Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, born in Paris in 1796, was the son of a prosperous draper and of a mother well known as a fashionable modiste in the years of the Empire and the Restoration. The infant was put in the care of a nurse in a village near L'Isle-Adam on the Oise river, where he grew into a sturdy and cheerful country boy. After grammar school in Paris, he attended a lycée in Rouen (1807-1812) under the guardianship of M. Sennegon, a quiet man and lover of nature, who often took him on meditative evening walks. Two further years in a boarding school near Paris concluded his formal studies, which, though far from brilliant, left him with a predilection for classical literature and its values of harmony and style.
His tastes inclined him to art, but his father wanted him to become a merchant. Apprenticed to a draper, Corot demonstrated his incompetence for business. Placed in another firm, under an indulgent manager, he proved employable as a delivery boy, though much given to admiring the sky and loitering at shop windows. To satisfy his appetite for work with pencil and brush, he enrolled in evening sessions at the private Académie Suisse, where, for a fee, he could draw the posing model.
When in 1822, aged twenty-six, he was still without a profession, his parents despaired of his fitness for moneymaking and settled an annuity on him that allowed him to go his own way. He found a studio near his parents' shop and took instruction from a painter of his own age, Achille-Etna Michallon (1796-1822), laureate of the Rome Prize for Historical Landscape in 1817, who had recently returned from Rome. Corot sketched with Michallon in the environs of Paris, but their work together ended when Michallon died in September 1822. He next turned to Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842), a more rigorous classicist, who in the course of three years thoroughly initiated him to his methods, but from whom Corot had the wit to absorb only what suited his own vision. He set up his easel on the quays of Paris, sketched from nature in Normandy, in the forest of Fontainebleau, and at Ville-d'Avray, where his parents owned a country house. His early development was rapid and sure. The studies from 1822-1825 already contain, in their modest directness and lucidity, the essence of his personal style.
To further his education, he started in the fall of 1825 on the obligatory voyage to Italy. Arriving in the rainy Roman winter, he began with studies of street people whom he posed casually in his room at the Spanish Steps. In his small, candidly direct pictures of Italian folk he avoided the picturesque or sentimental conventions then in vogue among his French colleagues, who in their turn regarded him with friendly condescension. Rome's art treasures did not greatly interest him. He spent little time in the churches and galleries but was drawn to the Roman townscape with its tawny brickwork under azure skies. In the spring of 1826 he worked daily in the Farnese Gardens painting the prospect of Roman ruins spread before him in the slanting light of morning or afternoon. With an instinctive sense of arrangement, conditioned by the lessons of his former teachers, he gave his studies a seemingly natural harmony and balance, responding as much to the light and atmosphere of these views as to their material features. In the fairweather months of 1826 and 1827, he searched the environs of Rome for motifs, and found one, the bridge at Narni, on which he based the picture with which he made his debut at the Paris Salon of 1827 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). After further excursions and a visit to Naples, he left Rome in September 1828 and returned to Paris by way of Venice. Back in France, he settled into an annual routine of travel and open-air sketching in spring and summer, followed by winter work in the studio to elaborate his sketches into exhibitable compositions. The outbreak of revolution in July 1830 briefly disturbed his rounds, sending him for shelter to Chartres, where he accomplished one of the most serene of his architectural landscapes, Chartres Cathedral (Louvre).
Corot understood that to be noticed on the crowded walls of the Salon he must work on an impressive scale and introduce interesting subject matter into his foregrounds. Using studies gathered in Italy and in the forest of Fontainebleau, he composed landscapes of increasingly large size for exhibition, enlivening their foregrounds with rustic genre motifs. His first success came at the Salon of 1833, where his Vue de la forêt de Fontainebleau (location unknown), reminiscent of John Constable's (1776-1837) Hay Wain (exhibited in Paris in 1824, National Gallery, London), won a silver medal. His simple landscapes nevertheless attracted little notice and no purchasers. To give his work something of the prestige of "historical" landscape, Corot in 1834 introduced a biblical motif, a meditating Magdalene, into the composed landscape of unusually large size that he sent to the Salon of that year, the National Gallery of Art's Forest of Fontainebleau (1963.10.109).
In May 1834 he set out on a six-month tour of northern Italy, traveling along the Mediterranean coast to Genoa, Pisa, and Volterra, and continuing to Florence and Venice. His studies from this second Italian voyage, fewer in number, are larger and more richly furnished than those of his first stay. Back in France, he resumed his effort to go beyond pure landscape in his Salon exhibits by giving them a narrative content. His yearly submissions to the Salons, starting with Hagar in the Wilderness (1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and continuing through the end of the 1830s with Diana and Actaeon (1836, also Metropolitan Museum of Art), Saint Jerome in the Desert (1837, church, Ville-d'Avray), Silenus (1838, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), and Flight into Egypt (1840, church, Rosny-sur-Seine), gradually gave him visibility as a painter of "historical" landscape. Classicist training and an innate disposition enabled him to integrate various studies in one well-ordered design, without strain or recourse to formulas. His View near Volterra of 1838 at the National Gallery of Art (1963.10.111), blending earlier landscape studies with discreet borrowings from the masters, preserves the freshness of observed reality.
