Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was a French artist who became primarily known for his landscapes. Despite that the Neo-classical style deeply influenced Corot's production, his art became quite crucial for the development of Modern art. This significance was especially true for the Impressionist movement because of his spontaneous qualities, rendering his instant perceptions upon a landscape, as well as plein air painting, some of the cornerstones of Impressionism.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was born in July 1796, In Paris. The artist was from a wealthy family; his mother was a millier, and his father was a wigmaker. Unlike several of his fellow artists, Corot never suffered from the lack of money, as his parents consistently maintained their business well and made well-planned investments. Several distinguished Parisian figures frequented their shop.
At first, young Corot studied at the Lycee Pierre-Corneille in Rouen. However, he soon left due to academic difficulties and ingressed in a boarding school. Corot was a rather mediocre student, and as opposed to many distinguished artists, the young Parisian didn't show any artistic prowess during his childhood. Until 1815, he displayed no interest in art.
Soon, Corot, with his father's help, was apprenticed to a draper. However, the artist despised commercial life, yet he remained in the job until he was twenty-six years old, when his father finally consented him to pursue a career as an artist. He started to paint in oil in 1821 and promptly explored landscape painting.
For a brief period, between 1821 and 1822, the artist studied under the French landscape painter Achille Etna Michallon, who was about Corot's age and a protege of the distinguished Neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David. Despite his young age, Michallon was already a respected teacher and significantly influenced Corot's artwork.
During this period, Corot's lessons included executing landscape drawings and painting outdoors, especially the seaports along Normandy, the forests in the commune of Fontainebleau, and villages around Paris, such as Ville-d'Avray. Michallon also introduced to the artist concepts of the French Neo-classical tradition, such as the works of the painter and art theorist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, demonstrated in artworks by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, which aimed to link classical subjects with the idealized beauty of nature.
Following his return from his first trip to Italy, Corot focused his efforts on producing large landscape paintings for the Paris Salon. His first entry was with his The Augustan Bridge of Narni, which received praise for avoiding academic values and fidelity on representing light. This piece is a fine example of Corot's style during his Italian period, in which he used a more traditional composition. It shows Corot's absorption of Neo-classical concepts, adding Roman ruins to the landscape, imbuing it with almost mythological qualities. The inhabitants in the foreground, rather than looking like contemporary people, were rendered as Italian citizens of yore.
Exhibited in 1827, The Augustan Bridge at Narni was an instant and Corot's earliest success, effectively setting his name in the Parisian art world. This artwork would also be highly influential to the later development of the Impressionist movement. Young artists such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, who was one of Corot's pupils, would never forget the concept that despite the laborious work employed on a painting, it should always be imbued with the artist's perception of a subject.
During the spring of 1829, Corot went to the village of Barbizon, painting in the local Forest of Fontainebleau, often returning for the following years. There, the artists met with several members of the Barbizon school, such as Paul Huet, Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, Constant Troyon, and the young Charles-Francois Daubigny, who became a lifelong friend.
Between 1831 and 1833, the artist exhibited one portrait and several landscapes at the Paris Salon. However, they were met with a lukewarm reception from the critics, making Corot decide to return to Italy.
By 1835, the artist completed his Hagar in the Wilderness. Much as in his The Augustan Bridge at Narni, this artwork once again shows Corot's influence from the Neo-classical style, with its biblical subject and figures with dramatic postures. The composition was executed with a dramatic tonal contrast that sections the painting in two.
The landscape, like in several of his artworks, was not real but an amalgamation of previous landscape sketches. The artwork was met with immediate success and was praised for its technical execution and originality, consolidating Corot's name as a fashionable and respected Salon artist.
According to scholars, the scenery is reminiscent of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where Corot would meet and befriend several artists of the Barbizon School of painting. The Barbizon School of painting was a French art movement opposed to the dominant Romantic movement towards Realism. They produced mainly landscape scenes, often featuring a soft rendering of forms with loose brushstrokes and intense tonal qualities. The group represented one of the stepping stones for the development of the Impressionist movement.
During the 1840s, the artist continued to struggle with the low income both from the public and the critics, who rejected most of his artworks at the Salon. However, things began to change following Charles Baudelaire's praises to his paintings. In 1846, Corot received the Legion D'honneur, and two years later, he was awarded the Salon's second-class medal.
Corot continued to populate his landscapes with both mythological and pastoral figures during his later career, merging Neo-classical and Realist elements. Although during this period, he focused mainly on human figures, the artist continued to render them in idyllic settings.
By the 1860s, Corot began to develop a great affinity with photography, which greatly influenced his subsequent production. During this period, he made acquaintances with several early photographers and took photos of himself. Under this influence, Corot's color palette became increasingly restrained, which attracted criticism. Although Corot's artworks became more monotone, they also became somewhat more poetic.
By 1864, the artist completed his Recollections of Mortefontaine, an excellent example of his later production. The artwork is a lyrical landscape permeated by a dreamlike haziness and soft gradations of color, almost merging the three human figures in the foreground with nature itself. The asymmetrical structure of the picture still resounds the compositional elements used by Neo-classical painters, even during his late-career. The lake, perfectly mirroring the trees in the background, greatly enhances the overall sense of stillness and tranquility of the painting.
Corot created nearly thirty "recollections" during the last 20 years of his career. Most of them convey the same blurry qualities of the aforementioned composition. According to scholars, this is possibly due to Corot's interest in photography, which by the time, still resulted in rather blurry images.
The portrait Lady in Blue, executed in 1874 and one of Corot's last artworks, features painterly brushwork and zeal with the compositional structure along with tonal values that he pursued throughout his career. In his later life, the artist was well-respected and would have his studio filed with pupils, models, dealers, friends, and collectors. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot died on February 22, 1875, in Paris.
Corot is considered a pivotal influence on the development of Impressionism and even one of the progenitors of Modern art. Several artists of the movement looked up to his production, just as Claude Monet, who would state that their work was nothing compared to Corot's. The artist was also a well respected and beloved teacher, being regarded as a generous and comforting figure. Some of Corot's best-known followers and pupils were Berthe Morisot, Eugine Boudin, Camille Pissarro, Charles Le Roux, Alexandre Defaux, and Stanislas Lepine.
"I have learned from experience that it is useful to begin by drawing one's picture clearly on a virgin canvas, first having noted the desired effect on a white or gray paper, and then to do the picture section by section, as immediately finished as one can [...] I have noticed that whatever is finished at one sitting is fresher, better drawn, and profits more from many lucky accidents, while when one retouches this initial harmonious glow is lost".
"The first two things to study are form and values. For me, these are the bases of what is serious art. [...] Never lose sight of that first impression by which you were moved. Begin by determining your composition. Then the values – the relation of the forms to the values. These are the bases. Then the color, and finally the finish."
"Beauty in art is truth bathed in an impression received from nature."
"Be guided by feeling alone. We are only simple mortals, subject to error; so listen to the advice of others, but follow only what you understand and can unite in your own feeling."
"If my time has come, I shall have nothing to complain of. For fifty-three years, I have been painting; so I have been able to devote myself entirely to what I loved best in the world."