Camille Corot:
Rebel Without a Pose

by John Goodrich

Isolate a color sequence in Corot's painting of 1826, Young Italian Woman from Papigno with Her Distaff: the assertive, hovering gray of the wall at left; the purple-gray shadow's mild introspection; the deep, reverberating Indian red of the shadowy apron; its vermilion highlight's confident pressure; the surfaceless, gray warmth of the far wall. Separately, the colors intrigue in an aimless way; together, their dislocations shape a palpable column in space, and, it turns out, the first impression of a human figure lengthening against gravity.

Now add the catalyst of surface rhythms: the most insistent notes of the floor — pressing behind the dress's hem — anchoring both the rising figure's weight and the staggered projections of the feet. From the furthest toe, the ponderous sweep of the figure climbs and climbs, finally holding at the varied blues of the bodice, where parallels of arm, tilted face, and stick launch across the gray void in crisp light/dark streams. A bright plane of wall pushes beneath the painting's richest dark in the figure's hair; along with the ebbing gray wall at right, they nest the world of the head, eloquent in its spare modeling, on an alert neck.

Every weight of color is tuned, every nudge and flow of line measured against the whole, to create one complex reenactment of a simple event: a young girl standing, leaning patiently, holding a wool-spinning stick. It has all the gravity of Giotto, elegantly updated, the precision of Poussin — if not the laboriousness — and the abiding, respectful truth of Chardin. Could anyone ask for more? Perhaps this is what Matisse had in mind when he said that his favorite masters were Goya, Dόrer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Corot.

Forgive me if I sound defensive. I love Corot. Corot produced some of the most astonishing paintings ever, work by turns as rigorous as Poussin, as penetrating as Rembrandt, as vibrant as Vermeer — and as revolutionary as Picasso. You doubt? Would Delacroix, Courbet, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Pissarro, Degas, Picasso, and Derain have revered a lesser man? The last four artists actually owned works by Corot. Yet, much of the negative criticism of his time — basically, "Too imprecise. Not pretty enough." persists to this day, updated by modern tastes: "Too imprecise. Too pretty."

The stunning exhibition Corot, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, includes close to 150 paintings from all phases of the life of this remarkable painter's painter.

Lucidly arranged, with helpful but unobtrusive placards, it amply reveals his revolutionary way of relating color and depth, and how, to an unprecedented degree, he brought to the discipline of studio composition all the contradictions of actual visual experience. And, naturally, it reaffirms Degas' verdict: "He is always the greatest, he has anticipated everything."

Historically, critics have praised only portions of Corot's lifework, and most modern reviewers favor the early Italian studies for their luminosity and freshness of execution. Two generations of northern European painters flocked to the Italian countryside between 1780 and 1840, and in 1825 Corot took the first of his three trips there. His work was more then fresh and luminous; he was the only one of these painters to extract from the Italian landscape a gravity and a vividness in the characterization of objects comparable to such great artists as Chardin and Courbet.

A dozen of these landscapes now hang at the Met, among them Study of the Coliseum, 1826. It's a powerhouse of a painting. Every hue retrieves perfectly the weight of light: the muted sienna of the near Coliseum face has an introversion worlds apart from the far wall's rosy vivacity; the Arch of Constantine in front, more neutral, has just the right pallid bouyancy against the surrounding reddish browns. Each color sequence, through foreground, sky, and distance, transports like a musical movement of notes that alternately reach, release, anticipate, urge, reflect, preside, and retire. The journey corresponds, almost coincidentally, to the passage through an actual space — one shaped solely by the eye's perceptions, and having little to do with the conventions of linear or atmospheric perspective.

All these color pressures and releases are at the service of Corot's focusing vision, and here he truly exhilarates. Dense greens — lofted to the upper right corner by a tree trunk that pushes upwards with luxurious, curling slowness — are the looming weight of a canopy of leaves. The drop to the highlighted stones below takes palpable measure in its transversing, one by one, the horizontals of vacuous sky, distant trees, glowing wall top, and neutral wall face. Drawing down from the knot of overhead leaves, the arc of lit shrubbery below is echoed, more mildly, in the foreground greens beneath the Coliseum. A deep move to the pink-gray area above, a leap to the spryly pitched roof, a hop to the razor-thin hovering of arch-top; and now the drama of the slicing angle of the Coliseum edge; bisecting the foreground curve, its segmented rise delivers, course by course, the massiveness of the monument against open sky.

These little paintings recall the muscular, yet lyrical, compositions of Titian or Claude Lorrain, but modernized, for they reflect the actual sensations of specific sites. Except perhaps for Chardin, no one before had composed so rigorously the immediacy of visual experience.

The pairing of classic composition and faithful observation produced such novelties as Rome: Castel Sant' Angelo, ca. 1826-27, revised ca. 1835. Here, he sacrificed a degree of luminosity for an extraordinary vigor of rhythm across the canvas. A massive, squatting fortress and shadowy vertical houses stretch either end of a chord of horizontals. Above and below this tightrope pop the absurdly self-absorbed arcs of distant dome and bridge. A horizontal reverberation at lower right, in a fluttering of boat prows — they have the fading stubbornness of a spinning coin's final moments — and another pull at lower left, in the compact grouping of figures, draws down a heft of space from the tensed horizon. The play, up and down, back and forth, gives tangible force to the location, and so the personality, of every element — the houses soar darkly, the ponderous fortress presides, and the complex of boats simmers in its depths. The effect is vintage Corot: an ambiguity in topographical space — is the fortress about to topple onto the boats? — but an embracing conviction about the identity of every object.

Like every great painter, he rebelled against the conventions of his time — not out of perversity, but because his gift demanded its own course of expression. Claude Lorrain established systematically receding spaces by opposing foils of trees, ground and sky, but Corot broadcast patterns of hues across — not into — the canvas. He was unconcerned whether a plane led to adjacent ones in a seamlessly naturalistic space. Casting aside illusionistic depth for an ordering found in the sensations of color, he illuminated a path for Pissarro, Cezanne, and finally Matisse; and following Corot's abstract truth, they would each, in turn, discard additional illusionistic conventions.

From where did Corot's innovation spring, and how did it mature? One of the many pleasures of so large an exhibition is the clues it offers.

For example, in only one work in the entire exhibition, the very early Honfleur: The Old Wharf, ca. 1824-25, are there off-notes in the range of color; there's simply no differentiation of color in the darks. The exquisitely rich and varied darks of Old Man Seated on Corot's Trunk and Rome: The Fountain of the Acadιmie de France, both from about 1826, show this to be an anomaly, and in the latter work, the dark notes have — already — all the coordination of rhythm so typical of Corot: precise shifts about the fountain's base capture the visual, if not sculptural, character of the huge basin lofted right up to the bright horizon, where this compression skitters into playfully erupting oppositions of distant domes and rounded, crouching spout. Corot liked the motif enough to paint it several times, and one version hung in his studio forty years later.

In the Metropolitan Museum's own Honfleur: Calvary on the Cotκ de Grβce, ca. 1829-30, the measuring of vertical rise takes on a new intensity. Compromised in this installation by the frame's shadow, the rigorous rhythms, in truncated form, are still apparent: a number of trees barrel up the height of the image, and Corot evokes viscerally, foot by foot, the effort of their surge from underfoot to far overhead. The rightmost tree, with dozens of nudgings of its contours, courses up in isolation, culminating in a fling of foliage — obscured by the shadow — that frames and intensifies the open sky beneath. On the left, in an obsessively dependent dance, three trees arch variously to the top, turning broadly about each other's projections, their distances weighted by the subtlest modulations of color. The surrounding air is electric, charged by their shifting mutual regard.

Repeatedly, throughout his long life, Corot was to revisit this effect. These competing, lengthening parallels are to my knowledge unique in painting, except perhaps in Michelangelo's outlines of limbs, or occasionally in Seurat's landscapes.

Some of Corot's earliest Salon submissions have for me less compositional rigor than these smaller paintings. Though beautifully colored, the planes of View at Narni, ca. 1826-27, and La Cervara, The Roman Campagna, ca. 1830-31, glide with less focus from one point to the next, and the shifts between near and far, ground and sky, don't have the tangible drama of Study of the Coliseum. With less forceful a sense of scale, detail loses its impact.

