Camille Corot, Nature and Dreams

Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle, from 29 September 2012 to 6 January 2013.

"He surprises us slowly, he charms us little by little" wrote Charles Baudelaire in describing Camille Corot. This allure operates more quickly than expected however, as proven by the exhibition at the Karlsruhe museum and contradicts the widespread cliché that seeing one of Corot’s paintings is seeing them all.
The show does not offer any discoveries nor any one particular focus, attempting rather to simply present his work to the German public with a selection of 180 paintings, drawings, engravings (including six belonging to the Staatliche Kunsthalle, along with two oil studies and four works on paper).

1. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
Rome. The Island and the Bridge of San Bartolomeo, circa 1826-1828
Oil on Paper - 27 x 43.2 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art

2. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
The Lake, Effect at Night, c. 1870
Oil on Canvas - 55.7 x 81.5 cm
Reims, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Reims Musée des Beaux-Arts

The signs and wall texts are in both German and French and we find it unfortunate that this was not carried over - for budget reasons - to the thick catalogue published for the occasion. Nevertheless, this museum located close to the border hopes to attract French visitors [1] who will enjoy canvases on loan by museums and private collections the world over.

3. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
Corot’s Studio, c. 1865-1868
Oil on Panel - 61.8 x 40 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : National Gallery of Art

The chronological visit retraces clearly the artist’s career and the evolution of his style, from the luminous éclat of his studies produced from life in Rome (ill. 1) to the vaporous souvenirs he recreated of Mortefontaine. Both an outdoor and a studio painter, Camille Corot wished to capture this "first impression", a source of emotion, but was so highly demanding that he would rework his compositions again many years later. A section entitled "Paraphrasing" in fact shows how he repeated certain themes throughout his career ; two motifs appear notably here in the paintings on view : the view of a lake in the Italian Tyrol which becomes progressively darker (ill. 2) and a woman sitting in the master’s studio, absorbed by her contemplation of a painting, more meditative (and also with more clothing) than the one found in Courbet (ill. 3).

By way of introduction, the Kunsthalle presents Corot’s forerunners, the first ones being Vernet and Valenciennes, then Bertin and Michallon ; the exhibition closes with his successors : Cezanne, Monet, Pissarro and Odilon Redon who all looked at his painting. In between, the 17th century Dutch and French schools accompany visitors through the rooms, revealing some troubling reflections here and there of the master’s canvases. A Large Group of Trees near the Water by Jacob van Ruisdael (about 1665, Karlsruhe museum) blends itself into the group of paintings he produced in Barbizon such as Le Rageur, a study of an oak tree found in other compositions, and is particularly pertinent when compared to A View in the Fontainebleau Forest across from it. The "Italian Frenchmen" such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain are of course present, with Matthew and the Angel for the first (1640, Berlin Gemäldegalerie) and Pastoral with Constantine’s Arch for the second (1648, Zurich Kunsthaus).

4. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
The Flight into Egypt, c. 1839-1840
Oil on Canvas - 146.5 x 196 cm
Rosny-sur-Seine, Municipalité

5. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
Landscape at Sunset or
The Young Shepherd, 1840
Oil on Canvas - 135 x 110 cm
Metz, Musée de La Cour d’Or
Photo : Musée de La Cour d’Or

In fact, Corot exhibits two rather different canvases at the Salon of 1840 : The Flight into Egypt is closer to Poussin while the twilit shades of The Young Shepherd recall much more Claude Lorrain (ill. 4 and 5). Among the biblical compositions, The Destruction of Sodom, which he painted in 1843 and reworked in 1857, stands out for its more dramatic aspect (ill. 6). There was a definite turning point in the 1850’s when Corot progressively abandoned the ideal of the classic landscape in order to interpret rather an atmosphere, a dream state, a poetic feeling imbued with melancholy. Many of the works from this period met with popular acclaim, Morning or Nymphs Dancing in 1850 and Morning Effect or Diana’s Bath in 1855 seem to float in the silvery mist which is so characteristic of Corot, reinforcing the impression of suspended time. Are we suppose to see the goddess of hunting also in A Souvenir of Ville d’Avray (ill. 7), a late work with a reduced palette, where the shapes dissolve and the treatment of the leaves as "a green pea purée", in the words of a critic, prefigures Impressionism ?

6. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
The Destruction of Sodom, 1857
Oil on Canvas - 92.4 x 181.3 cm
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : Metropolitan Museum

7. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
A Souvenir of Ville d’Avray, 1872
Oil on Canvas - 100 x 134 cm
Nice, Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret

The exhibition includes some thematic sections, highlighting the portraits, imaginary figures or even decorative work. Corot painted about fifty portraits, mostly from his close circle such as his mother, his nephew Henri Sennegon (private collection) and the young Maurice Robert, all represented in small formats against a neutral backdrop, bust size, slightly in a three-quarter pose, much like Renaissance portraits. This artistic legacy continues also in certain nudes such as A Bacchante with a Tambourine (ill. 8) recalling Giorgione and Titian, while competing with Ingres’ Odalisque ; whereas Marietta’s sensuality is less haughty. The feminine figures do not have to undress in order to exercice their magnetic power over us, as demonstrated by Corot’s "Mona Lisa" : The Woman with the Pearl or Interrupted Reading from 1870 (ill. 9), surprisingly modern.

8. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
Resting or
Bacchante with Tambourine, 1860
retouched in 1865-1870
Oil on Canvas - 57.8 x 101.6 cm
Washington, Corcoran Gallery
Photo : Corcoran Gallery

9. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
Interrupted Reading, c. 1870
Oil on Canvas and
Cardboard - 92.5 x 65.1 cm
Chicago, The Art Institute
Photo : The Art Institute

This exhibition also provides a chance to discover Corot’s decorative work. Four painted panels from the residence of Léon Fleury in Magny-les-Hameaux (Seine-et-Oise) (1855-1865) have been brought together and represent persons alone, in communion with nature : The Italian Villa behind the Pines (Basel, Kunstmuseum), Line Fishing (Rogozienski Collection), The Dreamer in the Clearing, The Young Shepherd near the Waterfall (Baltimore, The Museum of Art). Three others were produced in Daubigny’s studio in Auvers, after Corot’s drawings, by Karl Daubigny and Oudinot : The Gulf of Capri, Woods on the Seashore, Storks on the River Banks (Baltimore Museum of Art).

Yet another section highlights Corot’s graphic works. In his drawings, the artist first chose the use of lead pencil for its precision and accented certain contours in ink, adding an analytic vision ; then his strokes became thicker, the lines more velvety and starting in the 1850’s he preferred charcoal on colored paper. Some sheets are merely rough drafts while others are accomplished works. Visitors will also admire some engravings, fewer in number and produced later, etchings and lithographs as well as glass-negatives "par empâtement", such as Reflecting (ill. 10).

10. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
Reflecting, 1854
Glass-Negative - 14.8 x 19.3 cm
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Photo : BnF

11. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1790-1875)
Orpheus and Eurydice, 1861
Oil on Canvas - 111.8 x 137.7 cm
Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : Houston, Museum of Fine Arts

Literature impregnates much of Corot’s art, Homer and the Shepherds for example alludes to Blind, a poem by André Chénier, while The Shepherd’s Star from 1864 (Toulouse, Musée des Augustins) is a fitting elegiac rival to the song version of Musset’s poem. Above all, music is always latent in the master’s production, an aspect studied in the catalogue and emphasized by the extracts which visitors can listen to as well in the exhibition. Orpheus and Eurydice, in their verdant and swampy hell, are the most obvious example as the canvas refers directly to Gluck’s opera (ill. 11). Certain correspondences with Watteau and his Ile de Cythère (Stadel Museum in Frankfurt) are also suggested, revealing his taste for theatre, melancholy and of course, music, shared by both artists. A symphony of dreamlike shades and sounds which we find in a poem by Théophile Gautier [2] : "The shadow becomes greyer and grows larger ;/ The green sky has shades of lemon and orange. / The sunset thins out and folds its fringe ; / The cicada grows quiet and no sound is heard / Only the sigh of the water separating and flowing away. / Over a sleeping world the taciturn hours / Twist their brown locks wet from nocturnal weeping. / There is barely enought daylight left to see, / Corot, your modest name written in a dark corner.".

Curators : Dorit Schäfer and Margret Stuffmann, with the help of Maike Hohn.

Collective work, Camille Corot. Natur und Traum, 2012, Kehrer Heidelberg Berlin, 487 p. ISBN : 9783925212864.

Visitor information : Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Hans-Thoma-Strasse 2-6, 76133 Karlsruhe. Tel : 0049 721 926 33 59. Open from Tuesday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm ; until 9 pm on Thursday and from 11 am to 6 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mercredi 17 octobre 2012


[1] The Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe, the Tourism Office there and the French SNCF railroads in partnership with the German DB propose special rates on the high-speed TGV offering a 50% discount departing from many French train stations and an admission fee of 8€ instead of 10€ to the exhibition.

[2] A trois paysagistes, Salon of 1839.

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