It is fascinating to think, that at age 74, Camille Corot (1796-1875), renowned for his landscape paintings, created ‘Interrupted Reading’ left, a masterpiece of figure painting. Corot was single minded about painting, declaring as a young man that ‘I have only one goal…in life : to make landscapes. This firm resolution keeps me from a serious attachment…. marriage..’. Indeed, Corot remained true to his word – he never married and he went on to specialise in landscapes, the real hallmark of his career. Yet, as he grew older, he produced more and more figure paintings which he almost never exhibited but many of which were found in his studio on his death. It is this aspect of his work that the exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet explores and demonstrates, how in the last years of his career, Corot’s figures gained ‘in freedom and ambition’.
Of course, he did produce figure paintings early on in his career but these were mainly small portraits for an intimate circle of family and friends and not for exhibition. He also undertook figure painting on his various educational trips to Italy but again these were more as models to be used in his landscape paintings. In fact, whilst in Italy in 1843, he painted ‘Marietta’, below, a nude painting which he was very proud of and kept hanging
in his studio. In the mid 1850s, when the artist was in his sixties, he went on to create several more nudes in an effort to show that he was capable of painting more than just landscapes. One such painting, ‘Repose’, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington was exhibited by Corot at the Salon of 1861. It depicts a nude woman lying on the grass with her head turned towards the viewer. Although there is a classical feel to the setting, like ‘Marietta’, the model herself is painted in a realist manner giving the painting a more modern feel.
Starting in the mid to late 1850s, Corot started to paint several series of figure paintings such as women at fountains, women in Greek or Italian dress, women reading and even a series of monks, a rare inclusion of the male figure in his figure paintings.
Above left, is an example from Corot’s series of woman depicted in greek costumes and is entitled ‘Greek Girl’, 1870, and on loan from the The Shelburne Museum, Vermont. It is a tender portrayal of a young girl whose pale costume is enlivened by a red belt and a red headscarf which hangs down her back. Her dark eyes are hypnotic and like so many of Corot’s figure paintings, she appears melancholic. Another popular subject matter for Corot were women reading, an example of which is shown above right, ‘Woman reading in the Countryside’, 1869-1870 which is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum New York. This was one of the few figure paintings that Corot exhibited at the Salon and here Corot combines figure painting with landscape painting. Although this is a small painting the figure has a monumental feel to it.
Corot started sketching monks as far back as his first visit to Italy in 1824-1826 and it was a theme he continued right throughout his life. Corot did not usually include men in his figure paintings so his series of monk paintings together with his men in armour series, are an exception in his oeuvre. The monk is usually depicted as a solitary figure often reading or as in the painting above left, playing the cello. This painting, on loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle, was Corot’s last painting. The painting on the right, ‘Sitting Monk Reading’1850-1855, Louvre, shows a monk totally absorbed in his reading and the painting is executed in a mixture of silvery whites and greys. Corot’s monks appear detached from the world and it has been suggested that they represent the solitary road Corot chose when he resolved to stay single for the sake of his art.
Leonardo da Vinci was Corot’s favourite painter and it is clear to see that Corot’s “Woman with a Pearl’ 1868-70, Louvre, is his take on the Mona Lisa. Corot’s model takes up the same three quarter profile as the Mona Lisa with her hands crossed and resting on her lap. Corot does leave the background blank unlike the Mona Lisa who is set against a landscape.
The exhibition ends with what it describes as Corot’s supreme masterpiece ‘Lady in Blue’, 1874 and on loan from the Louvre. It shows a lady dressed in a magnificent blue dress leaning on a luxurious cushion whose pose allows us to admire the back of her dress with its fashionable bustle. This was Corot’s final figure painting and was, like most of his figure paintings, never exhibited during his life. It was finally presented to the public at the 1900 Universelle Exhibition, 25 years after Corot’s death where it caused a sensation. It is true that Corot didn’t give as much importance, certainly in his younger years, to figure paintings but despite this his output of figure painting is now considered to be the most modern of his oeuvre. The exhibition brings together about 60 of these works and is a great opportunity to see the more private side of Corot and his remarkable figure paintings.