Corot must be judged by the pictures he did not exhibit, art historian Kenneth Clark declared in his classic 1949 treatise, "Landscape Into Art." Thanks to the vagaries of time and taste, these are the very paintings that dominate "J.-B.-C. Corot: View of Volterra," the current exhibition at Balboa Park's Timken Art Gallery.
Not considered of suitable "finish" for display in the salons of his own day, the studies that Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) painted directly from nature to capture nuances of light and atmosphere are his most captivating, vital works. They were the sources for his more monumental compositions--such as the Putnam Collection's "View of Volterra," the centerpiece of the exhibition--but far surpass them in their immediacy and freshness.
In preparing work for the salons, Corot, like most of his contemporaries, subordinated his direct visual impressions to the more-considered conventions of landscape painting.
In his smaller studies, however, he followed the advice he gave to his students and approached painting with a certain naivete, a faithfulness to sensory impressions. In "View of Olevano" (1827), made during the first of his three trips to Italy, Corot captures the freshness of a first glance by abbreviating the forms in the view before him. A distant village appears as a blocky array of sun-drenched planes, and the trees dotting the nearer hillside are mere dots of green, shadowed by neighboring dashes.
Though at first discouraged by the intensity of the light in Italy, Corot learned to accept it and eventually capitalize on its effects by infusing his canvases with the same unforgiving glare, fading the landscape's delicate hues and masking its details. In his "View of the Roman Forum With the Arch of Constantine" (1843), Corot translates the architectural forms into a beautiful mosaic of interlocking ocher, umber and olive green patches.
Adjacent works, by other French artists also seeking inspiration in Italy's legendary light and its historical riches, concern themselves with the same truthful, unmediated vision of nature, but seem flat or muddied next to Corot's luminous views.
Guest curator Fronia Wissman, a doctoral student in art history at Yale University, makes it easy for us to appreciate Corot's quietly revolutionary style by juxtaposing his works with those of his compatriots as well as his teacher, Jean-Victor Bertin. In his 1807 "Landscape With an Aqueduct and Fortress," Bertin describes a view with precision and delicacy, painting the foliage nearly leaf-by-leaf and the architectural forms with tight, geometric clarity. Corot tackles a similar subject 20 years later with broad, generalized strokes, causing the forms of his "Roman Aqueduct" to melt into one another, their structural integrity sacrificed to an overall impression of the moment's light and mood.
Corot's break from the conventions of precise representation paved the way for Impressionism, though his own "finished" paintings still cling to the compositional devices of earlier generations. Wissman describes Corot's debts to 17th-Century Dutch landscape painters and the French artist Claude Lorrain in the show's fully illustrated and informative catalogue.
Back in his Paris studio, Corot borrowed freely from his studies and memory to create compositions reminiscent of his predecessors', using wedge-shaped elements to lead the eye through the landscape. Corot also followed their tradition of incorporating figures into large compositions, but where the figures in Claude's paintings imply a biblical or mythical context, those in Corot's simply help convey the everyday texture of the place depicted.
In Bertin's two compositions here, men and women embodying the ideal of classical perfection adorn the landscape in the manner of a frozen tableau. In Corot's paintings, peasants poke at cattle and lounge naturally beneath trees, in rough, contemporary dress, instead of Bertin's elegant, ancient robes.
Though Corot may only be trading one cliche for another--the ancient type for the peasant--the change gives his paintings a more natural, spontaneous feeling, and prods them toward the realism of Courbet, in which art aligns with life rather than glorifies it.
Corot's point of view in "The Roman Campagna" (circa 1830) and "View of Volterra" (1838) reinforces this alignment by placing the viewer within the scene depicted. In both works, a dusty road opens out to the viewer and encourages his passage through the landscape, in the footsteps of the peasants and riders ahead.
This invitation to experience the moment depicted is denied in Bertin's comparable "View of a Town in the Sabine" (1814). Bertin blocks access to the scene spatially and temporally by presenting his robed figures as performers of an ancient drama, enacted on a closed stage. By emphasizing the present, Corot brings the viewer directly into the calm, rustic landscape, to bask with him in its glorious light.
"J.-B.-C. Corot: View of Volterra," the Timken's third exhibition to focus on a single work in the Putnam Collection, is as succinct and engaging as Corot's own style. It continues here through June 26, then travels to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.