Corot’s Women

La Femme ‡ la perle
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Woman with a Pearl, c. 1868–1870 oil on canvas overall: 70 x 55 cm (27 9/16 x 21 5/8 in.) framed: 93 x 74.5 x 9 cm (36 5/8 x 29 5/16 x 3 9/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo by Stéphane Maréchalle

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).

5035-006
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Woman Reading in the Studio, c. 1868 oil on paperboard on wood overall: 32.5 x 41.3 cm (12 13/16 x 16 1/4 in.) framed: 50.5 x 59.1 x 6.4 cm (19 7/8 x 23 1/4 x 2 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

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.

5035-019
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Young Greek Woman, c. 1870–1871 oil on canvas overall: 84.14 x 70.49 cm (33 1/8 x 27 3/4 in.) framed: 102.3 x 73.7 x 10.8 cm (40 1/4 x 29 x 4 1/4 in.) Collection of Shelburne Museum, Gift of the Electra Havemeyer Webb Fund, Inc.

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.

5035-004
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot The Repose, 1860, reworked c. 1865/1870 oil on canvas overall: 57.8 x 101.6 cm (22 3/4 x 40 in.) framed: 83.8 x 127.3 x 12.1 cm (33 x 50 1/8 x 4 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

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” and “puzzling pictures”. It may be that Corot wanted to 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 a 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

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Delacroix at the Met

Allard

 

This summer’s exhibition of art by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at the Louvre drew record-breaking attendance. The display attracted 540,000 visitors. In the last few years Delacroix’s art has undergone a thorough reappraisal in a series of exhibitions, monographs and specialist studies. That reappraisal continues as the Paris exhibition travels to New York. One of the leading centres for Delacroix studies is the Metropolitan Museum – the museum has the best collections of Delacroix’s art outside of France – so it is only fitting that the museum hosts the second stage of the exhibition of Delacroix’s art. Many of the exhibited works have travelled to New York and are complemented by unique works.

Delacroix (17 September 2018-6 January 2019, Metropolitan Museum, New York) presents oil paintings, sketches, drawings, pastels and prints by the artist. (This review is from the catalogue.) The authors of the catalogue text deftly recount the artist’s achievements and outline his career. Delacroix’s relationship with the administrators, critics and public of the annual Salon was – like that of most other French artists of the era – important and subject to variation. A series of early successes catapulted Delacroix to stardom and official patronage, yet he was never assured of positive responses to his competitions and the Salon submissions. He remained a divisive artist to the end and never became rich.

Delacroix became known for his radical reimagining of the rules of composition and content, by removing obvious protagonists, heroic figures and decentring of compositions, most especially noted upon by critics of Massacres in Chios (1824). His handling was also considered shockingly loose. He was accused of using brooms to apply paint and egregious quantities of impasto. His pursuit of sensuous colour combinations was exemplified by Women of Algiers.

Although Delacroix largest and most renowned paintings are unable to travel, they are reproduced and discussed in the catalogue. Luckily, some of the minor pictures will be able to shine. Two of those are Still-life with Lobsters (1826-7), with its rich range of colours and earthiness set against a vivid landscape, shows the influence of English landscapists. Female Academy Figure (Mlle Rose) (c. 1820-3) is a nude study which shows Delacroix using broken-colour brushwork; close observation led the painter to vary colour of different parts of the anatomy in an intense manner that prefigured Naturalism. It also shows Delacroix delight in paint and painting led him to neglect scrupulous drawing. Orphan Girl in the Cemetery (1824) is a study for one of the figures in Massacres at Chios. It is the most delicate, careful and life-like of his oil studies and is fresh and captivating. In terms of quality, Orphan Girl matches anything Delacroix ever painted.

Delacroix’s watercolours from his travels in North Africa are much celebrated. We see men and women in their typical garb – with the artist attracted to the most traditional and ornate costumes. Views of landscapes, buildings and doorways would be used in later paintings, providing settings for Orientalist paintings. The apparent ancient demeanour and physiognomies inspired Delacroix to make modern battle pictures that evoke the antique. The hunting scenes allowed Delacroix to produce original variants of Rubens’s pictures, which he admired. Rubens was Delacroix’s hero, both in his subjects and treatment of colour and brushwork, something that he mentioned often in his journals. Direct copies of Rubens and references to him in Delacroix’s original pictures abound.

The young artist was caught up in the wave of French lithography that flourished in the early years of the Bourbon Restoration. At this time lithography was a mass media and was used in the graphic arts to portray the suffering and heroism of Napoleon’s army and the plight of veterans. The included lithograph illustrations are well chosen and display Delacroix’s gift for the pithy summary and attraction to the human drama. Using sgraffito  to scratch a layer of wax crayon on the lithographic stone, Delacroix created a sfumato rendering of figures in nocturnal settings. A particularly good example of that is blacksmith (1833). The visible light source is the glowing metal; the low position adds excitement and theatricality through its unusualness.

The authors describe very well Delacroix’s innovative approach to colour technique.

Flochetage entailed a departure from the classical notion of local color, which is predicated on the essence of a thing. The principle assumes that every object possesses a natural color that can be isolated by precisely drawing the model. Black is then added to that color to produce shadows, in a subtle chiaroscuro. Delacroix realized that the addition of black only muddied the color because the shadows themselves are colored, resulting, as they do, from reflections. […] in Women of Algiers, Delacroix experimented intuitively and for the first time with the law of simultaneous contrast and the optical mixture of complementary colors. […] this manner of paint application confers on the viewer an active role, since the mixing of colors occurs in the eye and brain rather than on the palette. A more intense green is achieved, for instance, when a painter, instead of mixing a yellow with a blue and a dab of yellow on the canvas, following a method Delacroix would call flochetage.

This insight came from the artist’s time in North Africa, experiencing the strong light and bright colours there. His preference for Venetian colour over Florentine line and for developing designs on the canvas was definitely aligned to Romantic ideals rather than Neo-classical systematic preparation through extensive sketches, studies and set compositions.

The exhibition pays attention to the religious, mythological and theatrical paintings of Delacroix’s middle years, when he produced fewer iconic pictures. The artist’s passion for theatrical drama is reflected in his many illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. The painter fretted about the impermanence of the pigments he had used. Tempted by bright strong colours developed using new chemical technology, Delacroix had succumbed to the will-o’-the-wisp of fugitive organic colours, leaving behind the proven endurance of time-tested mineral pigments. While the drive of his early years had been to establish his fame through Salon acclaim, his later years were devoted to making decorative and religious murals, with posterity his main concern. One overlooked aspect which this exhibition gives its due is the accomplishment and variety of the artist’s late landscapes and seascapes. The works are rarely reproduced so they feel fresh and exciting.

Much of Delacroix’s oil painting has suffered from grave cracking and fading (consider the faded blue robes of Dante in The Barque of Dante (1822)); the illustrations (crisp and large) show us some of the diminished glory of Delacroix’s colour. Excellent design provides fine juxtapositions of pictures, allowing easy comparison. Thorough notes, index and bibliography make this volume a useful study aid. In addition to the main body of the text, the catalogue includes original and intelligent essays on the influence upon Delacroix of Guérin and Gros (though sadly not of Géricault), Delacroix as a writer, the 1855 retrospective of his paintings and Courbet’s reaction to him. This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are touchstones for anyone interested in Romantic art and the achievements of Delacroix.

 

Sébastien Allard, Côme Fabre, et al., Delacroix, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), cloth hardback, 328pp, 288 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 588 396518

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams