Corot’s early biographers, Moreau-Nélaton and Robaut, write very little about his work from the early 1830s. This interesting stylistic period between Corot’s 1828-1834 trips to Italy includes some of his most innovative compositions, such as the remarkable view of Monsieur Henry’s House and Factory in Soissons (see fig. 1, R. 245). After Corot returned from Italy in 1828, he traveled extensively in the French countryside, seeking out new locations as subjects for his paintings. He revisited familiar sites from his pre-Italy period such as Ville d’Avray and the Forest of Fontainebleau, and also explored the varied landscapes of Burgundy, the Auvergne and the Morvan, where he painted the present work. Dotted with Romanesque churches and rustic farms, the rolling hills and the mountainous terrain of these regions provided Corot with new inspiration and allowed him to employ the plein air techniques and innovations he had learned in Italy.
In 1831, the year he painted the present work, Corot's Salon entry was a large-scale landscape depicting The Forest of Fontainebleau (see fig. 2, R. 255). Painted in the tradition of Poussin and Claude, the work represented the requisite formula needed to win acceptance with the Salon Jury, but it only revealed one aspect of Corot’s work from this period. As André Michel wrote in 1896: “If one could place on one side of the gallery the ‘official’ compositions that Corot painted in his first years and on the other side the small studies that he made on his own…one would be struck by the deep differences between them. He seems as constrained and forced in the one group as he is spontaneous, original, and charming in the other” (quoted and translated in Gary Tinterow, Michael Pantazzi and Victor Pomarede, Corot (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996, p. 17).
In comparison to his Salon entry, the Greentree painting demonstrates the dichotomy that existed in Corot’s work at the time and reveals a striking spontaneity and modernity. In Chaumières, his use of light becomes very innovative as evidenced by the strong shadow cast by the horse on the building in the center of the composition. The dominance of rocks in the Morvan and Auvergne inspired Corot to depict the rough texture of stone, as had the boulders in the Forest of Fontainebleau. The combination of rocks, vegetation and rushing water in Chaumières may be seen as a precursor to Courbet’s great views of Ornans twenty years later. As do most landscapes from this period, Chaumières includes scenes from daily life, one of the few times in his career that Corot showed an interest in painting genre scenes. He depicts a mother with her child, a crouching woman drawing water from the mill stream and a horse silhouetted against a barn, all of which provide animation to the composition. A similarly posed mother and child appear in another work from the Nièvre, also painted in 1831 (see fig. 3, R. 292). It has been suggested that during this period Corot was influenced by the realism of 17th century Dutch and Flemish peasant scenes, and especially the work of the Le Nain brothers (ibid., p. 98).
Chaumières was originally part of the collection of the popular French artist, Paul Baudry; it was featured in his Drouot sale of 1902. Shortly thereafter, Ernest Cognacq, the merchant who founded the French department store, La Samaritaine, added the work to his well-known collection of 18th and 19th century masterpieces by artists including Boucher, Fragonard, Robert, Manet, Monet, Cézanne and van Gogh. Cognacq donated the 18th century paintings, along with his furniture and miniature collection, to the city of Paris in 1928, with the provision that the city use the collection to establish the Musée Cognacq-Jay “in the spirit of the Carnavalet.” Cognaq’s 19th century paintings were sold by his son, Gabriel, in 1952, at which time Corot’s Chaumières was purchased by Mr. Whitney.
Both Degas and Picasso expressed their admiration for Corot, and felt that he had influenced their own work. It is therefore appropriate that the Whitney collection included a painting by Corot, especially one so original and modern in its conception.
Fig. 1, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Soissons. Maison d’habitation et fabrique de M. Henry, 1831, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Fig. 2, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, La forêt de Fontainebleau, 1830, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Fig. 3, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Une Ferme dans la Nièvre, 1831, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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