By JOHN TAYLOR.
LIKE A WORD or phrase from long ago, never wholly understood; or a half-hidden landscape glimpsed while thinking of something else; yet as you walked by it back then, decades ago, slowing down, momentarily stopping, you must have found yourself sitting on the shore of that pond; and you want to sit there again.
The road to your right passes behind two spindly poplars with leaves at the tips of their branches; then it vanishes behind a clump of birches with denser, yet somehow weightless foliage. Dull green leaves, but silver gray as you see them. They hover in the air like mist.
Light that is neither bright nor dim. Sky that is neither clear nor overcast. Clouds that are white, also gray, fluffy, contoured, yet somehow elongated. Is it early springtime? What time of day is it? Early morning? Late in the afternoon?
All you know is that the road disappears behind the trees, then will reappear.
To your left is your mother; beyond her, the unknown. You two remain sitting slightly above all that matters in this particular moment: the in-betweenness, what is both concealed and revealed, what has gone by and will come again, the suspension of movement and the inevitable transformation. White houses stand in the distance and the long dark hill rises behind them, itself partly veiled by trees.
Veils that make you imagine what is unseen, then look more sharply. Veils that even the most transparent reality seems to wear.
Your mother asks if you are gazing at the reflections on the water, where houses shimmer, shatter, slowly come back together; shatter.
You are sixteen, then seventeen years old. Sometimes you borrow your parents’ car, drive across town to the Art Center. This is where you stop in front of Corot’s Ville d’Avray. After your visit, you drive to Jester Park and walk in the woods, sitting for a while on the bank of the creek. Slow-flowing water, soothing shadows, an enveloping leafiness, a pervading languor that contrasts with the tension you sense inside you. . . You take a deep breath, as your mother had instructed you to do in such situations ever since childhood. You watch the water moving along and wonder about its source, its destiny. And about your destiny.
Fifty-two years later, at the Louvre, you are all alone in the Corot room and in the adjoining corridor where several paintings by the French artist also hang. The guard glimpses at you looking closely at them, photographing them, and writing in a small yellow notebook. She leaves you alone, returning only much later.
There is another painting, also titled Ville d’Avray, in the room, but you keep returning to the corridor, to Poussin’s Walk. The painting shows a half-grassy, half-barren landscape along the Tiber north of Rome, with the righthand bank—where Poussin and then Corot walked—situated well above the water. In the distance stands a tall, solitary tree. A single steam-driven boat progresses—this word comes to mind—although it of course remains immobile on the canvas. What fascinates you is the compelling drabness, the banality, but also perhaps the serenity, with the sky delicately reflected in the river water and the setting somehow completely still except for the steamboat and two tiny human beings who are sitting on the high bank, seemingly gazing at the river and perhaps talking. Or, instead, is this subdued stillness actually infused with a subtle tenseness that you have also sometimes felt (on your skin, in your mouth, an irritation in your eyes) before a storm that might arrive, announced by a cool gust that touches your cheek? That is, what you sense before something—not necessarily momentous—must happen? What is the subject matter of the painting? It is almost as if Corot, between thirty and thirty-two years old at the time (his first Roman sojourn took place in 1825-1828), had painted his own waiting-for-something-to-paint, thinking simultaneously of his master, Poussin, who—some two centuries before him—would stroll along the same bank of the Tiber for a breath of fresh air and for inspiration, for stimulation, for a renewal of his artistic resolve. An inspiration probably already stimulated by the prepared canvas back in the studio. Can it not be said that renewed artistic desire and concentration beckons to the outer world to respond, to come nearer, to offer something freely, to let itself be put down on the awaiting canvas or in a small yellow notebook (such as the one you are holding)?
Walking along Poussin’s Walk, you are walking with Corot, then near Des Moines along the creek with its slow-flowing murky water. And you are also in Rome, where you once lived for five weeks, standing in the Piazza di Spagna on the second day after your arrival there and about to head back into the narrow, crowded streets.
Staying in Rome in the Piazza di Spagna quarter, not far from the Quirinal and the Villa Borghese, in the same neighborhood where Poussin had lived on the Via Paolina, Corot would have only a few hundred yards to walk to reach, beginning with the Piazza del Popolo, the Tiber, the famous ‘Poussin’s Walk,’ called thus because of the long ‘solitary reveries’ to which Poussin, according to legend, would devote himself. By heading north, towards Acqua Acetosa, on the road to Civita Castellana, Poussin would therefore find the landscapes inspiring some of his paintings: Moses Saved from the Waters (1647, Louvre) or Landscape with Saint Matthew and the Angel (1645, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie).”
