"Corot is not a simple landscapist—he is a painter, a true painter; he is a rare and exceptional genius."
"Corot is the father of modern landscape. There is not one landscapist, whether he knows it or not, but proceeds from him, but what imitates him. I have never seen a picture of Corot's that was not beautiful, a line that was not something. . . . Among modern painters, Corot is the one who, in color as in other things, has the most points analogous to Rembrandt. The shades are golden with one and gray with the other, but both use the same means to procure the light and show off a tone."
"The charm of a picture is the affection that the artist expends upon it, and with Corot, love—incessant longing for that which rejoices and satisfies the heart—spreads over every part of his composition."
"Corot is a unique painter. He transmutes all that he touches; he appropriates all that he paints; he never copies, and even when he is working from Nature, he is inventing—not copying; he could not copy one of his own pictures!"
There has always been more or less learned talk about "schools of art," and yet, at best, the term is indefinite and unsatisfactory, for it seems quite impossible to classify men working under inspiration, even though they live in the same period or possibly in the same locality. Although it is not possible to classify artists accurately, we know that groups of painters and poets have appeared who have some characteristics in common in their work or who like similar subjects, and so, merely as a matter of convenience, the term schools has come to be generally used, and very helpful it is, too. Acute critics laugh at the name, Lake School of Poets, and yet it seems quite impossible for those same critics to discuss Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey without using this term. The same is true of the term Pre-Raphaelites, Eclectics and Naturalists, as used in the history of painting.
Whether we object to the term schools or not, there certainly have been epochs in the development of painting quite as much as in the development of history or literature, and artists and pictures that mark very decidedly the transition from one of these epochs to another. Such an artist was the Englishman, John Constable. In 1825, several of his pictures, with their "misty-moisty" effects, were hung in the French Salon. They attracted the attention of the young artists who were being taught the old methods of Poussin, and they at once set the pace for something better than anything that had gone before in French art, for a school of painting where nature and not artificiality should be the guide. This school was none other than the Barbizon School.
Of all the art schools of the past none is more interesting to the student or lover of pictures than that body of young artists that is known as the Barbizon School of painters. For painting in France they did what Wordsworth did for poetry in England. They brought into the place of cold, artificial landscapes composed in the studio, without a thought of out doors, the loveliest of misty mornings and mellow evenings, the true philosophy and pathos of labor, and the grand old forests, which were indeed "God's first temples."
A little coterie of artists, with common and tacit consent, forsook the old methods of painting and gave themselves up to the beauties of Nature and the effort to reproduce her. In their studies, the fine old forest of Fontainebleau, with its lofty trees, rocky ravines and elevations, was a constant source of inspiration and delight. In its eighty-two thousand acres and its thousand miles of roads and paths there certainly was opportunity for diversity.
Some of the artists, in order to be continually in the presence of Nature, here manifested in her best moods, made their homes on the edge of this historic forest in the village of Barbizon. Others who still kept their residence elsewhere came here often to visit, and to sketch and paint. In this way the name of the little village came to designate this band of nature-loving, nature-portraying artists. Here Rousseau lived in his utter loneliness, and hither the Spanish Diaz, acting his pranks, came to associate with Rousseau. Then Millet, strong man of God, prophet and portrayer of labor, took up his abode here in the congenial quietude and became one of the most helpful and beloved of this brotherhood of artists. There was strong fellowship always among these men; but if there was one who might be considered the father, as it were, that man was Camille Corot, who, although he never resided at Barbizon, was preëminently of this school of artists, responsible largely for its continuance and for its influence on the future of art.
To study his life is like studying one of his serene, lovely landscapes, flooded with sunshine, veiled by the most poetical of mists, where willows put forth their lush buds in eternal springtime. Unlike Turner, from whose unattractive life and personality we rush to the remedial cordial of his wonderful pictures, we dwell lovingly on the childlike, jovial, generous Corot. It is to this man, this beam of heavenly light permeating the deep shades of Fontainebleau, as it were, that we are to give our attention in this sketch.
