While the best known art of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) is landscapes – those small, dreamy, smudged, grey-inflected views of northern France, which can be found in collections worldwide – the current exhibition in Washington DC displays a secondary facet of Corot’s output: his paintings of women (Corot: Women, 9 September-31 December 2018, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; formerly at Musée Marmottan, Paris). Forty-three paintings by Corot of women have been gathered to demonstrate Corot’s strengths (and weaknesses) as a figure painter. (Reviewed here from the thorough and attractive clothbound catalogue.)
The figure paintings comprise 10% of Corot’s output. “Most were done in his last two decades, the later 1850s through the early 1870s,” according to Mary Morton, curator of this exhibition. Although some of the nudes were exhibited, most of the figure paintings were done for Corot’s private satisfaction. Few are dated and many were in his possession at the time of his death. Corot followed the French academic fashion of painting picturesque types in the form of figures wearing national costumes. Examples in Corot’s output included national dress of Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Switzerland and Algeria. He also made a series of paintings of women in domestic settings. One (Woman Reading in the Studio (c. 1868)) is effectively a precursor to the paintings of Degas, Sickert, Vuillard, Bonnard and Valotton of disengaged preoccupied women absorbed by their own thoughts (or existential ennui, if you want to approach it intellectually).
Corot’s pallid figures in static poses against schematic landscape backgrounds as flat as stage backdrops are the starting point for almost Puvis de Chavannes painted.
In the portraits, Corot sometimes used Old Masters as sources. Woman with a Pearl (c. 1868-70) is based on Leonardo’s La Belle Ferroniere. The painting now belongs to the Louvre and rightly belongs there as it is a memorable and refreshing restatement of a standard portrait format, brought to life with a mixture of modesty, panache and directness of approach.
Some of the portraits are very fine. In particular, Young Greek Woman (c. 1870-71) has the feeling of a very particular person caught in the act of posing. It combines a sense of a momentary rest with the monumental strength and an enduring classic beauty. The merest hints of the eye whites give a delicate hypnotism to the dark eyes. It is no wonder that Lucian Freud was an admirer of Corot and bought a portrait by him (included in this exhibition). The subject slumped in the studio while being observed is the core of Freud’s work.
Notable in Corot’s portraits is the simplicity of the compositions and forms. There is a near geometrical quality to many pictures. It was no wonder that the 1909 Salon d’automne of Corot figure paintings caught the attention of Braque and Picasso. A number of Corot portraits were reinterpreted through a Cubist lens. Corot can also be considered a major influence on Picasso during his Neoclassical period (1915-25). The plain modelling of faces, classical physiognomy, half-length figure format, minimal settings and pale pastose scumbling over darker underpainting that one finds in Picasso’s paintings of his wife Olga, Sara Murphy and fictional women all match Corot better than they do Ingres or Renoir, two other painters Picasso was looking at at the time.
Many of the pictures are sombre of palette and modest of size. These are the best. The energy of the brushwork and sense of freedom enliven these pictures. The larger more finished works (probably bound for specific buyers or public display) are considerably less engaging. This is not just a matter of our modern taste and eye. The larger pieces lack invention and intensity. The skins have an unpleasant lifeless overworked quality. All were painted in the studio. Even the paintings of figures outdoors are – from the evidence of the lighting – made in the indoors. Not until the Naturalist movement of the 1860s and 1870s did any artists attempt to portray figures in natural lighting conditions. Often these failed to replicate the unique effects of outdoor lighting in their studio-derived works.
There are similarities between Corot’s nudes and Courbet’s, though how much they knew of each other’s art is not covered in the catalogue essays. Both artists publicly exhibited their nudes in Paris so must have been familiar with other’s activity in the genre. Catalogue authors point out that Corot used the nascent genre of academic nude photography as a source for some of his paintings. Sebastien Allard notes in the catalogue that Corot’s move into making nudes may have been an attempt to display himself as a more versatile painter than the landscapist he was known as. His reputation was long established by the 1850s – in some respects too well established, as although his work sold well it was judged tired and repetitive.
His nudes puzzled many viewers. While the artist invoked classical allusions, his figures were clearly drawn from living women (with all their imperfections) and his style fluctuated between the schematic, idealistic and realistic across the passages of the pictures. What were viewers supposed to make of Corot’s nudes? Was he mocking classical values or trying to revive them? The same questions would be asked in later controversies related to Courbet and Manet’s nudes. To the modern eye, Corot’s nudes are still awkward. They evoke the idyllic past and idealistic mission of classical art but fail to fulfil requirements of those touchstones, fail to meaningfully advance them and fail to effectively undermine the grounding for those aspects. In these respects, Corot’s nudes are less satisfactory than his portraits, as he is caught disadvantageously unable to fulfil the demands of an old tradition and unaware of how to liberate the genre in a suitable manner.
About 11 paintings in Corot’s studio series have been identified. These show women in Corot’s own studio. They differ from the portraits in that they include detailed depictions of the studio and its contents as well as the women. (Corot only rarely painted men.) Some show women seated contemplating a painting on his easel or with a musical instrument. It is unknown what prompted these paintings or if they had any particular significance for the painter. These are not so much “problem pictures” as “puzzling pictures”. It may be that Corot wanted to do nothing more than put women in strongly colour clothing in a dim earth-hue setting. It seems unlikely that these pictures will be decoded – indeed it is quite likely there is nothing to be decoded.
It is disappointing that there is not more discussion given to the portraits in the catalogue. Nevertheless, both catalogue and exhibition provide welcome attention for an unusual and rich seam in this landscapist’s output. Although a couple of Corot’s portraits are recognised as fine examples, this exhibition should serve to establish Corot as an original and accomplished portraitist. As for the nudes, it may take more advocacy to gain Corot more than a footnote in studies of the nude in Nineteenth Century French painting. Visitors and readers can decide this for themselves.
Mary Morton et al, Corot: Women, National Gallery of Art (distr. Yale University Press), cloth hardback, 180pp, 99 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 0 300 23673 6
© 2018 Alexander Adams
View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art