In the Light of Italy

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JEAN-BAPTISTE Camille Corot was two different artists altogether.

The primary Corot was an easel painter, an academician, and a rather stiff one at that. Corot II - the one we remember and hold in esteem, whose light-filled paintings are among the most copied and forged in the history of art - is foremost of the group of trail-blazing painters who took the astonishingly radical step of working on actual paintings outside, en plein air as the French say, rather than translating the outside to canvases within the confines of their studios.

You might get some argument, but I think you can comfortably say that without the example of Corot, Claude Monet's work wouldn't have happened as it did. And without Monet - without the recognition of the vivid impo rtance of the glance or impression - all of modern art would be a very different-looking beast. Plus, Corot's influence goes beyond impressionism: When you look at Corot's plein-air paintings today, it is impossible not to think of Paul Cezanne and Cezanne's fascination with the way in which the observed world can be reduced into planes. From there, cubism was only a beat away. Corot was French, and before France we genuflect for its being the proving ground of modern art. Italy, however, has been the land of epiphany and transfiguration for writers and intellectuals and artists for as long as there has been civilization. In the late 18th century, painters from transalpine European countries were drawn to Italy as iron filings are to strong magnets. Corot, born in 1796, was caught in this magnetic sweep in 1825. Artists from England, Belgium, Germany and Scandinavia also went south for an Italian aesthetical baptism. Saturday, the St. Louis Art Museum opens for the public an exhibition called "In the Light of Italy," which is entirely seductive. Don't go expecting grand paintings; the pictures are small; many of them are sketches, painted, as the scholar Michael Levey said of Corot, with economical felicity. When I saw this show last year at the Brooklyn Museum, New York City was enlivened by Corot. There was a lavish retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was a clear statement of Corot's artistic duality. Then, over in Brooklyn, was the "Light of Italy," which s erved not as a pendant to the Met's exhibition but as serious competition. Although Corot may be the celebrity-painter in this incandescent show, there are paintings from hands whose work is known only to connoisseurs and art historians that will stop you in your tracks and steal your hearts. Have you heard of the Welshman Thomas Jones? When I came upon him in Brooklyn on a cold autumn day last year, his small sketches arrested me, so beautiful they are, and also so essentially abstract, so prototypically modern. The Belgian painter Simon Denis, who ended up as the court painter to Joseph Bonaparte, the King of Naples, went to Italy from his native Antwerp in 1786. …