bringing a drink. (One thinks of Philip Larkin’s poem about a religion based on water: “And I should raise in the east/ A glass of water/ Where any-angled light/ Would congregate endlessly.”) Hagar made Corot famous, and for the next four decades the floodgates were loosed. Water is everywhere in Corot’s work. The Met, in an effort to show off Corot’s strengths in genres other than landscape, makes room for his large-scale Salon paintings, few of which exist in American collections. In these he reprised such religious and mythical shower scenes as the baptism of Christ, and Diana as she was spied upon by Actaeon. (During the final year of his life, Corot was still fidgeting with the unconvincing antlers sprouting from poor Actaeon’s head.) In smaller-scale works Corot wrought changes on a variety of more secular riparian subjects: ferrymen, fishermen, women washing laundry or tossing each other playfully into the current.
S omething happened to Corot’s work around 1848, as though that revolutionary year had shaken his certainties as well. He moved, however, not toward anything resembling social protest; one of Corot’s rare representations of modernization–a view of a textile factory with a woman sitting at a pre-industrial spinning wheel in the foreground–is more wistful than indignant. Rather, the change is stylistic. All that was solid in his art begins to melt, creating the “vaporousness” that Monet and others so admired in Corot’s work. The boundary between water and land, so clear in the Italian sketches, is increasingly blurred in the great “souvenirs” of the 1850s, imaginary landscapes in which lakes, reflections, and mist-enveloped trees all meld together. One critic complained that Corot’s foliage was “like mashed peas,” but another praised the “intoxicating limpidity” of Corot’s water: “Even if we camped out in his studio, we could never learn in 10 years how he succeeds in rendering the beauty of water.”
None other than the emperor Napoleon III himself snatched up the glorious Souvenir de Mortefontaine for 3,000 francs and hid it away in the palace at Fountainebleau, where he could admire in private the great horizontal sweep of the central tree, and the standing woman’s posture echoed in another, barer tree. (Corot, who obviously loved the painting, hung a photograph of it over his own bed.) Such paintings, widely reproduced even during Corot’s lifetime, confirmed his lasting fame as a landscapist. After the gloomy events of the Prussian siege of Paris and the slaughter of the Commune that followed, the glistening countryscapes that Corot exhibited in 1872 seemed like a reaffirmation of La Belle France herself.
While Corot was drawn to the contemplative and even the monastic life (he painted a peculiar series devoted to monks reading, playing the cello, and praying), he was by no means immune to feminine charm. He praised the Roman women in particular–“their asses are spectacular,” he confided to a friend–though he thought the Italian whores were overpriced. The Metropolitan retrospective also makes a case for Corot’s figure studies, many of which were painted during the final years of his life. In the ravishing Lady in Blue of 1874, the adaptive model Emma Dobigny (a favorite of Degas as well) shows off a cascade of blue cloth–she’s a waterfall in repose. The painting was owned by Degas’ good friend, the industrialist and amateur painter Henri Rouart, who put it on public view for the first time at the Parisian Exposition Universelle of 1900. It was the sensation of that show, as perhaps it will be of the Met retrospective. But the Lady in Blue is hardly representative of the more austere figure studies that line the walls in the final room of the Met’s exhibition. These uncompromising women, with their dry, marmoreal features, appealed to Derain and Picasso; but they’ll probably send contemporary viewers back to the landscapes.
By the turn of the century, the most advanced painters were learning all they could from Corot’s example. For Van Gogh, Corot’s reputation was fixed “like the sun itself.” Monet, taking refuge in his own liquid world of waterlilies, proclaimed in 1897: “There is only one master here–Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing.” It is precisely the astonishing popular success of Monet’s generation that has made it difficult today to view Corot as anything other than as a precursor. The sheer profusion of these two exhibitions, with their welcome mix of the familiar and the little-known, should prompt a much-needed reassessment of Corot’s subtle art. To enter these shimmering shows now is as refreshing as a drink of cool water.