I have found this description in one of the several albums and exposition catalogues about Corot that I have collected recently, some nine years after I walked in the same quarter. The album is titled Corot 1796-1875.1
Waiting in the present for the “(unknown)-thing-to-be-seen.” I am modifying the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet’s related notion of the “chose vue,” the “thing seen.” By this I mean that the artist, the writer, prepares him- or herself to see, to grasp what still remains unknown and will perhaps be seen, creating in him- or herself a state of mind and body, an attentiveness. It is no paradox that serendipity presupposes a state of alertness, openness, even if an unconscious one.
Corot senses his eyes squinting, searching for something against the sunlight. His paintbox full of paper, graphite pencils, chalk, brushes, and it weighs heavily in his hands, even if he has made it as light as possible. He wonders why he must carry this paintbox in order to see. When he doesn’t have his paintbox, he strolls, but not really carefreely, not really to relax and take a breath of fresh air, and he muses imprecisely. He thinks about sketching, and he sees nothing.
Then the orientation of the attentiveness.
In a letter to his student, Louis-Augustin Auguin, on 20 August 1859, Corot recommends “the greatest possible naivety when you are doing studies. And render well what you see. Confidence in yourself and the motto: Conscience and confidence.”2
Paul Valéry has been on my bookshelves, and a few times on my desk, for fifty years. He points out that Corot “visits museums only a little, not like Delacroix who will suffer in them, be nobly jealous, suspect that there are secrets that he can attempt to come across as if they were military or political secrets.
He dashes into museums to seek the solution to a problem that his work has just raised. From the rue de Furstenberg, suddenly putting all other matters aside, he needs to run over to the Louvre, summons Rubens to respond, feverishly questions Tintoretto, spots in the corner of a canvas a clue to its preparation, a little patch underneath that wasn’t covered and that explains many things.”
As to the Old Masters, Corot “venerates” them, according to Valéry, “but [he] perhaps surmises that the other artists’ methods would only bother him more than they would be useful.” The poet notes that Corot believes in Nature and in work, citing his remark to his student, Berthe Morisot, in May 1864:
Let’s work firmly and steadfastly; let’s don’t think too much about Papa Corot; it is even better to consult Nature.”
What Valéry pinpoints is Corot’s “spirit of simplicity.” “But simplicity is by no means a method,” Valéry insists.
On the contrary, it is a goal, an ideal limit, which presupposes the complexity of things and a quantity of possible viewpoints, trials and errors—all of this eventually narrowed down, used up, until it is at last replaced by a form or a formula of an act that is essential for someone. Everyone has his point of simplicity, situated rather late in his career. The desire for simplicity in art is mortal every time that it considers itself to be sufficient and that it seduces us into thinking that we can dispense with a struggle. But Corot struggles, and struggles joyfully, all his life.”3
Of Delacroix, Corot quipped:
He is an eagle and I am merely a skylark: I sing little songs in my gray clouds.”4
Of Corot, Delacroix remarked:
He is a genuine artist. One needs to see a painter in his studio to have an idea of his quality. . . His trees are superb. I spoke to him of the tree that I must paint for the Orphée. He told me to go beyond myself a little and to give myself over to what came; this is how he himself paints most of the time. . . [. . .] Corot digs deeply into an object. Ideas come to him and he adds while working. This is the good way of working.”5
As to Valéry’s remark about simplicity and its relation to Corot’s art, several contemporaneous critics in fact impugned him for his “simplicity,” “naivety,” even “clumsiness.” His late-life and posthumous reappraisal, especially by fellow painters from the Impressionists through Picasso and other modernists, contradicted these quick early judgements. In fact, it can perhaps be argued that the genuine process of simplification—the word is not really appropriate for Corot, whose art remains intricate until the end—was first carried out by the Impressionists, who, albeit having been shown the way by Corot, isolated and radicalized certain elements inherited from neo-classical painting, giving much greater emphasis to bold contrasting colors, for example, or to geometric form, than their predecessors, including Corot, who habitually strove to bring the various ingredients of his canvases into a harmonious equilibrium.
