Friday, May 15, 2015

The Luminous Point: Corot

Among the many charms of Camille Corot's (French, 1796-1875) work is the way tone (what we would call dark-light value) balances so harmoniously (even across its wide range of dark to light). At the same time, his colors, like his soft, painterly touch, remain mild and delicate. I love how he combines feathery edges with a few big lights, a few very dark darks, and an infinity of mid-tones.

Recently I stumbled on the following (collected in Painters on Painting, one of my new favorite books):

The Luminous Point

"In a painting there is always a luminous point; but this point must be unique. You may place it where you wish; in a cloud, in the reflection of the water, on in a bonnet. However, there must only be a single tone of this value."

This sent me back to the paintings and, sure enough, I saw it. In this painting, it's the bending man's shirt:

Here, I think it's the light reflected off the woman's hair ribbons (although this is not the brightest, highest-key value, which is probably the woman's white sleeve, the "point" of light on the ribbons glows up against the darker tones he places around it, in this case the young woman's hair):

I thought about titling this post "Corot's Secret." The tabloid headline style would be in keeping with my last post on the man, Corot's Palette Revealed (also posted in spring, not incidentally).

But if Corot had a "secret" it was simply this: he knew and painted from himself. He was so intimately in touch with his own genuine love of nature, that it was said that when he posed his models he instinctively "made them equal, but not superior to, the trees and water he loved so well, an equation of man and nature." (Joseph C. Sloane)

In the painting below, though it's hard to see, there's a spot in the yellow clouds near the overhanging branch in the middle of the picture that is slightly brighter than the surrounding tones:

And in this next one, the "luminous point" is the little rectangular patch of light nestled in the grass in front of the cow:

Detail of above painting showing "the luminous point" .

Knowing himself also helped Corot know what "effect" he was going for when he painted. Like Cezanne, he covered his whole canvas as soon as possible and worked on all parts of the painting at once, "improving it very gently until I find that the effect is complete."

If there's any other "secret" to how he worked, it's that he saw and painted primarily in values rather than in colors. "That which I look for while I paint is the form, the harmony, the value of the tones," he wrote. "Color comes afterwards for me because above all I like the harmony in the tones."

All of this helps to lend Corot's paintings their marvelous unity of effect - what many have called their "poetry" - the way, wordlessly and all at once, they convey such feeling.


  1. Marvelous. Thank you for this, and for the book recommendation.

  2. Thanks, Chris. I'm a huge Corot fan but your article adds a new perspective and depth for me.