The fresh and often informal treatment of nature by the French painter Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) marked a significant departure from academic tradition and strongly influenced the development of landscape painting in the 19th century.
On July 16, 1796, Camille Corot was born in Paris, the son of Louis Jacques Corot, a cloth merchant, and Marie Françoise Oberson Corot. At the age of 11 Camille was sent to the Collège de Rouen, and he completed his education at a boarding school in Passy in 1814. He went to work for a draper but announced his wish to become a painter. Although his parents did not approve, they did, upon the death of his youngest sister in 1821, transfer to Corot her annual allowance of 1500 livres, thereby enabling him to lead a carefree if modest existence and pursue his one real ambition.
Corot entered the studio of Achille Etna Michallon and received training in the painting of classical landscapes. When Michallon died, Corot studied with Jean Victor Bertin, who had been Michallon's teacher. During this period (1822-1825) Corot began sketching from nature in the forest of Fontainebleau near Paris and in Rouen.
In 1825 Corot made his first trip to Italy and remained there 3 years. He met the painters Léopold Robert, Edouard Bertin, and Théodore Caruelle d'Aligny and made the first attempts to record his fresh responses to landscape, free from the taste for classical arrangement. Although Corot always spoke of D'Aligny as his true teacher, it was the latter who, while watching Corot paint a view from the Farnese Gardens, exclaimed, "My friends, Corot is our master."
Corot was, indeed, rapidly master of his art, and if there is a weakness in these impressive early works, it lies only in some unconvincing attempts to conform to official expectations by introducing historical or biblical figures into his more ambitious scenes. From Corot's Italian journey dates the Bridge at Narni in Paris, a masterpiece that reveals his infallible sense for value and tone relationships. A second version, in Ottawa, more minutely executed and formally arranged, was shown at the Salon of 1827. Corot made two more trips to Italy during the summers of 1834 and 1843.
In 1830 the tumult of the July Revolution drove the politically indifferent Corot to Chartres, where he painted Chartres Cathedral, one of his most originally composed early pictures. In 1831 the Salon accepted several of his Italian and French scenes; although they generally received little notice, the critic Delecluse remarked on their originality. In 1833 Corot's Ford in the Forest of Fontainebleau earned a second-class medal; although he also received this award in 1848 and 1867, the first-class medal was always denied him.
Corot's reputation grew steadily if undramatically. In 1840 the state acquired his Little Shepherd for the Metz museum, yet in 1843 the Salon jury rejected his Destruction of Sodom. In 1845 he was commissioned to paint a Baptism of Christ for the church of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris. He received the cross of the Legion of Honor the following year. At this time Corot found his first private client, Constant Dutilleux, whose future son-in-law, Alfred Robaut, later compiled the standard catalog of the painter's work.
During the liberalized Salon of 1848 Corot was a member of the jury and served again in this capacity the following year, and the state made further purchases of his work for the museums of Douai and Langres. It was only at the Salon of 1855, however, when the Emperor bought his Souvenir of Marcoussis that Corot achieved real fame and began to sell his work in quantity.
Although Corot's art contributed to some aspects of impressionism (and Berthe Morisot received his guidance in 1861), he is appreciated even more for the realization of his poetical vision by means of a subtle and secure handling of his medium than for the historically forward-looking elements in his art. All who met him were impressed by his kindness and generosity as well as his genuine naiveté, which, the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire felt, was the source of the best qualities of his painting. Corot's Self-Portrait in Florence is perhaps the best indication of this innocent yet self-assured personality, who observed in one of his notebooks, "Never leave a trace of indecision in anything whatever."
Modern taste tends to prefer Corot's vigorous early and middle-period landscapes to those of his later years which, by contrast, appear somewhat sentimental in their dreamlike, silvery mellowness and suggest reliance on a successful formula. Curiously, it was while Corot was engaged in painting these landscapes (such as Souvenir of Mortefontaine) that the force of his early works was now expressed in a group of impressive figure compositions. In these paintings the note of nostalgia and suggestion of allegory (The Studio) are often integrated into convincing, technically bold pictorial conceptions (Young Woman with Rose Scarf and Woman with Yellow Sleeve). Corot exhibited only one of these pictures during his lifetime, the Woman Reading in a Landscape, in 1869.
In addition to his landscapes and figure pieces, Corot painted skillful portraits and a number of decorative ensembles. These include a bathroom for Maurice Robert's home at Mantes (1842) with six Italian views (now in the Louvre); the drawing room of the château of Gruyère (1857), and the home of Prince Demidov in Paris (1865).
Corot never married, convinced that family life would be incompatible with his activities as itinerant painter. He died in Paris on Feb. 22, 1875.
Of the work done on Corot in English, an excellent recent study is Jean Leymarie, Corot: Biographical and Critical Study, translated by Stuart Gilbert (1966). An informative discussion of Corot's relationship to the Barbizon group is in Robert L. Herbert, Barbizon Revisited (1962).
Leymarie, Jean, Corot, Geneva: Skira; New York: Rizzoli, 1979.