But The Roman Campagna in Winter, exhibited at the 1836 Salon, brings to the larger format all the focus of his smaller work. A remarkable coordination of rhythms particularizes every object. The most intense notes, the repeated slivers of sky at the horizon, silhouette the double-dip contour of distant hills. Echoing this curling edge, only shifted several inches directly to the right, a deep green shadow alternately stretches and compresses the ribbon of space between. It's a horizontal version of the racing tree trunks. Just where the the contours nearly meet, the pressure of their proximity peaking, a tree erupts in dense self-containment. Almost dead center on the canvas, balanced at the distant confluence of shifting concave and convex masses, pinning the last stray slivers of sky, it stares back at us with an aspect somehow steadfast and precarious. To the left, a Corot tree (with racing accompaniment) rips up to the sky, to hold in rapport with the clumpy darks of clouds far overhead. The silvery illumination of warm, dark masses recalls Ruisdael, only here enlivened by the color modulations of a plein-air painter. Pick any two points, and the distance between describes a journey of interminable, mysterious dislocations. It is an astonishing orchestration of hundreds of elements, each accorded its own identity of largess or contraction, proximity or remoteness by the unfolding composition. Neither Daubigny nor Thιodore Rousseau achieved this breadth and focus of expression. Delacroix did. His appraisal of Corot: "He is a rare and exceptional genius and the father of modern landscape painting. Whether they know it or not, there is not one landscape painter who does not proceed from him."

Is it a coincidence that other landscapes of the mid-1830's reflect a new, spare summarizing of rhythms? The focus of View of Saint-Lτ, 1833, is the intricate towers, with the plunging arc of shrubbery that bows to their double verticals. The trailing wing of buildings, distant swelling hills, and bridge all respond in mild, dampening echoes to the violent encounter. Corot is no longer elaborating evenly; he leaves every noncritical element about the periphery a sketchy wash. And in View of Pierrefonds, ca. 1834, the remote intimacy of the castle, rising palely between gentle foreground sweep and dense wall of trees, shows a similar singularity of purpose. The spirit that conceived these visions seems to have inspired their execution as well.

Weights of colors, subtle but potent, move these paintings, because for Corot they were not just luscious illuminations, but also bearers of deeper, ordering sensations that revealed truths unique to painting. Did Renoir have this in mind when he exclaimed, "I suddenly understood that the truly great one was Corot. That man will never disappear, he's as timeless as Vermeer de Delft"?

And those nymphs-in-misty-woods paintings — can even these be defended? Yes, for the most part.

Some modern critics have seen the huge success in 1850 of A Morning as a turning point in Corot's painting life, for he was to produce many more works in the same vein. In terms of imagery and technique, these paintings are perfectly banal. But if it's a shame that Corot's public fell for such superficialities, it would be equally unfortunate that visitors to this exhibition not see beyond them. Too often, viewers mistake softness of contour for lack of vigor, and subtleness of hue for poverty of expression. Compositionally, A Morning is a masterpiece. Sweeps of scale reverberate throughout, from the vast eruptions of trees, to tiny details suspended before opening chasms by small lively figures. Keenly-pitched colors weight the pressure of movements, as they flow, dislocate, and reappear. A Morning, and many of its sequels, are compelling visions — and if one dwells on the imagery, bizarre ones — of restless precision, hugged in athletic mist.

Saint Sebastian in a Landscape, exhibited at the 1853 Salon, and then reworked periodically over the next twenty years, is, for me, an awe-inspiring painting, one that brings to its huge size all the conciseness and focus of smaller works, plus the gravity and scale afforded by eight feet of height. It's an epic work.

It's difficult to defend the feeble Orpheus, 1861 and The Happy Isle, ca. 1865-68, and a number of Corot's other misty efforts will disappoint. But they always disappoint most in comparison with his stronger work.