The art historian Élie Faure perceived this in his 1930 monograph. He in fact recalls that Corot liked neither Manet, not Monet, and that he “spoke severely to Pissarro,” who was briefly his student. “All the same,” adds Faure,
…before Jongkind, before Boudin, whom he called ‘the king of skies,’ he worked more efficiently than he would have wished for the advent of the benefits, as well as the damaging effects, of Impressionism, but much more through his appreciation of space, his love of the play of the seasons, of light, of clouds and wind than through technique per se. It is more directly to Delacroix that the painters from Auvers and Bougival were indebted when they accentuated the division of tones, the transparency and the coloration of shadows, aspects of whose expressive virtues Corot was not unaware but which he preferred to use with his customary discretion instead of shouting them out from the rooftops. Because the world seemed complex to him, he maintained the calm potency of expressing it simply, without bias, without any single element of the overall harmony standing out. Yet several of his canvases—I am thinking of his small landscape of Rosny (Louvre), painted as extraordinarily early as 1839—wholly encompass Impressionism.”6
May your sentiment alone guide you.[. . .] Beauty in art is truth bathed in the impression that we have received from the appearance of nature.”7
Corot made this remark after he had studied Dutch artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709), and English artists such as William Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837).
Recently, I have taken advantage of any trip out of town to find paintings by Corot or his precursors that I had perhaps never seen or only too briefly examined. In Orléans, I first come across Landscape with a Flock of Sheep on a Footbridge (1650-1655) by Jacob van Ruisdael. It shows a shepherd leading his sheep across a fragile wooden footbridge. There is a diagonal path crossing the canvas, from lower right to upper left, with the footbridge situated lower center. The entire scene is therefore diagonally divided, with the lush woods, the path, and the creek forming one triangle taking up half of the canvas, and then a second triangle, consisting of the sky and soft billowing clouds (which are at once delicately luminous and somehow threatening), filling out the other half. Much of what will qualify Corot’s aesthetics is already present: the subtle nuances of the foliage and the sky, the everyday anecdote with its slight underlying tension, the path with its half-concealed mystery, the harmonious composition in which mildly opposing elements coexist.
In the same museum, there are a few paintings by Corot’s friend and teacher, Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822), who died young from tuberculosis and, according to some accounts, specifically after catching a cold and then pneumonia while drawing a cedar in the Jardin des Plantes in Marlotte, a small town (now called Bourron-Marlotte) located south of Fontainebleau. The year before, in 1821, Michallon had taken Corot there to practice drawing.
There is also one painting by Corot: View of the Saint-Paterne Tower in Orléans (ca. 1830). The painting was probably made from the window of Corot’s room and, in this practical sense, represents the artist’s efforts to paint directly from nature. The canvas is a preparatory study for a painting now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Strasbourg. Even in this study, one can look long at the tower to appreciate Corot’s mastery of “value,” the relative lightness or darkness of a color, the relation of one part in a picture to another with respect to lightness and darkness. On the tower, the two reddish facades are given a subtle difference of shading to show how the sunlight strikes the edifice.
“What we feel is indeed real,” Corot wrote and repeatedly said, according to the modernist artist André Lhote, who wrote a monograph about the artist in 1923.
As to Nature, first seek the form; afterwards, the values or the relationships between the tones, the color and the execution; and the whole is subjected to the sentiment that you have experienced.” Commenting on Lhote’s interest in this quotation, the art historian Vincent Pomarède adds: “As a theoretician of landscape painting and a practitioner of synthetic cubism, Lhote underscores one of the major aspects of Corot’s role in the history of the representation of Nature: his tranquil defense of the primacy of the subjective gaze on the real world.”8
In Des Moines, at the same period of your adolescence when you came across the Ville d’Avray painting, something was already working inside you, unconsciously affecting your own future aesthetics, insofar as you could formulate them—which you could not. They would emerge during your first autobiographical narratives written in Paris during the early 1980s: a priority given to emotion over events or, to state the matter differently, an attempt to isolate the deeper emotions of ordinary events. One of those events, the most important of all, was the premature death of your mother in 1981.
