Turner to Monet
Corot was modest and chaste. He never married, in company was nearly always overlooked, the Salon ‘treated him rudely,’ and the only painting by him to enter the Luxembourg Museum was ‘bought almost accidentally by the state in 1851’.1Yet the great Charles Baudelaire was one of many who admired the qualities of simplicity and sureness in Corot’s art and personality – traits that were at the opposite extreme to Baudelaire’s flamboyance. Corot, he wrote, exerted complete control over his compositions, guaranteeing that every element would be well seen, well observed, well understood and well imagined.2
In Bridge on the Saône River at Mâcon the paint has been laid on directly and unaffectedly. This gives the small work a deceptive look of Impressionism. With their festive and casual appearance, Impressionist paintings were to make a holiday of looking. But Corot’s washerwomen on the river bank are not Monet’s or Manet’s holidaymakers lolling about and enjoying the sun. Likewise, Corot in front of nature seems a disciplinarian rather than a sensualist. The date 1834 is not at all early for an outdoor sketch – which this possibly is – yet it does seem early for such a masterly exercise in facing down nature for the sake of form.
Nature has here been translated by rule and measure, scale and calculation. One takes pleasure in the composition of four symmetrical rectangles and repeated arcs, the enveloping, sand-coloured light and well-managed paint textures. Selective accents of shape, tone and texture stand out by virtue of their difference. Paint strokes that seem spontaneous are, in fact, controlled. The ground from mid-way has been fastened down in solid, creamy earth colours. Above and to the sides, the semi-transparent blues and greens of sky, foliage and water vaporise against the underlying earth colours. Rough against smooth, a small area of mottled dabs describes shallow water near the bank and, on the other side of the picture, striations of green paint across the grain of the support ruffle the foliage as if simulating a breeze.
Visual sensation had a place when it suited Corot’s purpose. In memorable early paintings he downplayed the figurative subject through using lively visual effects. The light in a canvas featuring a woman prone on the grass goes past her to a glowing clay bank in the middle distance.3 The gleaming but otherwise meaningless lump of wet clay takes centre stage, successfully eclipsing the woman. In another work a man on horseback rides away from us; the eye is captured less by the figure, painted grey against grey, than by the sunlight jolting on the uneven bridle path this side of the figure.4 A remarkable landscape sketch is captured by a shapeless black shadow that leaps across the sunburnt fields.5 The irresolution between sketchiness and precise form in Bridge on the Saône River at Mâcon has the same liberating effect, what Corot’s detractors called lack of finish and Baudelaire his ‘awkwardness’. Where lesser artists finished off a work of art, the end for Corot was to open it.
1 Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism: the mythology of nineteenth century art, London: Faber, 1984, p. 230.
2 Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Salon of 1845’, trans. Jonathan Mayne, Art in Paris 1845–1862: salons and other exhibitions reviewed by Charles Baudelaire, London: Phaidon, 1965, p. 24.
3 The Forest of Fontainebleau, 1834, National Gallery of Art, Washington – The Chester Dale Collection.
4 A View Near Volterra 1838, National Gallery of Art, Washington – The Chester Dale Collection.
5 Le Petit Chaville, near Ville-d’Avra c. 1823, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology – Bequeathed by Frank Hindley Smith, 1939.