One feels that out of Paris, in the years between 1789 and 1800, nothing but wild-voiced clamor and contention could have come, so torn had the city been by the mightiest revolution ever accomplished in modern history. In the throes of this revolution royal heads had fallen and the fairest square of that fairest of cities had run red with human blood. A monarchy of centuries' standing had been overthrown and a republic of evanescent type had risen on its ruins. Already an obscure little man from Corsica had begun that sweeping and tyrannous course which should not a little undo the work of the revolution. Truly, this was a wonderful and tumultuous decade, this last of the eighteenth century. Yet in the heart of it, as regards time and place, the most placid of men and of landscape painters was born. On the 26th of July, almost the very anniversary of the fall of that ancient prison, the Bastile, in 1796, Camille-Jean-Baptiste Corot was born.
There had been two sisters before him and he was the last child born to his parents. His mother was of Swiss origin, and a dress-maker by occupation. His father came from wine-producing Burgundy, and was a thrifty merchant, austere and very strict in all his ways, thoroughly imbued with the idea of making his son, like himself, a draper. His family relations were always of the pleasantest sort, and all through his life he showed the utmost deference for the wishes of his parents. Of his two sisters, one died young, but the other lived until the fall of 1874. To her death, more than to any other one thing, is attributable the artist's rapid decline in health. All their lives they were devoted to each other, and they spent much time together, so that when she died it seemed to Corot that his other self had been taken away. Corot never married, so he had no family of his own to absorb his attention. Although Corot cannot be said in any way to inherit his art from near or remote relatives, yet in his family he was a blessed man, especially when we recall the antecedents for artists like Turner.
Corot's father had not only a good eye for business behind the counter, but when he was given the opportunity of educating his boy in Rouen at half the usual rates, he at once took advantage of it as "a good bargain," and sent the child away for seven years to be educated. The boy was but ten years old when this opportunity came, and we can imagine that mother and sisters thought it a tender age at which to take the only boy from his home. But he was with friends at Rouen, and so the years sped rapidly and accomplished for the youth the preparation he needed. The old town itself must have been interesting to a young boy, with its shipping and its grand buildings, particularly St. Ouen's Cathedral. He tells us of the long walks he used to take in solitary places with a friend of his father's and how he enjoyed the quiet and the beauty of the walks selected.
The years of his education drew to a close and he returned to Paris to take his place in a draper's shop according to his father's wishes. Here he labored with the same conscientiousness that characterized his work as a painter. Here he worked until he was twenty-six years old. This period was not, however, without its indications of the higher things which were destined to occupy his mind the greater part of his life. His employer frequently found him, in his leisure moments, drawing and sketching behind his counter. These efforts were reported to the young man's father, but they failed to win his consent for his son to become a painter. Regularly, too, on his father's birthday, the young man sought his consent to become a painter, and still the obstinate parent held out against it as impracticable, and the son, although fired with the genius which could not be extinguished, submitted and went on in his draper's work, no less cheerful or sweet tempered. Finally a paternal birthday did come, when the father, with all the austerity he could summon, grudgingly gave his consent for Camille to follow his inclinations. He told him that he would allow him only fifteen hundred francs a year, and added, in a significant tone, that he need not expect any more for he would not get it. To the surprise of the father, Corot seemed highly delighted and expressed himself as more than satisfied with his father's provision for him. Thus, at an age when most men feel that they ought to be well on in their life-work, Corot really began direct preparation for his.
His studio training was of rather short duration. He spent perhaps a year under the direction of Michallon, a brother of the great sculptor of the same name, and about the same length of time with Bertin. From these masters he gained not even a hint of the style which afterwards characterized his greatest pictures. From them, however, he did learn much in drawing—in firm outline—and from them he acquired his early qualities of grandeur. He soon saw, however, that distinct outlines for the boundaries of scenes have existence only in the imagination—thus he observed Nature, and consequently he felt that the real studio for him to work in was all outdoors, and the true teacher, Nature herself.
