Camille Corot (France, 1796–1875)
When the National Gallery of Canada acquired Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s At Fontainebleau, Oaks and Sand in the Sun (c. 1840) this past summer, it joined a very different work by the artist. In At Fontainebleau, Corot has captured a corner of the roughly 42,000 acres of forest, meadows and quarries, which were a favoured destination for French painters throughout much of the nineteenth century. The Forest of Fontainebleau was an easy trip by train from Paris, and artists often took lodging in the nearby village of Barbizon which, beginning in the 1830s, had become an informal settlement for French and foreign painters alike. (By 1840, the forest was almost too popular, swarming with artists and the tourists who followed them, guidebooks in hand.) Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet and later Claude Monet, among many others, spent considerable time working in Fontainebleau. In this way, this work’s setting speaks both to the wider practice of landscape painting in France, and a very contemporary interest in direct observation of the natural world.
Camille Corot, At Fontainbleau, Oaks and Sand in the Sun (c. 1840), oil on paper, later mounted, 35.5 x 49.5 cm. NGC
As an oil sketch, painted en plein air with the most basic of materials, At Fontainebleau looks very different from another painting by Corot in the National Gallery’s collection: the artist’s first Salon submission, The Bridge at Narni (1827; no. 4256). At nearly a metre wide, highly finished and carefully composed, The Bridge at Narni at first seems to have little in common with At Fontainebleau, which is small, on paper, and quickly executed. Together, however, these two pictures demonstrate the range of Corot’s practice. On the one hand, there was his dazzling skill at “beau idéal” landscapes, indebted to forebears Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. On the other was his calling as a plein air painter: an exercise Corot took up in the 1820s, honed during his years in Italy, and continued for the rest of his life.
Camille Corot, The Bridge at Narni (1827), oil on canvas, 68 x 94.6 cm. NGC
The two paintings share a remarkable provenance: both remained in the artist’s possession until his death in 1875. The Bridge at Narni failed to sell at the Salon of 1827 and, obviously very fond of the work, Corot kept it in his bedroom for the nearly fifty years that followed. By contrast, At Fontainebleau stayed with the artist because it was far less precious—at least to Corot. His oil sketches were never really destined for public display, serving instead as practical exercises: opportunities for the artist to further hone his celebrated ability for accuracy.
In spite of their humble status, such sketches were highly prized by collectors, and found an audience, albeit limited, through a rental scheme that made the works available to Corot’s fellow painters. Valuing whatever insight they could gain of his working method and technique, many of Corot’s followers marvelled at the facility with which he depicted the natural world. While At Fontainebleau is no longer for rent, there is still plenty to learn from this unassuming sketch.