Louisine Havemeyer, the American collector, attempted to purchase a Corot painting in 1912 at the urging of Mary Cassat, only to be outbid by the Louvre. The painting was The Woman with the Pearl, begun around 1858, and reworked for many years — it is extraordinary. At the bottom, horizontals — actually, long graceful arcs — of arms and dress trim build from the base of the massive column of sleeve. A second column, the jacket front, emerges, and outpacing the sleeve, it curls and entraps on high the brightest cool element of the painting, the solid mass of shoulder. A dance of small diagonals in sleeve creases and fingers erupts and journeys from the compaction at near elbow; beyond the arched horizontals, some regroup at the far shadow of folded neckline, to root the long, luminous plane of warmth tilting across the figure's upper chest to the reaches of the hair. Held far aloft, atop movement upon movement of neck shadow and half-shadow, is the expansive orb of the head, the great eloquent restatement — mirrored across the warm angled plane — of the insistent shoulder. The rendering is monumental, without a trace of ostentation.

The face itself is a world of quiet astonishments. Every detail is a portrait of a lip, a nose, an eyelid: I know of no other human likeness in which each feature has such an articulate independence, without stalling the encompassing rhythms; or such self-assurance, without smugness, neither contracting within or overstepping the rim of the face. Was precision ever so evocative?

No work, for me, shows better the nature of painting, how so powerful an expression of a human moment arises, startlingly, from the abstract romping of colors and lines. One has only to consider the shadow at the center of the lower lip, and its distance, rhythmically and emotionally, from the play of diverging hands, or the cohabitation of the briskly brushed shoulder and the caressing half-shadows under the chin. It is not a mere depiction of ponderous reflection; it is graceful gravity, for here, in the power of its forms, purpose and personality are one. Corot, drawing only upon his visual experience and his genius to transform it in the language of painting, has conceived one of the most vivid reenactments of life I know of, and incidentally, shown that in the abstract art of painting, distinctions between real and ideal are superfluous. It is a feat never achieved, to my knowledge, by Hals, Greuze, Del Sarto, Boucher, or Tiepolo — one must look to Rembrandt, Titian, or Chardin for such powerful recreations.

My favorite work in the exhibition is one of only four figure paintings exhibited during Corot's lifetime. It was accepted in the 1861 Salon, although he reworked it several years later. In Repose, lent by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, subtle modulations measure out the figure's long, gently twisting leg — again, barely arched, this time spanning a neutrally colored platter — at the hip, the rhythm turns slightly upward in collaboration with the arm. The head, a beautiful articulation of both matter and expression, perches in shadowy poise atop the bright shoulder. Refuting the smooth coursing of leg, the small projection of knee sounds the single most intense note, and a largish blip on the horizon emerges in acknowledgement. What gives the model's stare such directness is the poignance of pattern; like The Roman Campagna in Winter's tree staring back across distance, the model's shadowed face — turning just above the horizon's encounter with the long sweep of her figure — holds our gaze fast. It's a wonderful evocation of long-distance intimacy.

Monet might have approved. His verdict: "There is only one master here — Corot. Compared to him, the rest of us are nothing, absolutely nothing."

Credit for this remarkable exhibition, nearly five years in the making, must go to the curators: Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum; Michael Pantazzi, curator of European paintings at the National Gallery of Canada; and Vincent Pomarθde, curator of paintings at the Louvre. All three contributed informative essays to the exhibition catalog, which is brimming with high quality reproductions. The final stop after Paris and Ottawa, the Met installation is nicely hung, in large, bright galleries; the curators clearly respected the work, and allowed it to speak for itself. My only — rather small — complaints are the frame shadows on several paintings, particularly in the first gallery, and the deep terracotta wall color in two rooms. I saw Woman with the Pearl at the exhibition's prior installation in Ottawa, and against a more neutral background, its extraordinary calibration of colors was a little more evident.

In our self-conscious times, when ideas are knowingly posited and styles announced, an artist's character is a calculation. Corot, the true revolutionary, was a rebel without a self-proclaimed pose – and some critics have always had trouble locating him. His artistic and historical stature was obvious, however, to Delacroix, Degas, Matisse, and a host of other great artists. They knew. The evidence for them, and now for us, hangs on the Metropolitan Museum's walls.

Corot at The Metropolitan Museum of Art will run through January 19, 1997.

Copyright ©1996 John Goodrich & REVIEW All Rights Reserved