After writing the latter sentence, you realize that you should perhaps attempt to go beyond your initial attraction to Corot’s landscapes—their painterly qualities per se, not to mention a kind of “magic” that you cannot explain to yourself—and seek whatever deeper autobiographical attributes might be implicit in them. Yet this goes against the grain of your natural critical criteria, at least insofar as you apply them to the analysis of literature. It is not the author’s or the poet’s biography that matters very much to you, but instead how his or her “project,” insofar as it is defined or can be surmised, is accomplished in the text. Without later ever being able to pin down the exact reference, you have long associated this critical approach with Valéry because of something you read and remembered, perhaps imprecisely, from that same period of your adolescence when you were discovering, not only Corot’s Ville d’Avray painting in the Des Moines Art Center, but also European literature. It was not long afterwards that you bought a translation of some of Valéry’s essays, The Art of Poetry, with an introduction by T.S. Eliot.9
Even as Picasso, Derain and Matisse studied and admired, around 1900, Corot’s portraits of human figures by borrowing their monumentality, their hieratic quality and their strange silent rhythms, the generation of Russian, German, and French artists who initiated abstraction in painting had seen and analyzed his landscapes; they adhered all the more so to his intentions to paint the soul, to describe sentiments, and to transcend natural forms in that they rejected narration and the ‘dictatorship’ of realism. The notion of Stimmung, therefore, which refers in German both to the tuning of a musical instrument and to mood, a notion which was dissected at length by Kandinsky, seems to derive directly from the paintings that Corot called Memories; for Kandinsky, as for Corot, art should paint Nature for itself, but it should above all paint what Nature hides and what every human being discovers in it with respect to his own culture and intimate sensibility.”10
You are back in the Corot room at the Louvre, in front of the painting titled Ville d’Avray. There are many other paintings—perhaps more than twenty?—titled Ville d’Avray in other museums and private collections around the world. This one shows a different vantage point from the one in Des Moines. The wide road is visible all the way to the houses and buildings in the distance. The two spindly poplars are there, but not—or at least not in the same way—the birches that concealed the road from the mother and her child. It must be late autumn or winter: the trees are leafless; the pond water seems chilly.
You say to yourself: “Now here is a path that leads somewhere, instead of a path that merely leads away.”
When you look at a landscape by Corot or, for example, by the classical Chinese and Japanese landscape artists (whom you also discovered in those small art books which you bought with your allowance at the Des Moines Art Center during this same period of your adolescence), your eyes first seek out a path. And if there is no path, you seek out the perspective, the point de fuite, the vanishing point, literally the “point at which you can flee”; or the échappée, literally the “escape route.” To escape from what?
Research has shown that Corot painted over a peasant and his cow on the canvas now in Des Moines. Only the mother and her child remain.
A path opens a narrative perspective, suggests a potential story. But did Corot have a story to tell? Nearly all his paintings tell of the absence of a memorable story: only a mother and her child, only two peasant women gathering herbs or flowers, only a peasant leading his cow down the road. Like nearly all everyday anecdotes or mild unexpected happenstances—and therein lies some of the “truthfulness” of many of Corot’s paintings with their tiny human figures—a story is memorable, if at all, only to the modest protagonists who participate in it. But sometimes we cherish, or unsuccessfully endeavor to forget, that ordinary story for the rest of our lives.
Even the mythological scenes in Corot usually possess no more drama than a Diana Bathing (1855, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux) or a Nymph playing with a Cupid (1857, Orsay Museum). The potential erotic connotations of such mythological figures and symbols are often restrained.
One can argue that the symbolic Bacchante with a Panther (1860; Shelburne Museum, Vermont) is a telltale exception. The scene consists of a nude woman—the bacchante—lying on a large piece of cloth on the ground and holding out a dead bird to a panther upon whose back a naked baby boy is riding. There is no explicit drama, but, of course, a disturbing dramatic tension. It is known that Corot made several preliminary sketches of this panther, an erotic symbol par excellence, at the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It is a tame panther, not a wild one ready to devour the woman. In her article on this painting in Beaux Arts, Joséphine Bindé adds that the animal, in this respect, is not like Delacroix’s bloodthirsty tigers but that “the representations of a naked woman accompanied by an animal (such as Rubens’s Leda and the Swan) always have an at once strange and sensual connotation, especially when a wild carnivorous beast is involved.” The woman, who is holding the dead bird between her thumb and forefinger, seems to be luring the panther towards her. Moreover, the dangling dead bird’s beak points downwards towards the bacchante’s half-open thighs and her half-exposed pubis whose hair is only partly concealed by a cloth. The baby boy is also gazing at the pubis, his hand raised to his lips in a gesture of amusement, astonishment, or unease, or all three emotions at once. Other details, such as the snakelike root or branch in the lower foreground, just in front of the bacchante, obliquely evoke Adam and Eve, whereby the baby boy would arguably be Adam or a surrogate Eve, and the dead bird, the apple. The dead bird is also somewhat snakelike. Bindé concludes that this painting is “a sophisticated blend of eros and thanatos.”11
There are other exceptions to Corot’s propensity to employ the most minor daily events. For example, that drawing in the Musée Faure in Aix-les-Bains, in which two figures—on a road in a woods—are seemingly running away from something as if in a panic. Or Gust of Wind (1865-1870), housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Reims, which shows a woman struggling down a road in a desolate landscape; the trees are dramatically bending under the force of a wind which, moreover, is blowing from the right side of the canvas, a fact that arguably also adds to the disequilibrium because it reverses our habitual movement, in writing, from left to right. There is another Gust of Wind (1865) in the Galleria d’Arte in Milan, with the wind also blowing from right to left. But these are rare exceptions to the harmony, at least on first glance, usually reigning in Corot’s paintings, through their composition and the emotion that emerges from them.
