Each of us has certain works of art that we return to over and over. We might call it a “favorite song” or poem, but it is more than mere favor that makes these works perennial comforts. There is a core in them we find identity with, a sense that the piece was created especially for or about oneself. It is art we take personally.
There is a slight Corot painting at the Phoenix Art Museum that I have returned to for 15 years. Most people probably pass by without noticing it: It is just a tiny landscape with a few gray-green trees, a river or lake, and a couple of unrelated people mixed with a few cows.
Called Memory of Ville d’Avray, it is typical of many paintings produced by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Yet, there are many things that make this painting special.
Corot lived at a time of transition. Born in Paris in 1796, he lived through several revolutions, both political and aesthetic. Despite the tendency in many of his contemporaries, there is never a polemical word from Corot. He just did what he did — at some moments seeming conservative, at others radical. To him it was all the same. He was only interested in painting.
His art looks back to the great French painters of the Baroque, Claude and Poussin, yet at the same time, by painting outdoors and studying the ephemeral effects of weather and time, he became a precursor to the Impressionists. He seems perfectly comfortable, nestled in the cusp.
Before his time, a painting was a metaphorical window to look through at appropriate subject matter. After his time, the subject matter was not all that important, but its style was.
With the Impressionists and those who followed, style was meaning.
In Corot, and in this small painting, there is a perfect balance, with the perfect pitch, between its manner and its subject.
There are three central Corots: In his early landscapes, often of Italy, the sunlight is intense and the colors bright. The plein-air paintings inspired his Impressionist progeny. His portraits, mostly of young peasant women, foreshadow the heavy classicism of Picasso’s large-boned women, and in style imply the kind of planar vision that Cezanne made his own.
But in his later years, the third Corot appeared, more poetic, softer edged, with colors more subdued. The Memory of Ville d’Avray is one of these. In the 20th century, critics tend to praise Corot for the first two and ignore the third.
But Corot wasn’t wonderful because he pointed the way for Cezanne and Picasso, but because he was a great painter. In the Memory, he paints the landscape of his youth. He lived in Ville d’Avray, between Paris and Versailles. And the painting is full of the “emotions recollected in tranquillity” we know from Wordsworth. And it is full of Wordsworthian nature, too — a man waits in a skiff on the water and a woman kneels by a birch tree, presumably picking mushrooms.
But the painting itself is so smooth, so sensuous, in colors subtle and rich, in a light that is not the light of day, but of memory. You can almost hear the crickets, feel the humidity.
It is this nexus of outer and inner worlds that I find so satisfying. Corot isn’t making a point, either about the world or about the art of painting. But he is filtering his experience through his sensibility to the point the two can no longer be separated. The outer world seen literally is bland and naked. The mental world by itself is autobiography and trivial.
But the two alloyed make meaning.