Nature Lessons

“See the shepherdess leaning against the trunk of that tree. See, she turns suddenly. She hears a field-mouse stirring in the grass,” Camille Corot said to a friend who only saw one of Corot’s panoramic paintings before him.[1] The nineteenth century French landscape artist was trying to help his viewer to understand that in his paintings the natural universe was breathing.

For more than a century, critics have debated the sphere of influence of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in the story of art: Was he, in his plein air technique—“emphasis on form and tone at the expense of detail,”[2] the forerunner to the Impressionists who followed?; or was he merely the last in the line of neo-classicists who happened to have a penchant for painting outdoors?; or was he in the overall scheme of things even important? The sharpest criticisms, however, may have come while Corot was still alive. The great French writer Émile Zola said of Corot’s paintings, “If M. Corot would kill, once and for all, the nymphs of his woods and replace them by peasants I should like him beyond measure.” [3] Meanwhile certain art critics decried Corot made the same painting over and over. And then there was the expression, beneath which you can hear the disparaging snicker, ‘Corot Nature.’ Something akin I think to ‘tree-hugger’ today. In turn Corot felt no warmth for Manet or Monet or the rest of the Intransigeants, disapproving of “the confrontational nature” of their work. But interestingly enough, I find, Corot was a teacher and a mentor to young artists who would—a decade or so later—be included in the Impressionists circle: Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro among them; they adored Corot and called him Père.

He gave no formal lessons; he would open the doors of his studio, and the painters would come in and sit at his knee, figuratively speaking, and listen to him discuss both painting and the countryside. For him, “No man should become an artist who is not passionate about nature.” He would shout, “Vive la conscience, viva la simplicité!” and advise, “You must interpret nature with entire simplicity and according to your personal sentiment…” He liked to say, “I pray to God every day to let me be a child again, that I may see Nature as it is, and reproduce it like a child, without prejudice.” At the end of his ‘excursions,’ he would bring nature back to his studio, keeping its inconstancy in his mind’s eye, and explain, “With brush in hand … I hear there the songs of the birds, the shivering of the trees in the wind; I see, then, the running of the brooks, and the rivers filled with a thousand reflections of the sky and all that lives (including surely the mouse) on their banks.” His last bit of advice for his students was prescient: Do not imitate; do not follow others—you will always be behind them.

Looking at his triumphant landscapes and the way in which he captured ‘nature growing drowsy,’ the vaporous colors of dawn and dusk, the moonlight on the water, I think it is fair to say, his art gave birth to the movement that in the end destroyed his own.

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[1] Quoted in both: Camille Thurwanger (Corot’s godson), “Corot, his life and character,” The New England Magazine, vol. 5, 1891-1892; and Everard Meynell, Corot and His Friends, 1908.

[2] Gary Tinterow, Michael Pantazzi, Vincent Pomarède, Corot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996.

[3] Quoted in both Tinterow, et. al. and Meynell.

Additional source: Elbert Hubbard, Corot: Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Artists, 1902.

(Image Edge of the Forest by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 26.7 x 21 cm, 1865, Private Collection, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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