An important change of residence was made at this time, which influenced Corot's art more than the lessons of all his masters. He had lived with his family in several different locations in Paris, and in 1817, his father bought a place at Ville d'Avray, a lovely country place four miles from Paris. There was a small lake that seemed the especial charm of the location, and to this, and the light mists which hung continually over its waters, Corot attributed his love of the misty effects which we know are the distinguishing characteristics of his best pictures. He tells us that often and often he hung far out of his window drinking in the beauty of the scene before him when the rest of the family were asleep. Every feature of the scene left a lasting impression—the clear, shining water, the still leafage, the starry heaven, the isolated clouds floating here and there on the bosom of the mist. This was cordial to his soul, inspiration to his hand. These things lived in his mind until the primitive days of his art had vanished and he became endued with the power to reproduce them all for our delight. Ville d'Avray was Corot's Barbizon, his Fontainebleau, and so we see the name often in the list of his pictures; but none too often, for every time it appears it is a voucher for a soothing, indeed, an enchanting picture. This change of residence, from the city to the country, was like an escape to the artist. A little later came an experience quite as inspiring to his art, a visit to Italy. Though a trip to Italy was the thing above all others craved by an art student at that time, yet the expense of it made it practically unattainable to the majority of young artists.
It was perhaps on account of this that the "Prix de Rome," the prize of Rome, was the most coveted reward offered to aspiring artists by the French government.
Corot considered the matter some time and then made up his mind that his limited allowance of one hundred and twenty-five francs per month would support him in Italy as it had done at home if only he lived frugally. That was an easy matter for Corot to settle as he was ever a man of simple habits, and so he left by the southern route for Rome, where he spent about two years. In 1827, he returned to France, and with that event we may say that the primitive period of his art closed.
While in Rome he worked hard among the art students, but he was so much older than the average among them that they looked upon him as an amateur and not as an artist trying to perfect himself in a lucrative calling. They loved his genial face and the spirit of goodfellowship that he manifested on all occasions. Indeed, they came to look upon him more as a good story-teller than as an artist. It was noticed now and then, however, that he made a good picture. Aligny one day came where he was working and found him just completing a highly creditable picture of the Coliseum. Although younger than Corot, Aligny praised the artist and took occasion to call the attention of his associates to the very excellent picture. At first Corot thought he was joking him and he was inclined to take offense on that account at Aligny's words.
Corot's pictures at this time were largely architectural subjects, enlivened with the beautiful Italian landscape background that was their natural setting. They were usually of small size and very minutely worked out.
In 1834, he again went to Italy and this time he spent much of his time in Venice, where the mists are colored as by the reflection from banks of topaz, amethyst and ruby, where the shadows even partake of the color that rules the city and where the sunshine falls more radiant and yet mellower than in any other city, oriental or occidental. He was preparing to settle down here for a prolonged stay and for solid work in his beloved art when a letter from his father came urging his return home. He was enchained by the charms of the city, but stronger even than this temporary spell was the abiding principle of his life, devotion to his parents and to the gratification of their wishes. When, therefore, the letter came urging him to return he started on the homeward journey at once. He had already made several sketches of the island city, which are now listed among his reputable works.
Once more, nine years later, he visited Italy, remaining about a year. It was Corot's experience in Italy that confirmed his natural tendency to softness and indecision in his pictures.
On the year of his return from his first visit to Italy he began exhibiting his pictures in the Salon, and until his death in 1875 he never but once omitted to exhibit. After he died, those pictures were found in his studio, not quite finished, which he had expected to exhibit the following season.
At first his paintings, being largely pure landscape, were badly hung, that is, put in obscure places or hung too high up, so that they attracted very little attention, and they came back, regularly after each exhibition, unsold. Ordinarily, Corot paid little heed to this neglect. His income was quite adequate for his simple requirements and he was too child-like a soul to care for mere fame, that is so soon blown aside by the breath of unknowing critics, by the whims of fashionable buyers. Once in a while, though, we find evidence that he felt this neglect. An incident illustrative of this is related of his best known picture "Une Matinee," commonly called "Morning." As usual, this picture was placed too high, above a doorway, I believe. Corot noticed that no one looked at it, so he decided to stand and study it for some time himself and perhaps thus draw other gazers that he might hear their comments. It was not long before a young couple, from appearances, on their wedding journey, came in, and observing a spectator so intent on Corot's picture, they likewise stopped before it, the man remarking as he pointed to the canvas, "This looks as though there were something in it;" but the woman hurried him away with the ungracious comment, "That? oh, that is horrid!" and so Corot gave up spying on the public opinion of his pictures.
