JEAN-BAPTISTE Camille Corot was two different artists
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
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. …