But even the calmest, most harmonious settings suggest the trace of a story, real or imaginary (and however ordinary it might be). The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Reims has a Ville d’Avray painting (1865-1870), titled L’étang à l’arbre penché, in which a branch of a tree juts in front of the pond, cutting off our contemplation of it. A dirt path on the far-right side of the painting offers one symbolic point de fuite, as if we could take the path, walk farther along the pond and, perhaps, chance upon a more open vantage point. In Corot’s painting, there is often this play between what is displayed and what remains a hidden or, more precisely, half-hidden possibility. Moreover, partly concealed in the shadows behind the branch jutting out along the shore and behind other foliage is a woman who is seemingly gathering something, perhaps herbs or flowers. She has a basket. In his critical commentary about this painting, Pomarède observes that the comparatively luminous birch tree just to the left of the path on the far-right side supports or “props up [cale]” the overall rhythm.12 The compositional role of such lofty, oft-spindly trees, to the left or to the right of the scene depicted, can be studied in many of Corot’s paintings.
Houses (as in the Ville d’Avray paintings) conceal.
They stand forth and conceal something behind their facades, their curtains of trees, be it only a path, a road (with a peasant and his cow, or not), or a small room from which one watches how the surface of a pond changes almost imperceptibly.
As on any walk, your gaze flits here and there as you are writing this book, as if from tree to tree, from bush to bush (wherever they stand, wherever they bend), and often from shadow to shadow; your thoughts leap from the present to the past or to the future, dwelling on a scene that perhaps has little to do with the haze, the pond, the leaves, let alone Corot. . . This is the kind of subjective reverie that Corot’s paintings have always provoked in you, ever since your teenage years. . .
JOHN TAYLOR is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For the Fortnightly’s Odd Volumes series, he has translated Philippe Jaccottet’s Truinas, a memoir of his friendship with the poet André du Bouchet. Also in the Odd Volumes series is A Notebook of Clouds and A Notebook of Ridges, a double book co-authored by Taylor and the late Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis. Among his many collections of poetry and short prose is also Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press), illustrated by the French artist Caroline François-Rubino.
Author’s note: These are the opening pages of a book-in-progress, Corot’s Walk. I have translated all the quotations from the French originals. —JT
- Corot 1796-1875, edited by Françoise Cachin, Philippe de Montebello, and Shirley L. Thomson, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada, 1996, p. 108.
- Camille Corot: Paroles d’artiste, Lyon: Fage Éditions, 2018, p. 30.
- Paul Valéry and Henri Focillon, Corot, l’harmonie de la nature, Pagine d’Arte, 2019, pp. 33-34. Henri Focillon’s essay is titled “Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot,” and Paul Valéry’s essay “Autour de Corot.”
- Germain Bazin, Corot, Éditions Pierre Tisné, 2nd edition, 1951, p.100.
- Bazin, p. 99.
- Élie Faure, Corot (1930), Les Éditions de Paris, 2018, p. 72.
- De Corot à l’art moderne: souvenirs et variations, edited by David Liot, Michael Pantazzi, and Vincent Pomarède, Éditions Hazin, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims, Éditions Musée du Louvre, 2009, p. 31. The quotation, notes Pomarède, is found in Corot’s Carnet 9 (ca. 1855-1865), as cited in Alfred Robaut and Étienne Moreau-Nélaton’s L’Oeuvre de Corot par Alfred Robaut, catalogue raisonné et illustré précédé de l’Histoire de Corot et de ses oeuvres par Étienne Moreau-Nélaton ornée de dessins originaux et de croquis du maître, five volumes, Paris: 1905 (reprint Paris 1965), volume 4, p. 89.
- De Corot à l’art moderne, p. 138.
- Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry, Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, Vintage Books, 1961.
- De Corot à l’art moderne, p. 142.
- Beaux Arts, 20 February 2018
- De Corot à l’art moderne, p. 177.