The Quiet Genius

L'Armoire secrète: Eine Leserin im Kontext (The Secret Cabinet: A Reader in Context)

an exhibition at the Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland, February 4–May 15, 2011.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Mariantonia Reinhard-Felice, with essays by Oskar Bätschmann, Vincent Pomarède, Mariantonia Reinhard-Felice, and Kerstin Richter
Munich: Hirmer, 174 pp., €34.90 (paper)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: La Femme à la perle, circa 1858–1868

Il étonne lentement”—“He astonishes slowly”—wrote Baudelaire in his review of the Salon of 1859 about the paintings of Camille Corot (1796–1875). “You must open yourself to his style,” he continued. “There are no flashy tricks [papillotage] in his work, but only an unerring, rigorous harmony.” Thus the great critic expressed his admiration for this singular, unpretentious artist. In the mighty concert of French painting from David to Cézanne, Corot’s voice is a silvery one, quiet yet unmistakable, dreamy but with tenacious concentration. He was not one of the dominant leaders of a stylistic school, yet gained a stature of his own alongside theirs.

Gazing at a work by a great master he confessed, “He is an eagle; I’m only a skylark tossing off little songs into the gray clouds.” Within his clamorous century Corot was one of the gentle poets—like Alfred de Musset and Eduard Mörike—whose works are touched by a reticent melancholy.

His contemporaries knew him as a landscape painter. In the shadow of the Barbizon School, of Courbet and the Impressionists, “Père Corot” (as he was affectionately and a bit patronizingly known) elicited from nature, from trees and water, walls and stones, his own unmistakable effects. He struck a balance between the topographic and the idyllic, between construction and invention. In a lovely essay on Corot, Paul Valéry wrote, “From the animated earth, from tree and bush, from buildings and all the daylight hours he knows how to draw a magic that approaches music more and more closely.”

He developed slowly. In 1825, already almost thirty years old, he went to Rome not on a scholarship from the Villa Medici or as a winner of the Prix de Rome, but rather with the financial support of his father, who accepted his son’s strange choice of profession with skepticism but without resistance. Corot thus remained untrammeled by academic constraints or the need to copy either the ancients or the great Italians. He never set foot in the Sistine Chapel; nature was his school.

He painted the rural landscapes surrounding Rome on small or at the most medium-size canvases. He built up their palette from a few earthy tones: brown, ocher, muted green. Here and there we catch sight of enlivening figures: peasants, shepherds, country folk. Sometimes—as in his view of the ruined Roman bridge at Narni—there is a reminiscent flash of the classical landscape or the unforgettable Claude Lorrain, but always overlaid with an idyllic mood of rural solitude. Greatness and heroics were never Corot’s themes.

Like many artists from northern Europe, he had a receptive eye for the popular culture of the South, but never chose to portray, say, the merry goings-on in a Roman osteria. Instead, he painted isolated figures on small panels, figures who cast their shadows onto the walls of…

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