Until his mid-forties, Corot, still dependent on his parents who fondly regarded him as a talentless amateur, lived on his small allowance, cheerfully productive despite the public's indifference. But among artists he was beginning to find admirers. The first signal of official recognition was given him at the Salon of 1840 when the government bought his Le Petit Berger (La Cour d'Or, Musées de Metz), an early example of what came to be known as his "lyrical" style. In May 1843 he departed on his third and last Italian voyage, traveling directly to Rome for a six-months' stay, during which he took excursions to Tivoli, Genzano, and Lake Nemi. In a number of the relatively few paintings from this journey--The Gardens of the Villa d'Este (Tivoli) (Louvre), a study of early twilight, and The Goatherd of Genzano (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), an impression of hot sunlight--his naturalism attained its ultimate refinement.
On his return to Paris in 1844 he resubmitted his Destruction of Sodom (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) to the Salon from which it had been rejected the year before and had the satisfaction of seeing it hung. The following year, he showed Homer and the Shepherds (1845, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Saint-Lô) in which the landscape setting, though based on a drawing from nature, is more artificial and poetically vague than the backgrounds of his earlier historical compositions. His Forest of Fontainebleau (exhibited as Vue des gorges d'Apremont at the Salon of 1846, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), by contrast, indicates the persistence of a robustly naturalist strain in his work, reflecting his encounters with Théodore Rousseau and Jules Dupré at about this time. In 1846 the government awarded Corot the cross of the Legion of Honor. Major state commissions now came to him, among them a large Baptism of Christ (1847, Saint-Nicolas de Chardonnet, Paris). When his father died in 1847, Corot interrupted his study travel to devote himself to his mother with whom he went to live at Ville-d'Avray. The Revolution of 1848 passed him by, as had that of 1830. At the jury-free Salon of that year he showed no fewer than nine paintings and received a second-class medal. In 1851 his mother died. Corot, now orphaned at fifty-five, warded off loneliness by staying with hospitable friends in various parts of France. Between these adoptive homes he traveled in yearly rounds, combining landscape study with the pleasures of cordial domesticity.
Corot's work from this time on fell into three main categories: private studies from nature of landscape or of the human figure; historical compositions destined for the Salon; and work for sale--composed landscapes in hazily atmospheric settings for which there developed a strong demand. Studies from nature Corot usually secreted in his studio, to be seen only by friends. His Port of La Rochelle (1851, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) is exceptional in being a finished study that he chose to show at a Salon (1852). For public exhibition he preferred narrative figural compositions on religious or literary subjects, such as his Saint Sebastian Aided by the Holy Women (1853, The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore), in which he placed figures of remarkable expressive vigor in shadowy dream landscapes that were only remotely derived from his nature studies, but perhaps owed something to his enjoyment of the theater and its scenery. For sale, he produced what came to be expected of him: harmonious arrangements of diaphanous trees, crepuscular skies, and distant sheets of water, nostalgic memories of favorite sites in Italy or France. The steady, rising demand for these landscape-poems by collectors and dealers tempted him into repetition. Soon, his own large output was augmented by a flood of vulgarizing imitations and forgeries.
The Universal Exposition of 1855, at which six of his paintings were shown, confirmed his popular success and won him a gold medal. Napoleon III put the official seal on the fashion for Corot's lyrical landscapes by purchasing his Souvenir de Marcoussis (1853, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) for his personal collection. Corot sometimes combined his "lyrical" manner with subjects taken from reality, composing foregrounds of feathery trees through which, as through a screen, he opened views into distances occupied by buildings as concrete and clearly defined as those in his early townscapes. The visual precision evident in such later paintings as Mantes Cathedral (c. 1865, Musée Saint-Denis, Reims), The Bridge of Mantes (c. 1868, Louvre), and the National Gallery of Art's Ville-d'Avray (1955.9.1) proves that, despite his concessions to decorative or poetic effect, Corot had lost nothing of his keenness of observation.
Portraits and figure studies, painted on the side throughout his life, took on a new importance in his private work of the 1850s and 1860s. While in his imagined landscapes he cultivated a hazy indefiniteness, he went in the opposite direction in his paintings of the figure. Posing models in costume or in the nude, he stressed their physical presence, defining their bodies with sculptural vigor and their costumes with strong color. In 1866-1870 he suffered attacks of gout that forced him to curtail travel and outdoor work. Confined to his Paris studio, he painted landscapes from memory and posed models in portraitlike arrangements, sometimes on a monumental scale, as in the National Gallery of Art's Agostina (1963.10.108). In a series of interiors from 1865-1872, among them the Gallery's Studio of the Artist (1942.9.11), he represented young women in Italian costume seated in his studio, in solitary meditation before an easel that holds one of his "lyrical" landscapes.
About 1870 he recovered his health and worked with undiminished energy, sustained by a robust constitution. Throughout the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris (1870-1871), he remained at work in his Paris studio. The civil war of the Commune in 1871 drove him to the provincial quiet of Douai, where he painted a masterly townscape, The Belfry, Douai (1871, Louvre), as subtle in color and firm in handling as any of his architectural views of the 1830s. When peace returned, he resumed his migratory life, spending the year of 1872 in constant travel and outdoor painting. In his final years, his early, naturalist tendencies reasserted themselves in subjects taken from reality, such as his Interior of Sens Cathedral (1874, Louvre), which show that he preserved his clarity of vision and noble refinement of color to the end. He died on 22 February 1875 after a brief illness.
For half a century, Corot's fame rested entirely on his late, composed landscapes. His studies from nature remained largely unknown. A drastic reevaluation occurred after 1900, when critics, surfeited with the "poetic" manner, discovered his early sketches and judged their freshness preferable to the repetitiousness of the later compositions. Meanwhile, this estimate is itself being revised; the qualities of Corot's best composed landscapes, no longer obscured by overfamiliarity, are being valued once again.