Writing in La Nouvelle Revue in 1895 at the centennial of the birth of one of the most celebrated landscape artists of the nineteenth century, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Georges LeComte proclaimed that
Corot is the greatest painter of the century. Beautiful painter, yes, always interesting, but especially during our century in which painting, so preoccupied with literature and philosophy, has unfortunate tendencies to neglect the plastic qualities. Corot has them all, marvelously: the logic and the sureness of composition, the expressive simplicity of drawing, the fairness of values, the harmonious sobriety of color, and a freshness of vision.
Written over one hundred years ago, the public still shares LeComte’s expression and regard for Corot, who was compared to the celebrated 17th century French writer, Jean de la Fontaine, and referred to as the “La Fontaine” of landscape painting.
Corot moved between Neo-classicism, Realism, and Romanticism as well as toward an affinity with the Barbizon school, though he had a firm foundation by studying Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine. More than just a painter, Corot also did many drawings, glass prints, and watercolors. His ability to capture expressive light effects within his paintings has been suggested as having paved the way for the Impressionist movement, especially since the Impressionists revered him and thought of Corot as their teacher.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was born July 16, 1796 in Paris. His friends extolled him as being continually in good spirits and charming. He always had a smile on his face. His parents, his mother of Swiss origin and his father from Burgundy, ran a successful fashion shop on the Rue du Bac in Paris. His father hoped Corot would follow in his footsteps and maintain the family shop, but during his secondary school studies in Rouen, which began at the age of 11, it became clear that Corot had a talent for drawing. Just five years after entering school in Rouen, Corot left and went to Poissy where he studied for another two years. Corot returned to Paris and in 1815 was placed as an apprentice draper, later moving on to work with another merchant. His fortuitous encounter, during this period, with a Bonington river landscape was inspirational (as noted by Patrick Noon in Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism, Tate Publishing, 2003):
No one thought of landscape painting in those days…the artist had captured for the first time the effects that had always touched me when I discovered them in nature and that were rarely painted. I was astonished. His small picture was for me a revelation. I discerned its sincerity and from that day I was firm in my resolution to become a painter.
In 1822 he took his first painting trip, visiting a family friend in Rouen and also painting a number of scenes from Bois-Guillaume, Le Havre, and Dieppe. It was only after this period and after much cajoling that his father accorded him a stipend which allowed him to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. Corot once wrote, “I have only one goal in life, which I desire to pursue with constancy: that is to paint landscapes.” While his father thought of a career in painting as worthless, Corot was determined to succeed. He entered the atelier of Achille-Etna Michallon, a famous historical landscape painter, but just one month after enrolling, Michallon passed away. Corot then moved to the atelier of Jean-Victor Bertin, a classical and conventional, almost methodical landscape painter.
Corot was an avid traveler and made several trips to Italy, Switzerland, England, and the countryside of France. He began his first journeys to Italy in late 1825 after his father generously gave him the funds necessary for this artistic venture. Corot left with a comrade from Bertin’s atelier and passed through Switzerland in October, staying in Lausanne for a short while before arriving in Rome during the month of December. He stayed in Italy until 1828. This voyage inspired his Vue Prise à Narni and Campagne de Rome. Georges LeComte, again in La Nouvelle Revue, commented on the importance of this first trip to Italy:
The splendors of light and sun made, on this prodigiously gifted Corot, a profound impression that becomes plainly apparent if we compare the paintings he brought back [from Italy] with works done earlier. He was charmed, conquered and entirely abandoned himself to this sensation. In this delight with color and light, he lost his memory of the traditions which paralyzed him, he looked at nature and life without reminiscences, without preconceived ideas. When he returned to France, he knew how to look personally at nature, and feel the varied beauties and colors.
Corot sent his first Salon entry from Rome, debuting in 1827 with Vue Prise à Narni and the La Cervara: Campagne de Rome. His later Salon entries were numerous: Port de Rouen, Site de Fontainebleau, Souvenir d’Italie (1834); Agar Delaissé (1835); Saint Jérome (1836); Silène (1837); Diane au Bain (1838), among others. In 1846, Un Site de Fontainebleau in the style of Theodore Rousseau and Jules Dupré was exhibited. Several years later in 1855, he exhibited six paintings at the Exposition Universelle, obtaining a first class medal. Of these, Napoleon III purchased Souvenir de Marcoussis. Corot continued to exhibit regularly at the Salon until 1875. At first, Corot exhibited themes influenced by his sojourn in Italy. Even though Corot went back to Italy numerous times, his later works show a close affinity with the Barbizon tradition, then in full swing. Another artist, Gustave Colin, noted that “What Corot paints, it is less nature than the love he has for it.” In 1873 he showed his Pastorale and the Passeur, which were considered at the time his best works and which showed a complete expression of his genre of talent. In addition to his classically inspired works, and those linked to the Barbizon group, Corot also excelled in the categories of classical landscape and the representation of figures in interiors. In the end, he is best known to the public through his numerous dreamy and filmy landscapes of the French countryside
Corot was twice awarded a first place medal at the Salons and also received many honorary titles: Décoration des Fonts Baptismaux de Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet (1846), Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (1846) promoted to officer (1867), and Salon jury member (1848-49). But these honors bestowed upon him held little in personal value in comparison to the gold medal, in the name of French artists, presented to him in 1874 by his friends, as a supreme and fitting homage to his lifetime of working toward lifting landscape painting to the highest rank of creativity in the hierarchy of painting categories.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot died February 23, 1875 in Ville d’Avray, continuing work on other pieces until the end. The Salon of 1875 was the last time Corot exhibited his works, albeit posthumously, showing Souvenir du Lac Nemi and Danse Antique.
Corot’s work can now be found in many museums around the world, including the following renowned museums:
Art Institute of Chicago
J. Paul Getty Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
National Gallery, London