AwardsQuality Prize and Quality Award, French National Film Center
CreditsDirector/Writer: Roger Leenhardt Original music: Guy Bernard
Catalog number # 380
18 minutes Color
Age Range: 12 to Adult
Closed Captions and Interactive Transcript
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For many years, a certain type of Corot landscape was associated with calendar illustrations. It was the Corot of Ville d'Avray, with its poetic morning mists hanging over a pond. Even such stereotyped scenes demand genius. But it is the other Corot we would like to show, the one who is less well-known. His motto was that irresolution has no place in life, and he painted such a true picture of France that we instinctively look for his signature at the bottom of the landscape.
Corot was born in the 4th year of the Republic, on the quays of the Seine, where his parents had a dress shop. His mother was an artist in clothes, a sort of couturiere of the First Empire. Is it Virgil who gave young Camille his bucolic tastes? At any rate, he left school early and went into his father's business. But figures bored him. He did his first sketches on the shop's credit book. It was only at 27 that he finally decided to make painting his life's work. From that time on, a yearly £1,500 allowance assured him his independence.
'My only concern in my first landscape', said Corot, 'was to reproduce with the greatest exactness everything I saw'. Yet his masters, inspired by Poussin, whose model was noble and ancient Italy, corrected and embellished nature in their canvasses. So Corot, in turn, travelled to Rome, but there he did not subscribe to the academic light and ornamental forms of the neo-classicists. It is the truth of his lighting, the sense of volume and the natural composition that captivate us today: qualities of his small Roman paintings, the Coliseum, San Angelo castle. These were simply what you might call outdoor studies, giving him the necessary elements to compose real paintings in his studio; documents, if you prefer, like black-lead sketches. In the streets of Paris, Corot had already made hasty, paint-brush sketches of people. In his popular Italian models, one can discern the same free touch, the same taste for matter.
But landscapes are his ultimate aim. In his 'Bridge of Narni', to express both the intense light and the enveloping atmosphere, he abandoned the precepts of the Venetian School which dictated that shades should be transparent. He mixed white into the bluish tone. However, in the painting itself, he came back to traditional methods, and thereby did away with the freshness and truth of the sketch. This canvas was exhibited at the 1827 salon. At that time, the only way in which a painter could embark on a career was by gaining official recognition. So Corot regularly exhibited well-composed, or even historical landscapes. But this artist, who excelled in smaller scenes, felt ill at ease painting large canvases, and his imagination did not live up to his clear-sightedness. It was only years later, in 1845, that he finally achieved the balance between the setting sun and the characters considered to be the epitome of classisism. He was awarded the Legion of Honor for his painting 'Homer and the Shepherds'.
What had happened to this fiery youth who 20 years before had travelled to Rome? This souvenir of Marietta, his model, was brought back from another trip to Italy. This nude displays a certain sensual restraint and tender emotion which sum up Corot's attitude towards women. An affair with one of his mother's employees, Alexina Ledoux, led to nothing. Corot wrote: 'I'm firmly resolved, not to let myself be taken in, to the point of marriage, that is. My only aim in life is to paint landscapes'. Every spring, he would leave his Parisian atelier for the provinces, where he would set up his easel out of doors and paint for himself alone, without concern for the public.
Something of the limpidity and scenic disposition of Italian neo-classicism still pervaded his French landscapes at that time, not only those of Provence, but those of Morvan, Brittany, or Ile-de-France. But his delicate tone is definitely French. He liked almond-greens, slate-blues, straw-yellow, every shade of grey, with an occasional touch of pink. His harmony is more important than his colors. Even though Corot was not an intellectual, one can't say that he painted simply by instinct. He wanted forms, and especially values, to come before colors. His particular scale of values is contained in his sketchbook. The smallest circle represents the brightest light, and the smallest square the largest shadow density.
