Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (July 17, 1796 – February 22, 1875) was the leading landscape painter of the 19th century French Barbizon School. His fresh, spontaneous approach to landscape broke the academic tradition and opened the doors to Impressionism.
Corot was born in Paris, the second of three children. His mother was a milliner and his father, a draper, managed her shop. Corot’s father wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but after a short stint as an apprentice, and at the age of 25, he informed his parents that he wanted to become a full-time painter. His father didn’t approve, but was supportive and gave the young Corot a small annual allowance that had been destined for his youngest sister who had died in 1821.
The young Corot studied first in the studio of neo-classical landscape painter Achille-Etna Michallon then, in 1822, under Jean-Victor Bertin, Michallon’s teacher. Corot, however, preferred sketching outdoors from nature and made extensive studies of the forests near Paris and the Normandy seaports.
Following the tradition of most young French painters, Corot traveled to Italy in 1825 to study the Italian masters. His parents financed the trip on condition that he paint a self-portrait for them. He stayed in Italy for three formative and productive years: he produced over 200 drawings and 150 paintings. He painted historical monuments and scenery from nature. Under the intensity of the Italian sun, he learned to master the pictorial rendition of light. Corot visited Italy again in 1834 where he sketched Florence, Venice and the northern cities and he made another trip in the summer of 1843.
It was not only the Italian scenery and light that had Corot entranced. He was quite captivated by Italian women whom he painted in their regional costumes. Yet Corot never married. In 1826 he wrote to a friend that he wished to devote his entire being to painting and that he would never marry. He never formed a long-term relationship with a woman and remained close to his parents well into his fifties.
Upon his return to France, Corot concentrated on exhibiting at the official Salon, adapting and reworking some of his Italian paintings. One of these, The Bridge at Narni, was accepted to the 1827 Salon while Corot was still in Italy. For the next six years Corot would spend the spring and summer painting out of doors. In winter he would rework these outdoor sketches in his studio into large landscapes for exhibition at the Salon.
Corot was now a regular exhibitor at the Salon. In 1833, when he was in his late thirties, the Salon jury accepted a large landscape of the Fontainebleau forest and even awarded the painting a second-class medal. This meant that Corot now had the right to exhibit his works without approval by the jury. In 1835 Corot exhibited another important work, a biblical scene of Hagar in the Wilderness. It was a success with the critics, but his other biblical paintings did not meet with the same triumph.
Throughout the 1840s the critics were ambivalent about Corot’s paintings. Recognition came slowly and, although the state purchased one of his works in 1840 he did not sell many paintings. Nevertheless, Corot’s popularity was growing and after the 1848 Revolution his treatment by the critics improved. The French government awarded Corot the Legion of Honor medal in 1846 and in 1848 he was awarded another second-class medal by the Salon. In that same year Corot was a member of the Salon Jury and the state bought a few more of his paintings for French museums.
Corot was close to the Barbizon group and, after his parents’ death, he felt free to take on students. A constant stream of friends, collectors and visitors passed through his studio. His students included future Impressionists Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro.
Corot died in Paris of a stomach disorder at the age of 78 and was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery.
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