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Palmezzano from PAM

The Italian Renaissance is littered with unfamiliar names. Sure, there are the Leonardos, the Raphaels and the Michelangelos, but there are dozens of others from the Trecento through the early 16th century that we need an encyclopedia to look up.Forli map

Just take the small town of Forli in northern central Italy along the Montone River. It produced such painters as Livio Agresti, Ansuino da Forli, Guido Cagnacci, the two Baldassarre Carraris, father and son, Francesco Menzocchi and foremost among them, Melozzo da Forli and his student, Marco Palmezzano. All of them competent if conservative artists without which museums (and churches) around the world would be the poorer.

It is Palmezzano that drew my interest.

In an age of giants, Marco di Antonio Palmezzano (1458-1539) was merely human. He was a good but lesser painter in a Renaissance backwater. So little was his life noted that even his dates are approximate.

Born in the middle of the Quattrocento, 25 years before Raphael, he died in his 80s, about 20 years after his great countryman’s death. It was a life that spanned the most exciting years of the Renaissance.

He was born and died in Forli, a small town at the back of Italy’s knee, remaining there for his entire professional career. During his long life, he provided the necessary religious paintings for the churches and monasteries of the region.

His teacher was the better-known Melozzo di Forli (1438-1494), who had studied with Piero della Francesca (1416-1492), one of the great masters of the early Renaissance. Palmezzano’s youth was spent apprenticed to Melozzo, and his first signed paintings indicate his debt to his mentor: He called himself Marcus de Melotius, or ”Melozzo’s Marco.”

We know he visited Rome with Melozzo in 1489 and, after Melozzo’s death, he visited Venice, where the most advanced painters were to be found.

But the latest techniques and styles didn’t seem to interest Palmezzano, or maybe they didn’t interest his clients. At any rate, he remained an artistic conservative and his paintings look back rather than forward.

The exact date of Palmezzano’s death is disputed, but a self-portrait as an old man is dated 1536.

More than 90 of his works are still in existence, mostly in Forli, but his frescoes for the Feo Chapel in Forli were destroyed in World War II.

There is a Holy Family by Palmezzano at the Phoenix Art Museum, and it is a painting that I kept coming back to over the 25 years I lived and worked in that city.

A Right-Hand Man

One day, I noticed that Marco Palmezzano was right-handed.

It wouldn’t be any big deal, but Palmezzano has been dead for 400 years. And because I discovered it myself, this minor bit of information seems much more personal than the few cold facts in the painter’s biography. It brings him to life for me: Even the grave couldn’t hide this datum. It’s there in the painting.

Discovering things for yourself is what art is all about. Doing research is fine, but it is your personal interaction with a painting that is the real point.

The painting I’m talking about is the Holy Family with Infant St. John, which can be seen at the Phoenix Art Museum. It is a fairly standard oil-on-panel Madonna-with-her-entourage painted by a fairly standard middleweight Italian painter of the middle Renaissance.palmezzano madonna combo

These are a few of Palmezzano’s Holy Family paintings

Palmezzano himself painted dozens of similar works, fulfilling commissions for various churches and monasteries. You have to think of the painter as a small business owner, providing needed objects for the prevailing institutions of the day. Whatever was called for, he was contracted to provide — and his studio would have been not a simple artist’s studio, but a small factory with a variety of employees or apprentices helping out.palmezzano genre examples

Palmezzano produced most of the usual religious genre paintings, including this Virgin Enthroned, Annunciation and Crucifixion.

There are many things you could notice about this painting, or any painting you are willing to put the time and effort into.

”Noticing” is the operative word. Many museumgoers zip past the pictures on the wall, stopping a few seconds in front of one or another that catches a rushed eye. But artists who spend weeks or months on a painting have put more into their work than you can squeeze out in a moment.

It is a case of slowing down to see the roses.

So I want to take some time to dissect Palmezzano’s right-handiwork, and to walk you through the process of looking at a painting.

I’ll get back to Palmezzano’s right hand later.

Sensuous pleasure

First, why have I chosen this painting?

Primarily because I liked that intense, mineral green that makes up so much of Palmezzano’s Holy Family. It is a hue and an intensity that cannot be seen in reproduction. You can swim in this green.

There is nothing intellectual or difficult about the mindless sensuous pleasure that this green gives me, but it got me to slow down and decide to spend some hours with the painting.phx infantphx joseph

On second glance, the painting didn’t seem too promising. It is a very ordinary Madonna and child, with a rather awkwardly drawn child, with short, skinny arms and a set of hips that might have done Mae West proud.

But there was something that caught my eye and held it. After a few moments I realized what it was. The painting was staring back at me.

If you look around the museum gallery at the other paintings hanging there, the people in them look at each other or off into space. But in Palmezzano’s Holy Family, Joseph is looking at . . . me.

