Art

Corot’s Portraits of Women Complicate His Place in Art History

Crossing the bridge to the free-form empiricism of the Impressionists, this show delights in the visual spectacle of life.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “Bacchante with a Panther” (1860, reworked c. 1865-70), oil on canvas, 21¾ x 37½ inches (all images courtesy National Gallery of Art)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To the savvy, postmodernist eye, the paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1786-1875) may be easier to like than to revere. A glance reveals their superficial charms: his landscapes’ feathery, silver-toned strokes; the naturalness of his figures, posing in absent-minded comfort. In “Bacchante with a Panther,” one of the 44 paintings featured in Corot: Women, we have both qualities: foliage summed up with brushy panache, and a reclining figure, wearing nothing except a mildly distracted expression, and dangling a dead bird before a large exotic cat.

There is, however, much more to Corot than beguiling craft and imagery. Admired immensely by the Impressionists, and avidly collected by Degas and Picasso, Corot counts not only as one of the great landscape painters of his time but also as one of art history’s pivotal characters, marking as he does the bridge between Claude Lorrain’s classicism and the Impressionist’s free-form empiricism.

Installation view, Corot: Women, National Gallery of Art

Corot: Women invites a reassessment of the artist’s figure paintings, which, with only a single exception, he never exhibited in his lifetime; indeed, he considered them a break from his much-in-demand landscapes. Yet there is nothing lax about the figure paintings and experiencing them in the flesh we see why Degas preferred them to the landscapes; like painters as disparate as Delacroix, Courbet, and Picasso, Corot possessed a genius for rhythmic invention: for the vital orchestration of large forms and their resolution in telling details — all animated by a potent sense of color that animated each unfolding event.

Contemporary accounts tell us that Corot was a peaceable and deeply kind man. His paintings leave no doubt about his delight in the visual spectacle of life. But Corot: Women reveals also a passion for bending his subjects’ visual aspects to the demands of painting. His process, in fact, reflects a remarkable blending of exploitation and empathy, of vigorous manipulation and naturalism, to a degree only ever matched, arguably, by the still life painter Chardin (1699-1779).

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “The Lady in Blue” (1874), oil on canvas, 31½ x 20 inches

“The Lady in Blue” (1874), produced by the artist in his late 70s, created a sensation when it was exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. One can see why; its colors not only depict but qualify each element of a vision of an elegantly dressed woman. The blue column of her dress holds expansively before the background’s retiring brownish-green ochres. It culminates in the shoulder’s intensely pale pink-ochres, which wend through space as face and arm before rejoining poignantly as the painting’s climactic moment: chin meeting folded fingers. Below, at the dress’s midpoint, the tiny vertical “zip” of a fan (the painting’s very brightest note) turns into a condensed version of the dress itself. The painting’s subject matter is unexceptional for its time, and its physical dimensions only moderate, but its timed unfolding and leaps of scale make the image truly monumental.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “The Repose,” oil on campus, 33 X 50 inches

Another highlight of the exhibition is the extraordinary “The Repose” (1860, reworked c. 1865-1870), which happens to be the only figure painting Corot ever exhibited. Here he conceives of the figure and landscape as a series of great arcs, one stretching fully waist to toe — its passage interrupted only by the bright protrusion of a knee — and a second, responding arc of the back sweeping up to hold sturdily aloft the orb of the head. The model stares coolly at us, her face proceeding through broad facets of light: shaded cheek, sunlit nose, deeply shadowed eye socket, barely illuminated far cheek — and it’s difficult not to feel awed by such a powerful, yet strikingly naturalistic consummation of dissonant events.

Not every painting in Corot: Women possesses such climactic energy. “Woman with a Large Toque and a Mandolin” (c. 1850-55), for instance, shows the artist distracted by a rare urge to overwork his incisive rhythms, diluting their impact with needless smoothing and polishing of the volumes of the face. By any historical standard, however, even these weaker moments still shine. Picasso, for all his ferocity of line and exuberance of imagery, rarely matched Corot’s complex eloquence of color. Matisse, despite his vital, sensuous color, seldom achieved Corot’s eye for the resolving detail. Taking the long view, you could say we are meeting the grown-up in the room. He’s the self-effacing, unassuming — and fearsomely gifted — M. Corot.

Corot: Women continues at the National Gallery of Art (Constitution Avenue and 6th Street, Washington, D.C.) through December 31.

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