The se­cret paint­ings of Jean-Bap­tiste Camille Corot

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY LARA MAR­LOWE

Jean-Bap­tiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) died soon af­ter the Im­pres­sion­ists be­gan ex­hibit­ing to­gether, but his in­flu­ence on the move­ment is un­de­ni­able.

Corot taught Claude Monet’s teacher, Eugène Boudin, as well as Berthe Morisot and Camille Pis­sarro. Morisot called Corot “papa” and adopted his misty, sil­ver-blue-green pal­ette. “There is only one mas­ter here, Corot,” said Monet. “We are noth­ing by com­par­i­son.”

Rooted in Poussin’s neo-clas­si­cism, Corot painted what he felt, like Delacroix, the ro­man­tic. He painted what he saw, like Courbet, the re­al­ist. And long be­fore the Im­pres­sion­ists, Corot en­deav­oured to cap­ture chang­ing pat­terns of light.

Corot de­scribed his abil­ity to rec­on­cile the schools of 19th cen­tury paint­ing: “Though I con­stantly seek to im­i­tate re­al­ity, I don’t for one mo­ment lose sight of the first im­pulse of emo­tion. Re­al­ity is part of art. Feel­ing com­pletes it.”

In his life­time, Corot knew huge suc­cess as a land­scape painter, and most peo­ple con­tinue to think of him that way. Alexan­dre Du­mas, Queen Vic­to­ria, char­ac­ters in Mar­cel Proust’s nov­els and lat­terly the Bri­tish painter Lu­cian Freud all owned his paint­ings.

Yet a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Corot’s work, his paint­ing of hu­man fig­ures, re­mained largely un­known. “This is the most ex­per­i­men­tal, most per­sonal part of Corot’s oeu­vre, says Sébastien Al­lard, di­rec­tor of the paint­ing depart­ment at the Lou­vre and the com­mis­sioner of Corot, The Painter and his Mod­els at the Musée Mar­mot­tan in Paris un­til July 8th.

Most of the ex­hi­bi­tion will move on to the Na­tional Gallery of Art in Washington DC from Septem­ber 9th un­til De­cem­ber 30th.

It is not clear why Corot kept his fig­ure paint­ing se­cret. Al­lard thinks he yearned to be es­teemed as more than a land­scape artist, but lacked the self-con­fi­dence to show the work in pub­lic. An­other pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that Corot knew his fig­ure paint­ings did not fit the cri­te­ria of the of­fi­cial sa­lon and feared dam­ag­ing his own rep­u­ta­tion.

In any case, Corot hid his fig­ure paint­ings in his stu­dio, ex­hibit­ing only four of them in his life­time. The Mar­mot­tan ex­hi­bi­tion brings to­gether 60. Some of these were shown for the first time in 1909, when they in­spired Braque, Cézanne and Pi­casso.

Corot was born into a mer­chant fam­ily who owned a cloth­ing shop on the cor­ner of the rue du Bac and the quai Voltaire in Paris. His fa­ther de­spaired of turn­ing young Corot into a busi­ness­man and agreed to sub­sidise his career as an artist. In his youth, Corot made por­traits of friends and fam­ily, and went to Italy to study paint­ing.

He painted Ma­ri­etta or The Ro­man Odal­isque in 1843. Less than three decades


It is not clear why Corot kept his fig­ure paint­ing se­cret. Al­lard thinks he yearned to be es­teemed as more than a land­scape artist, but lacked the self-con­fi­dence to show the work in pub­lic

sep­a­rate her from In­gres’s Grande Odal­isque but Ma­ri­etta is in­fin­itely more mod­ern. She lies on a white sheet, with an arm raised over her head, star­ing at the viewer with in­so­lent eroti­cism. One breast is ex­posed and the long curve of leg and thigh ends in grub­bily sketched feet. Though she was painted rel­a­tively early in Corot’s career, Ma­ri­etta, which be­longs to the Petit Palais in Paris, is the most mod­ern paint­ing in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Corot dressed mod­els in Greek or Ital­ian cos­tume and in­fused them with mys­tery and me­lan­choly. He bor­rowed from art his­tory the themes of women fetch­ing wa­ter at foun­tains, read­ing, or play­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