Noticing details

There are dozens of things to notice in this painting, from its complex structure of diagonals to the fact that the painter seems to have used no blue. Then, there is the peculiar Hebrew inscription at the bottom, the gold-leaf halos and an oddly gray landscape in the background. All these things are worth noticing, and all contribute to the final effect of the painting, but it is Joseph that gives this painting its particular emotional resonance.

In that gaze is the secret of the painting: There are two levels of reality being described here. Mary, Jesus and John are divine or semi-divine. Joseph, like you or me, is merely human. Mary or Jesus could not pay attention to us, it would break the spell, make them too human, too fallible. But Joseph can make the connection.

That distinction is enforced by the style in which Palmezzano paints them. Mary is idealized, a perfectly formed human with a look of unmoved serenity in her face. Jesus and John make stylized hand gestures that infants their age couldn’t understand, let alone perform.

The Madonna and children are iconic rather than real. We are meant to ”behold” them as symbols of religious faith.

But Joseph, all alone in the back of the painting, is not idealized, rather he is a portrait of someone real. We don’t know who, possibly the person who paid for the painting to be made. He is old (a convention for Josephs), and his hands rest arthritically on a walking stick.

Mary and the babies are involved with each other; Joseph looks at us. He is one of us.

Humanity speaking

Whatever the painting meant when it was new, it is Joseph’s humanity that speaks most clearly to us today.portrait of a man palmezzano

Portraiture was not an important art form during Palmezzano’s day; no one in Italy could make a living doing only portraits. That is too bad, because it is Palmezzano’s one notable talent. (Here is his Portrait of a Young Man). His Joseph is more real than most of the idealized figures we run into from the Renaissance, an age when what should be was more valued than what was.

What was required of Pamezzano were religious paintings. A Raphael or Michelangelo could bring life to their faith. Palmezzano could only imitate the patterns. His sense of color was average, his ability to create design was average, but his ability to draw a human face was above average. It is too bad that it was a talent that wasn’t particularly valued during his life.

In another time, in another place, Palmezzano might have been a more important artist.

Artistic conservative

Which brings us back to Marco’s right hand.

We know that Palmezzano was something of a conservative, artistically. His figures are a bit stiff, like those in Quattrocento paintings, despite the sinuous contrapposto he has given the Christ.

And although he is painting in oil, he continues to use techniques better suited to the earlier tempera painting.

In egg tempera, the paint dries almost immediately, so it is difficult to blend paint together on the panel. What an artist must do is lay down tiny brush strokes one next to the other, building up shades and tones. When you look closely, you can see those tiny lines, called ”hatching.”scribbles

Oil’s great advantage over tempera is that paints can be blended right on the panel or canvas and smooth gradations of tone are possible.

Palmezzano still uses hatching in this painting. It can be seen as the tiny lines in the shadows of the figures’ faces. Across the entire canvas, the hatching goes from upper right to lower left.

Take a pencil and scribble on a pad. If you are right-handed, the lines will run from upper right to lower left. If you are left handed, they will run the opposite. Try to draw them opposite and you will see how awkward it feels.

The hatching proves

Palmezzano was right-handed.

Ker-blue-ee

Perhaps the oddest thing about Marco Palmezzano’s Holy Family is that there is no blue in it. Because blue is one of the primary colors, its lack is unusual, though not unprecedented.

There are a few reasons we might expect to find blue. First, there is a sky, an ocean or lake and the receding mountains of the painting’s landscape, which we might expect to go bluish in the distance. But in this painting, they are iron gray.

Then there is the Virgin, who is garbed traditionally in a blue robe or hood. Blue was the color of the heavens, of which Mary was queen. Blue is so traditionally Mary’s color that probably 80 percent of the early Renaissance images of her conform to the blue scheme. In this painting, Mary’s robe is emerald green.

Blue was a special color in the Renaissance. Artists had no tubes of Grumbacher to squeeze back then. Their colors were prepared meticulously from the chemical or mineral pigment stock.

Color from stone

The best, most permanent blue was made by grinding rare and expensive lapis lazuli on a stone. When it was pulverized sufficiently — a long and arduous process — it was processed in chemicals. It was called ultramarine, and it was the most expensive color after gold and silver leaf.

During the Italian Renaissance, painters did not create canvases and then sell them to people who wanted them. Rather, a client or patron commissioned an artist to make a Madonna and child, or a Crucifixion or a Nativity, of such and such a dimension, with a certain number of figures (some artists were paid according to how many figures were in the painting) and with a certain quality of pigment and skill.

Ultramarine cherished

Of the hundreds of surviving contracts between painter and client from Italy during those years, about half mention ultramarine specifically, and what quality of ultramarine the artist is required to use. No other pigment is named regularly. Reds, greens, yellows can take care of themselves, but ultramarine would add significantly to the final cost of the painting, and so the client wished to protect himself contractually against inferior substitutes. It was a case of caveat emptor.Porta_schiavonia Forli

Well, Palmezzano, in a small town not so rich as neighboring Florence, Bologna or Venice, well may have been given a commission for an inexpensive Holy Family, with minimum gold leaf and no requirement for ultramarine.