The fact really was that the French had so long cultivated a taste for the grand style—that style of landscape which is made up according to rule—a valley here, a mountain there, here a waterfall and there a castle, with some classically robed figures that never existed save in the distorted imagination of artificial painters, that they could see nothing attractive in the pure transcripts from nature. As for appreciating the subtle strain of melancholy, or poetry, that underlay all of Corot's later works, that was simply out of the question with a people who seemed unwilling to stop and think, thus bringing themselves into the same general spirit which had led the artist to make his wonderful picture. For these two paramount reasons Corot's pictures never were popular with the government and with the committee of the Salon. During his long career he received both the first and second prizes offered by the Salon, but he was never given the very highest award—what was called the "honor prize." That went each time to a man whose pictures savored more of the classical school and today are comparatively unknown. But it was quite generally known that Corot's name stood near the highest on the lists of even these judges. It is a happy circumstance that Corot was not at all disturbed by this seeming neglect of his work.
In 1874, his friends and admirers took the law of awarding medals into their own hands and presented him with a very beautiful gold medal at a dinner given merely as a setting for this pleasant event. On one side of the medal was a profile of the now aged artist under which was an inscription. On the reverse side were the emblems of painting—the brush, the palette, etc. The presentation was of the simplest sort. The artist who bestowed it said merely these words: "Gentlemen, there will be no speech. I should have too much to say on the man and the artist. This medal will speak for us." Later on Corot expressed himself to a man who sat near him, "I am very happy to feel that I am loved like this."
In a general way we might say that all men who knew Corot loved him; they were, in the broadest sense, his friends. One friendship, however, in his life was truly a great joy, —that with Constant Dutilleux. He was a poor painter, who, in spite of his poverty, bought one of Corot's pictures, and wrote the artist an appreciative letter concerning it. He lived in the north of France, and here Corot visited him, and the two painted together or took a vacation ramble among the Dutch and Flemish galleries. These visits were returned and the two congenial men spent days and days together on painting excursions in the dear old forest of Fontainebleau.
It seemed as if the painter who was born in the midst of the political revolution was destined to spend much of his life in similar upheavals; indeed, it must have come to be as the air he breathed, so frequent were the revolutions and so far-reaching were they in their effects. Although Corot was so continually surrounded by revolutionary scenes, he was not in the least a politician, and though we have substantial evidence that his heart was deeply touched by the suffering and losses of his countrymen, he never showed himself a politician. He always seemed to dread the extreme position. Through the greatest turmoil he kept on his way serene, apparently undisturbed; and so art lived even when every element in its environment seemed bound to extinguish it.
When internal revolutions had apparently ceased, the great Franco-Prussian war came on and all the horrors of the Siege of Paris. The story is told that a company of wild marauders forced their way into a room of the Tuileries where were hung a number of Corot's pictures. An occupant of the room at the time, himself an artist, not knowing what else to do, rushed before the infuriated men and exclaimed, pointing to Corot's pictures, "Respect for art; these are Corot's!" It is further related that the men looked at the pictures a few moments and then departed without further damage. When the war was over, the artist subscribed fifty thousand francs for the relief of the sufferers of the siege. When there was hope, too, of recovering the conquered territory from the Germans, Corot subscribed liberally for the purpose. This plan was found impracticable and his money was returned to him. He was unwilling to take it back, making the remark that the government might accept it as "a tax on brushes." He said that he would gladly pay such a tax, so much enjoyment did his painting give him merely in the doing of it.
Another incident is told of this period which illustrates Corot's absorption in his art and his indifference to the disturbances of his time. One of the military leaders was riding for rest and observation in a lonely wood on the outskirts of Paris, when, to his surprise, he noticed a solitary figure in a peasant's blouse occupied at an easel. As he drew nearer, he recognized the beloved artist, serene, and occupied with his work as completely as if red-handed war were not abroad in the land and his beloved Paris within the grasp of relentless siege. He greeted the officer affably and, after exchanging a few remarks, he turned to his canvas and the officer to his horse and the pursuance of his wanderings. Peace, white-winged and olive-crowned, had for a moment stood in the pathway of war, savage, unpitying and devastating and, as we contemplate it in our mind's eye, we pronounce it a goodly scene.
