Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Poetic Mists of Memory

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Poetic Mists of Memory

Article excerpt

Corot in the Light of the North Musee de la Chartreuse de Douai, until 6 January 2014 One sometimes forgets when looking at French 19th-century art that the painting revolution that produced Impressionism coincided with a political one. This is because most French painters, Delacroix and Manet excepted, chose to ignore it - none more completely than Camille Corot, who, as a travelling view painter, had every excuse to get out of Paris when the musket balls started to fly. The July Revolution of 1830 found the 34-year-old artist heading north to Pas de Calais, where he painted a 'Windmill near St Omer' and two foreground cows with a bucolic breeziness worthy of Cuyp; the Paris Commune of 1871 found him back in the north, painting the peaceful countryside around Arras. When Manet was making lithographs of the barricades, Corot was making cliche-verres of woodland glades seen through poetic mists of memory.

The most important quality in a view painter, said Corot, was 'knowing how to sit'.

Almost as important for a bon vivant was a hearty dinner and friendly company to come home to. On first acquaintance, Corot admitted, the Artois landscape seemed 'uncongenial to painters', but the prospect in his case was considerably improved by his friendship with the Douai printer and painter Constant Dutilleux, who along with his extended family provided the Parisian bachelor with a rural home from home - and painting company - for the last two decades of his life.

The two artists met when Dutilleux saw Corot's work at the 1847 Salon and bought a painting, and the friendship lasted until Dutilleux's death in 1865, when his two sons-in-law, the printer Alfred Robaut and the painter Charles Desavary, stepped into his shoes. The cosy little Ecole d'Arras that resulted is the subject of a charming exhibition, Corot in the Light of the North, at the Musee de la Chartreuse in Douai, where 60 works by his local followers hang alongside 70 by the master - among them the original painting bought by Dutilleux, whose title alone is enough to tell you it's by Corot.

With its unremarkable rural subject and palette of greens, browns and blues, 'Small pond with a shepherd at the foot of three big trees' looks rather English - which is no surprise, as Corot had studied Constable's paintings in the 1830s in the Paris brasserie that the English dealer Thomas Arrowsmith used as a showroom. The willows and water that Constable claimed made him a painter feature almost as often in the work of Corot, who rarely misses an opportunity to maximise light by reflecting the sky in the surface of a pond. …

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