Emma Do­bigny, a young wo­man from Mont­martre who also mod­elled for De­gas and Pu­vis de Cha­vannes, was one of Corot’s favourite mod­els. Do­bigny talked, sang and could not re­main still dur­ing sit­tings. “That mo­bil­ity is ex­actly what I love about her,” said Corot. “My goal is to ex­press life. I need a model who moves around.”


The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes three paint­ings of Do­bigny dressed as a young Greek wo­man. In the first, full length can­vas, she is merely an ar­che­typal wo­man at a fountain. The sec­ond, from the Shel­burne Mu­seum in Ver­mont, brings out the char­ac­ter in Do­bigny’s girl­ish, round face. In the third, Corot trans­forms her into the ro­man­tic char­ac­ter Haidée from Lord By­ron’s epic poem Don Juan.

Though Corot placed his later nudes within land­scapes, main­tain­ing a pre­tence of mythol­ogy, crit­ics none­the­less at­tacked them as “dirty”. In Bac­cha­nte with a Pan­ther, also from the Shel­burne, a nude wo­man in the style of Gior­gione and Ti­tian dan­gles a dead bird be­fore a leop­ard rid­den by a naked child. The effect is gen­tle and cruel, erotic and sur­re­al­is­tic.

In old age, Corot be­gan to shed the trap­pings of genre and cos­tume. Once he felt he had con­veyed the essence of what he wanted to say, he left the can­vas un­fin­ished.

In In­ter­rupted Read­ing (1870) from the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, a dark-haired wo­man wears vaguely Ital­ian clothes. Her coral jew­ellery is meant to ward off the evil eye. She slumps against a ta­ble, her head rest­ing on a folded hand, lost in me­lan­choly reverie. The fig­ure is por­trayed with quick, en­er­getic brush strokes. Her left hand is barely sketched, yet her face and arms are in­cred­i­bly re­al­is­tic. The model is be­lieved to have been Agostina Se­ga­tori, an Ital­ian wo­man who lived in Mont­par­nasse. Se­ga­tori also mod­elled for Manet and would later be­come Van Gogh’s mis­tress.

In­ter­rupted Read­ing is on a par with the finest con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous paint­ings by De­gas and Manet. If he could own one paint­ing from the ex­hi­bi­tion, the com­mis­sioner, Al­lard, told me it would be this one. “Be­cause it is be­tween two worlds, be­tween two epochs. An age­ing artist con­fronts the younger gen­er­a­tion, with en­ergy. What is more, it is mag­nif­i­cent.”

The sig­na­ture, clos­ing paint­ing of the ex­hi­bi­tion is the Lou­vre’s Lady in Blue. It again shows Emma Do­bigny, pensive as she leans on a dark red velvet cush­ion. We can tell she is in Corot’s stu­dio, be­cause we see an easel in the left back­ground, and two paint­ings on the wall be­hind her.

Like much of Corot’s work, Lady in Blue painted within months of his death, melds clas­si­cism and moder­nity. Do­bigny has the bear­ing of a statue. The drap­ery of her dress is also rem­i­nis­cent of Ro­man stat­u­ary.

Yet for the first time, Corot has painted a dress from his own era. Like Monet’s can­vases of his wife in rented cou­ture, Corot’s mas­ter­piece is as much a por­trait of the dress as it is of Do­bigny.

■ Corot, The Painter and his Mod­els is at the Musée Mar­mot­tan in Paris un­til July 8th


Clockwise from far left: In­ter­rupted Read­ing, Bac­cha­nte with a Pan­ther, The Ro­man Odal­isque (Ma­ri­etta), Lady in Blue, by JeanBap­tiste Camille Corot.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.