Corot was never tired of observing nature. He frequently remained out from early morning until late in the evening to catch every varying shade brought out by the sun at this hour or that. It really seems as if he felt in his conscientious representation of nature what the great scientist felt when he denominated his work, "Thinking God's thoughts after him."
In writing to a friend, he gives an account of a day spent in the open air. In this he shows all the enthusiasm of a child going through a new and delightful experience. Here is a part of that description:
"A landscape painter's day is delightful. He gets up early, at three in the morning, before sunrise. He goes and sits under a tree and watches and waits.
"There is not much to be seen at first.
"Nature is behind a white veil, on which some masses of form are vaguely indicated. Everything smells sweet. Everything trembles under the invigorating breezes of the dawn.
"Bing! The sun is becoming clear and begins to rend the veil of gauze behind which the meadow and the valley and the hills on the horizon hide. The vapors still hang like silver tufts on the cold green grass.
"Bing! Bing! The sun's first ray—Another ray—The little flowers seem to be waking in a joyful mood and each one of them is drinking its drop of quivering dew. The leaves feel the cold and are moving to and fro in the morning air. Under the leaves the unseen birds are singing—it sounds as if the flowers were singing their morning prayer. Amoretti with butterfly wings are perching on the meadow, and set the tall grasses swaying.
"We can see nothing, but the landscape is there, all perfect, behind the translucent gauze of the mist which rises—rises—rises, inhaled by the sun, and, as it rises, discloses the river silver-scaled, the meads, the trees, the cottages, the vanishing distance. We can distinguish now all that we divined before. Bam! the sun is risen. Bam! a peasant crosses the field, and a cart and oxen. Ding, Ding! says the bell of the ram who leads the flock of sheep. Bam! All things break forth into glistening and glittering and shining in a full flood of light, of pale, caressing light. . . . It is adorable! and I paint—and I paint. . . . Boom! Boom! The sun grows hot—the flowers droop—the birds are silent. Let us go home! We can see too much now. There is nothing in it.
"And home we go, and dine and sleep, and dream; and I dream of the morning landscape. I dream my picture and presently I will paint my dream."
The way he describes the evening is equally beautiful:
"Bam! Bam! The sun is setting now in an explosion of yellow, of orange, of cherry, of purple. Ah, that is pretentious and vulgar—I don't like that; I shall wait and so will the patient, thirsty flowers who know that the sylphs of evening are presently coming to sprinkle them with vapors of dews from their invisible arrosoirs; and, at last, with a final Boum! of purple and gold the sun sinks out of sight. Good Lord! how beautiful it is! The sun has disappeared, and in the softened sky has only left behind a gauzy, vaporous tint of the palest lemon, which melts and blends into the deep blue of the night, through all the tones of deepening green, of pallid turquoise, of inconceivable fineness, of a delicacy fluid and inappreciable.
"We can see it no more; we feel that it is all still there, while the fresh evening breeze is sobbing through the foliage, and the birds—those voices of the flowers—are singing Evening Prayer.
"Bing! a star in the sky pricks its portrait in the pond—anon a second star—three—six—twenty stars! All the stars in the sky have made a tryst to meet in this fortunate pond! All around now is darkness and gloom—only the little lake is sparkling—an ant-heap of busy stars.
"The sun has gone to rest. The inner sun—the sun of the soul—the sun of art is rising. Good! My picture is made!"
If he observed deeply and allowed his soul to steep itself in all the poetry of the scene, he was quite as truthful in his representation of his great mistress, Dame Nature. The story is told that a deaf mute came to him one day for instruction and for the first lesson he wrote large on a piece of paper the word Conscience and underlined it three times. This initial lesson to his pupil was the keynote to his own character, both as a man and as an artist. In both capacities he is good for us to look upon, especially if we be young, beginning life's work, for to such there is no such valuable lesson in all the world as that which impels us to do the allotted task well, to the utmost of our powers—conscientiousness as regards the thing itself, as regards our own God-given powers.
In 1874, the sister who had been so much to Corot all his life, and especially since the death of his parents, sickened and died. The blow fell upon the artist like the call to himself to come away to the spirit land. From the shock and the loss he never recovered, and from that time until his death, a year later, his friends saw with regret that he was not long to be of their company.
