Symphony en plein air

Written by  Chiara Vorrasi
Corot's great work in the Palazzo dei Diamanti exhibition.
Unlike many other great 19th century artists, Corot lived a quiet life, and one crowned with success. He was appreciated and esteemed by the cultural establishment as well as by artists who, towards the end of the 1800s, were experimenting with new methods of representing nature and reality.

Corot was trained in the neoclassical tradition; under the tutelage of the artist and teacher Achille-Etna Michallon, with whom he studied in 1822, and Jean-Victor Bertin who took him on after the former's death, he created some richly impressive works.

In the studios of these famous neoclassical landscape painters, Corot studied the old masters and learned the classical principles of composition, but also learned to take a more direct approach to nature, imbuing his life paintings with great feeling.

His deep feeling for nature, his talent for bringing its vibrancy to the canvas, combined with a mastery of painting and composition are the distinctive qualities of Corot's works. Such skills were the reason for his being considered at once the legatee of classical landscape painting and one of the fathers of modern painting.

To pay tribute to the exceptional stature of this French master, Ferrara Arte, in collaboration with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, is presenting a major retrospective at the Palazzo dei Diamanti this autumn.

The exhibition is organised thematically so to allow visitors to fully appreciate Corot's works, highlighting the breadth and variety of the approaches which the painter explored.

The influential contemporary critics and writers who supported and celebrated Corot's works, such as Baudelaire, Gautier and Zola, were most familiar with the large scale paintings that the painter presented every year at the Salon, the government-sponsored exhibition at the heart of French cultural life.

Less well known was the vast collection of plein air sketches kept by the painter in his studio and known to a small circle of artists, critics and collectors: these were the source of inspiration for his 'official' pictures.

Above all, it was the sale of his studio, on his death in 1875, and an impressive exhibition organised the same year, which revealed to his contemporaries the modernity and freedom of execution of his outdoor preliminary sketches, which begin with his "Italian sketches".

Once more widely known, these quickly established him as a forerunner of the movement that later became known as impressionism.

Corot had enthusiastically taken up the custom of completing one's artistic aprenticeship with a tour of Italy, staying here between 1825 and 1828, and returning again in 1834 and 1843.

Here, in the course of long outdoor painting sessions in the company of other artists of various nationalities, the young painter developed his feeling for nature with an experimental approach, depicting it with astonishing freshness and fidelity. Some marvellous examples of these "pure landscapes" can be found in the section dedicated to his Italian travels.

On returning home, Corot turned his attention to French provincial landscapes, which he had been studying and depicting throughout his life in the course of his travels and excursions.

The exhibition puts together an ideal itinerary, based on the places he had most enjoyed during his travel: for each of these, the artist created an unforgettable portrait, driven by the desire to really enter the spirit of the natural
world and its forms, to show every shade and shadow, managing to capture on canvas the particular and unmistakable character of each region.

Corot had a cheerful and generous nature, and had an abiding interest in representing the human form, which derived in part from his neoclassical training.

Figures are often present in his landscapes, and are also treated as a separate genre, with highly original and vivid results. This talent, for many years eclipsed by the fame of his landscapes, was later to be recognised by such artists as Van Gogh, Degas and Picasso who admired, collected and copied his studies of models.
Throughout the 1900s, monographs and exhibitions definitively established the fame of his portraits, nudes and costume figures, the quality of which is amply illustrated in a special section of the exhibition.

One of the aims of this exhibition is to emphasize another fascinating aspect of Corot's quest, and comes under the heading "nature, emotion, memory".

Corot's genius lay in his ability to translate the feelings and memories which the wonders of the natural world evoked in him into exquisite and fantastical landscapes.

Towards the end of the 1830s, Corot, harking back to his Neoclassical training, presented "heroic landscapes" to the Salon, in which he worked together various pieces studied en plein air into imaginary natural scenes which formed the backdrop to scenes from history, literature or myth.

Over the years, he gave a progressive, radical renewal in a romantic sense to this type of tradition: his works developed lyrical and personal accents, whilst the narrative contents became less predominant, leaving space for the expression of feelings.

However it is in the paintings which he did from memory that we truly see Corot's ambitions fully realised. In these landscapes, the artist took his inspiration from a place he had studied in real life, but did not work faithfully to reproduce the exact appearance of the place; rather, he attempted to recall and to transcribe onto the canvas the visual impressions and emotions which nature had stirred in him.

The artist's personal and subjective vision intertwines in these works with musical inspiration, which became a fundamental aspect of the creative process for him.

Corot was a great lover of music and a regular visitor to the Opéra, and he developed a real sense of rhythm and melody which is evident in the way that he composed his own symphonies of light and colour on the canvas.

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