Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
Camille Corot's earlier biographers presented him as a naive artist separated from commercial concerns who painted whatever pleased him in the French countryside and from his own emotions. For these writers his importance lay in his loosely painted, atmospheric landscapes, for which later modernists called him the precursor to impressionism. This conception of the artist has undergone significant revision with recent scholarship. Corot never seemed to accept the impressionists' more radical work, especially their enthusiasm for contemporary urban and suburban themes. He represented timeless, rural views disconnected from the industrialization and modernization of nineteenth-century France.
Following his father in the clothing trade, Corot worked for eight years before the death of his younger sister in 1821 provided him with the additional income (her annual allowance) to enable him to devote himself to painting. In 1822 he began to study with the landscape painter Achille-Etna Michallon (1796-1822), winner of the first Grand Prix de Rome in historicized landscape, and after Michallon's early death that year, with Bertin (q.v.). Both Michallon and Bertin had trained with Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819), whose later eighteenth-century treatise on landscape painting practice urged artists to study nature closely. In addition, Michallon frequented the village of Barbizon and the forest of Fontainebleau, which would become important subjects for Corot and the group of painters known as the Barbizon school.
In 1825 Corot made his first trip to Italy, following in the tradition of the French academy but also the independent precedent of the seventeenth-century French painter Claude Lorrain. There Corot joined an international circle of artists, including Léopold Robert (1794-1835) and Aligny (q.v.), who struggled to resolve the contradictory phases of empirical study out of doors and synthetic recreation in the studio. From Rome, he sent his first submissions to the Paris Salon in 1827, among them The View at Narni (National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa). These early Italian views generally feature a bright, warm light with few areas in shadow.
Corot gradually shifted from this early style to one in the 1840s that frequently included larger figures in the middle ground, more complex light effects, and a duller, earthy palette of greens and browns. He continued to use his outdoor works as models for finished canvases but freely adapted the compositions, forms, lighting, and color. The question of finish did not only pertain to the relationship between plein-air studies and studio compositions, which he called paysage composé (invented landscape). Corot sometimes added figures to landscapes that he had painted years earlier and even asked fellow painters such as Diaz de la Peña (q.v.) to paint them. His titles often referred to the geographical location that inspired the image, and some included the word souvenir (broad-ly translated as memory), which suggests recreating or revisiting some experience.
The critical reception of Corot's work fluctuated. His first Salon submissions passed the jury, but during the 1830s he was first overlooked and then attacked by the critics. By the 1840s his fortunes had improved, and he even sold one Salon picture to the French state. In more radical circles, the critic-poet Charles Baudelaire held Corot up as a leader in contemporary landscape painting. Corot received the Legion of Honor in 1846 as well as a municipal commission to decorate the baptismal fonts in the church of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris.
In the early 1850s Corot transformed his style again. He developed silvery tones and diffuse lighting effects applied in a few thin layers, over which he added small touches of brighter color for highlights. The soft glimmer and evocative atmosphere of these later works earned him commercial and critical success. During the last decade, Corot turned toward the single figure as subject. The meditative poses and expressions of these figures reminded some contemporary critics of seventeenth-century painting, especially the realism of Spanish and Dutch pictures. But Corot's landscapes remained his most admired work, and during his lifetime imitations or fakes were sold under his name.