Gaze upon 'The Vale' at the Louvre, that masterpiece of composition, in which the folds of the terrain, the line of trees, the characters and the very shape of the clouds imperceptibly draws the eye to the small belfry on the horizon. 'I paint a woman's breast', said Corot, 'just as I would a still-life'. His first portraits (as this one of his niece) are like photographic reproductions. But Corot also said: 'It must not be the picture of a given instant, such as is rendered by photography, but a permanent representation'. No modern painter, with the possible exception of Renoir, more faithfully expressed the soul of a child.
The mature Corot abandoned portraiture for figure painting. Here he does not attempt to create a particular style. His theme is simple, almost mythical, like reading, meditation or melancholy. This woman with a sickle is not harvesting but dreaming, dreaming the dream of the painter himself. When he reached sixty, Corot began painting what he felt as well as what he saw. The 'Round of the Nymphs', which was one of the prize works of the 1851 Salon, represents a sort of turning point in his career. His nymphs were no longer indolent mortals basking under the Southern sun: they were fairies, water-sprites from the misty North, a product of Celtic legend and dreams. In this souvenir of Mortefontaine, he was no longer inspired by Poussin, but rather by Watteau. Even the painter's technique developed, from the well defined to the nebulous, from full light to chiaroscuro. From thick paint he went to transparent layers.
But above all, Corot stands alone, as an independent. In his second as in his first period, he can only be defined by opposition to the works of other painters. 'When I go to see Mr. Constable's painting, I ask for my umbrella'. This famous sally eloquently expresses the masterful way in which the great British landscape artist seized upon a fleeting moment and illustrated a particular atmosphere. But Corot rarely surrenders, as in his 'Gust of wind', to this illustrative technique of movement. His wind is an invisible breeze in the delicate branches. A fine early morning or a late afternoon somewhere in Touraine, or it could just as well be in Picardy. He used to say: 'Monsieur Theodore Rousseau is more revolutionary than I'. And it is true. The Barbizon School liked violent effects and the overly picturesque. Incurable romantics, they painted a savage nature, hostile or indifferent to man. With Corot, even the woods are inhabited. His rural scenes are modeled by man, and in tune with man. He is a classic, a humanist. But never, like Millet, the naturalistic painter, did he depict the hard labor of the farmers. His countrywomen are village dwellers. Their tasks are easy. They just go to the fountain. Corot had no pretentions of being tragic. He is the painter of joy and happiness. 'Delacroix', he used to say, 'is an eagle. I am just a lark, soaring away in my grey clouds.'
Throughout all of his work, the road is like a leitmotiv, cropping up time and time again. Suppose we compare this one, for example, with the same Sevres road painted by Pissarro. A vital impulse appears on the canvas, a call to the open road and to travel, reminiscent of 'Middelharnis Avenue' by Hobbema, that masterpiece of Dutch Landscape art. With Corot, on the contrary, the roads are little more than lanes. They're not made for walking, but for aimless wandering. His French countryside is a countryside of fables, almost medieval. And, indeed, one has to go back to the Middle Ages, to the books of hours and to the ancient portraits of the Master of Moulins to find such a simple expression of truth and poetry. But let us not compare Corot to La Fontaine, or dub him the St. Francis of painting. He could be pictured by an old print, his frock coat hanging on his easel, his favorite pipe resting on a stool, absent-mindedly painting masterpieces in a blouse and cotton bonnet. 'Father Corot', when asked what his favorite flower and color were, ingeniously answered: 'rose and rose'.
Wearied of hackneyed half-tone landscapes demanded by the art dealers, he would fill his scenes with bursts of orange vermilions, cadmium yellows and cobalt blues. In his last faces, he recalls Vermeer and heralds Degas. When over 70, the old landscape artist was still stalking the motif. In a few of his last canvases, he rediscovered the brightness and vivacity of his first Italian paintings, and added the frank colors that later the Impressionists adopted. On the eve of his death, at the age of 79, he said to a friend: T could never paint a sky. What I now see is rosy-colored, deeper, more transparent. How I wish I could depict it to show you how vast those horizons are!'. This old man was the aesthetic link between Claude Lorrain and Claude Monet.
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