When it became evident to him that his death was imminent, true to his sweet, trusting, grateful self, he said, "Truly, if my hour has come, I shall have nothing to complain of. For fifty-three years I have been a painter. I have, therefore, been permitted to devote myself entirely to that which I loved the most in all the world. I have never suffered from poverty; I have had good parents and excellent friends. I can only be thankful to God." If we trace him still further in those last days we shall find it almost like a translation instead of a death. He dreamed ever of rosy sunsets, and in his waking moments he felt sure that he should yet paint them in all their heavenly splendor. The thumb of his right hand moved as if he were spreading the paint, as he so often did in times of health. The hand grasped the brush as in a last effort, and then, as it rested, a smile overspread his radiant old face as if he had caught the view of paradise exactly as he had seen it in former visions. There was silence then. Softly the attendants whispered, "Corot is dead," and you and I know that the picture that his dimming eyes saw was finished beyond the vale when the sight is perfected and the hand knows no hindrance in expressing the utmost that the unfettered soul feels.
At the time of his death Corot said that he had painted for fifty-three years. This is certainly a long period out of a man's life for any art or profession. Corot's art career naturally divides itself into three periods and into one or another of these we can classify all his pictures. The first period, as has already been indicated, was merely primary, when he followed the stilted patterns set for him and all French painters of his time by the classical artists who had just preceded them. This period, which really began when he was a boy, ended in 1827. To this time belong those very early works, made in his vacations in the country, or when, from his high window in the city, he sketched the tops of the houses, stretching far away in pleasant perspective, making, as Ruskin says, a truly picturesque sight. To this period belong also those early studies of the human form and the sights about Rome that tempted him to paint them, such as the Forum and the Coliseum, which he represented in a very attractive manner.
As compared with the two glorious epochs which followed this period, this was the merest apprenticeship. Critics tell us that the last was his truly great time, but to lovers of Corot, and their name is legion, some of his most beautiful pictures fall within his second period. "Une Matinee" is one of these. It was exhibited first in the Salon of 1850-51, and when first sold brought only seven hundred francs (a hundred and forty dollars), as small a sum in proportion to the beauty and eternal qualities of the work as was the sum paid for Milton's "Paradise Lost." The "Corot mist," which so charms us in the later pictures of the master, is somewhat lacking in this wonderful canvas, but all his other great qualities are present in large measure. There are the sunlit sky, the trees, some old and gnarled, others fit for paradise itself, all touched by the transmuting power of sunlight. There is the pleasant foreground and the figures circling in perfect rhythm, which have given the picture, in spite of the artist, the name, "The Dance of the Muses." Like a fine poem that touches nature and the heart of man at once and too deeply for utterance, so this picture eludes analysis; in its supreme loveliness it forces us to say the utmost that can be said in praise of a picture from human hands. It must be left then with this simple word of commendation: It is a grand picture to live with, to hang upon the home walls to inspire us in the early morning, to soothe us after a day of care has worn us rough and jagged. To this period belongs "Lot and His Daughters," undoubtedly Corot's greatest figure-piece. This is the canvas to which he used to point and say, "If a fire should happen this is the picture I'd try to save." Others, favorites among picture-lovers, in which we trace the fading away of figures as the motives of his canvases are "Dante and Virgil," "Macbeth and the Three Witches," "Hagar in the Wilderness," and "St. Jerome." While these are beautiful pictures, we are glad indeed of the change, for, great as Corot was, figures were not the objects on which he showed his greatest power.
In 1861, "Orpheus and Eurydice" was painted. The legend it represents is one of the most beautiful, that of the wondrous musician, who, by the power of his melody, caused for a time even the torments of the lower regions to cease. Corot was undoubtedly impressed with the beauty of the legend, but the landscape and the mist that are about the figures are, after all, its real charm.
In his last and strongest period, he painted those beautiful misty pictures which are indissolubly associated with his name. Most of those canvases which bear the name Ville d'Avray belong to this period and possess, as before indicated, his finest characteristics.
Taking all his works together, they bear the impress of the man who made them. They are conscientious in their portrayal of nature, sunny, the soul of poetry and good cheer, an inspiration to live loftily, and yet, while we occupy the heights, to live in kindly brotherhood with all men.