Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Grace of Line: Corot

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (July 17, 1796 – February 22, 1875) painted the rural French landscape in a direct, expressive way that constituted a total rebellion against his time’s definition of art.

But there’s a sweet emotional depth to his canvases that rings true to this day.

Corot’s paintings took a fresh approach to expressing the visual beauty of the rivers and woodlands of southern France. He painted boldly and directly, getting it in “one take” rather than laboring over layers and layers of semi-transparent paint. He painted what his sensitive eye found beautiful in what he saw before him (rather than rendering imaginary landscapes in the accepted and sentimental classical style, decorated with imaginary Greek and Roman ruins peopled with handsome Greek and Roman shepherds and nymphs).

But what endears him to those who love landscape painting are his graceful, flowing lines, his muted colors, and his exquisite tonal choices (the distance or proximity between his colors’ degrees of light and dark). Let’s look at what he’s doing with line in “The Bathers of the Borromean” (above) and “The Boatman of the Mortefontaine,” (below) both painted in the same five-year time-period (1865-70).

In both of these paintings, Corot’s trees are like lithe dancers, flowing in graceful rhythms in step with each other. Corot “rhymes” his trees with each other and with the figures he pairs them with by drawing their limbs and trunks parallel to each other, asymetrically balancing clusters on one side with single trees on the other, and coordinating their parallel shapes in a way that harmonizes within the design as a whole.

Just how distinctive this was becomes clear when we see another artist adopt the same method. Henry Ward Ranger (1858 - 1916) was an American painter, the founder of a renown artists’ colony in Lyme, Connecticut. In his Sunset on the Mystic River, Connecticut, (below) which is in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, Ranger rhymes the trees with each other and with the small female figure beneath one of them, just as did Corot. The contour of the small figure’s back matches the curvature of the tree beside her, and the other trees follow the same geometric arc. Even the tonality of the silhouetted scene and the color range point directly to Corot.

George Inness earlier adopted Corot’s strategy in many of his paintings, where the figures and the lone trees have a kind of visual dialogue with each other. Inness’s 1875 tour-de-force The Church Spire (below) shows a complete assimilation of this device. Here there’s a brilliant correspondence between both line and color. The bent posture of the solitary upright figure in white immediately resonates with the sharp, white church spire asserting itself vertically from amid a clustering wilderness of dense, shadowy foliage spilling horizontally across the canvas.

The curvature of the figure finds a visual echo in the closest tree to his left, while the larger graceful curve of the dominant tree to the far left reiterates the rhythm, completing the linear composition by curling back toward the center of the painting where, on the other side of the canvas, another tree gently turns the eye again, framing the center spire that funnels our gaze back to the paired tree and figure and off we go again.

These “secret” geometries amount to a sort of artistic poetry, a kind of visual rhyme between the human and the natural world that we rather feel than see, an otherworldly “spirit of beauty” that, behind the scenes as it were, brings “grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream,” if only for the brief intervals we find in art.


  1. Excellent analysis Chris- and a terrific look at this device in the hands of landscape masters!

  2. Deb- Thanks for the good word! I find the more you look, the more you can begin to see the "code" beneath the matrix. As a landscape painter, I can't look enough at Inness and Corot.

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