Corot’s Women Revealed in Washington D.C.


French landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was also a talented portrait artist and observer of the female form. This lesser-known part of his art is revealed in an exhibition opening on September 9 at the National Gallery of Art.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) is best known as a master of landscape painting in the 19th century, and a transitional figure between the French Neoclassical tradition and the great flowering of the Impressionists in the 1870s. Which is why art expert Sébastien Allart calls the exhibition Corot : Le Peintre et ses Modèles, recently at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris and to open on September 9 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, “the somewhat secret part of his art.”

That secret is Corot’s output of figure paintings — consisting mostly of the female form — which he kept from public view for much of his creative life. The exhibition, re-titled simply Corot:Women at the National Gallery, brings together some 70 such works that shed new light on an aspect of Corot’s art that is less known, but equally important for its quiet majesty and its presence on the doorstep of Modernist art, and its resulting influence on painters such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

Corot’s interest in studies of the female form has strong inspirational ties with Italy, which he visited three times during his lifetime, the first time in 1834. Marietta, the reclining nude figure painted in his temporary studio at the Spanish Steps in Rome is one of the few models identified by name, and the painting hung in his home throughout his life.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Lady in Blue, 1874.
© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

But many other Italian women were recollected in tranquility (to borrow the poet Wordsworth’s phrase) and painted from memory years later. The single figure paintings notably include women in country dress, the kind worn by Mediterranean peasants on festive occasions, many holding musical instruments, and a series of recumbent nude figures on daybeds or in rural settings. Most have generic titles — L’Italienne, La jeune GrecqueLa Dame en bleu. Sébastien Allart, superintendent of paintings at the Louvre and co-curator of the exhibition along with Mary Morton of the National Gallery, calls this unexpected dimension of Corot’s creative output “a kind of relaxation”, and a “personal pleasure.”

Case in point is Zingara au tambour de basque (zingara being the Italian word for gypsy), painted some two decades after Corot’s last Italian visit. His sophisticated use of color found expression in the Italian traditional costumes worn by the women. But even when his subject was not Italian the influence of Italy was not far away. For example, La blonde Gasconne, one of his favorite paintings, was inspired by Titian.

The focus on Corot’s women was something of a revelation to the French public, where Corot is revered for his landscapes of France and Italy, and there is a “who knew?” flavor to some of the commentaries. Many of the works loaned from different countries (a few from the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum), were on show in France for the first time in decades, if not centuries.

The exhibition is perhaps timely in the broader, social sense. Here is a sophisticated artist with a deft, delicate touch celebrating the female form with quiet dignity, in a narrative that combines the real world with the world of poetry, dreams, and memories.

Corot: Women

From September 9 through December 31, 2018
At the National Gallery of Art
Washington D.C.