You might be slightly bored by Jean Baptitse Corot‘s well known landscapes, by his rivers bordered with poplar trees in l’Oise and around Paris. But you will be utterly surprised by his paintings of naked women, of sexy models and charming nieces. These portraits were virtually unknown in his lifetime, for he only painted his family and professional sitters whom he dressed up as Greeks or Italians.
Musée du Louvre’s head of paintings, Sébastien Allard, was asked by Musée Marmottan to curate this show of sixty striking paintings lent by the greatest American and British museums and by the Louvre which owns a hundred Corot. The exhibition will travel to Washington, D.C. on September 9 th, but without its men…
And the men are quite extraordinary, mostly inspired by monks he painted while traveling to Italy, when he was young. Besides one soldier in armor, he paints religious men who are close to nature, in grey, ocre and white paint. “The monk with a cello” is one of his last paintings in 1875, the year he died. Another one of a monk dressed in white, reading a book is striking by the maestria shown in rendering the large white outfit. In the background, we recognize Corot’s signature trees.
The nudes are the greatest surprise of the exhibition, yet Corot started painting them in 1850, when he was already 54. He showed very few in his lifetime. He was inspired by Ingres (for Marietta) and also by Italian painters like Giorgione or Titian. The work I was most fascinated by is “La Bacchante à la panthère” where sensuality and perversity animate the painting. There is fusion between woman and nature but what comes out of the canvas is a strangeness enhanced by the dark lighting.
“L’Italienne” or “The Lady with a yellow sleeve” is one of the more striking portraits. The strong contrasts of light, the Italian costume, the bright colors make it a very modern work and the roughness of the model is unsettling. This painting used to belong to British artist Lucian Freud and tells us a lot about Corot’s influence on later painters.
Other ladies are more reminiscent of the Renaissance like ” Lady with a pearl” or “Sibylle”. Marietta and Emma Dobigny pose as recurring models in his works because Corot liked to paint “models who moved” in the studio.
One of the purest works dates from 1831. It is an early portrait of fifteen year old Louise Harduin, painted in mourning just after she lost her parents. The details of flowers and the precise face are quite overwhelming. It was, like many of these portraits, acquired by American collectors in the 19 th century and they all now belong to museums in Massachussetts, Vermont, Chicago, D.C. and New York. Olivier Meslay, formerly a curator at the Louvre, is now running the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and he was present at the opening with two of his chefs d’oeuvre.
The last paintings of the show are of ladies dressed in Italian costumes and sitting in Corot’s studio with some of his landscapes on a chevalet. Then comes the apotheosis, “The Lady in blue”, 1874, lent by the Louvre and representing Emma Dobigny in a sleeveless blue dress in Second empire style. It is the only contemporary dress in the show. It is a step Corot made towards the new generation of painters Degas, Manet and Monet, with his studio as a background. He is considered as an inspirer to them all. (Until July 8, Musée Marmottan Monet)
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