This is pure speculation and should not be taken as gospel. But it well may be that Palmezzano, to keep the painting’s cost low, avoided blue altogether, or he may have used a cheap, impermanent blue that 400 years later has decomposed into the hueless gray of the sky and water.

Other things to notice

In writing this story, I spent about four hours with Palmezzano’s Holy Family, spread over several visits to the museum. It was time I enjoyed immensely.

While contemplating the painting, I began to notice things. These bits of information or insight came quite randomly and I noted them on a legal pad as they occurred. Some were thoughts on the iconography or the symbolic meaning of the images, some concerned the design or visual construction of the panel, and some were mistakes that Palmezzano made.

Here are a few of them:

— Joseph is leaning on a walking stick that in an apocryphal story once sprouted flowers and designated him worthy to marry the Queen of Heaven. The story was traditional in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Nowadays, it is obscure to all but Catholic scholars and art-history students.

— All four characters in the painting look surprisingly like Renaissance Italians. They are wearing contemporary clothes and jewelry. Mary and the Christ child are blond. Joseph wears a familiar Italian hat.

The landscape behind them is certainly not Levantine, but more like that part of central Italy where Palmezzano lived.

Either Palmezzano had no sense of historical accuracy, or accuracy was not the point. I suspect the latter; the story is supposed to be eternally true.

Strange signature

— Then there is that strange Hebrew calligraphy at the bottom of the panel. If you parse them out, reading from right to left, they spell MRRQW PLMZZANN FWRLWVISI, roughly, given the lack of precise Hebrew equivalents to European languages. That is, ”Marco Palmezzano Forlovisi,” or Marco Palmezzano of Forli. Forli was his hometown.

Why he signed his name in a Hebrew transliteration of Italian is not known. Maybe he just liked the biblical look of it.

— The peculiar curtain rod that holds up the backdrop is not attached to anything; nothing holds it up. There is a chance that the painting used to be bigger than it is and that the rod had some visible means of support. But the edges of the panel, hidden behind the frame, are even and don’t suggest the panel ever was trimmed. (Sometimes paintings were trimmed by their owners to fit smaller frames or, as in the case of the Mona Lisa, to cut away a damaged portion.)

— But that rod does something else. It is artificially parallel to the picture plane, as is the balustrade at the bottom on which the Christ child stands. And midway up on the picture, so is the castle in the background. Those three horizontal lines divide the rectangle of the panel into smaller rectangles.Palmezzano zee

— As a counterpoint to that is the diagonal of heads and shoulders that cut the painting from upper right to lower left. Seen against the three horizontals they make a great big ”Z” out of the painting, with a line through its center, as is customary in Europe.palmezzano diagonals

— But there are other diagonals, too. The Christ child stands in front of Mary, who stands in front of Joseph. As we move from left to right, we recede at an angle into the painting. This is also a counterpoint to the strict parallel of the three horizontal lines.

— Even more radical is the depth we are asked to absorb from the figures in the front to the landscape in the back. This diagonal moves right to left into the distance, making the opposite diagonal.

— That same crossing diagonal is mirrored in the crossed arms of John. Design-wise, a great deal is going on in the painting.

Hands hold interest

— You also might notice that although the figures are overlapped, all eight hands are visible and all are expressive.

Joseph’s hands seem cramped and arthritic. Mary’s hands support her son. John’s hands are crossed in reverence, and Jesus raises one hand symbolically while touching his thorax with the other, as if to point to his mortality.

— It is Joseph’s eyes that first make us take notice of him, but his ear can’t be ignored. It is a peculiar ear, oddly orange. It is bent over by his cap and forms a shape that imitates his mouth.

That orange tint and odd shape are repeated in Christ’s ear, contradicting the idea that Joseph had nothing to do with the birth. This is family resemblance.

That may not be too odd, if we remember that Joseph, Jesus and Mary were understood then not only as themselves, but also as allegorical of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Joseph can be understood as a stand-in for God the Father.

— Yet, there are mistakes in the painting, several if you can find them.

Mary’s hands are out of proportion, much too big for her body and head.phx hand feet

And her left hand can be no thicker than paper for it to slide under Christ’s left foot on the balustrade. Palmezzano has poorly drawn that space, making something of an unconformity there.

— Other mistakes are more technical. The most glaring is the triangle of orange behind the Christ’s ear: The artist has painted Mary’s mantle first ocherish yellow, as an underpainting, and then green on top. This underpainting helps make the green seem all the more glowing; it is a standard artist’s device. But he misdrew the mantle with the ocher and forgot to cover it up with green in this small area.

Unusual coloring

— You can see more of this orange, on purpose, in the brocade borders of Mary’s mantle, as Palmezzano scratched into the green to expose the orange underneath, making a golden pattern.

— In another place, the back of Mary’s neck is artificially circular, from her ear to her shoulder. The shape is geometric rather than organic.

The perspective of his castle isn’t too well thought out, either.

— And if you crouch down in front of the painting to see the glare of the museum’s lights on the glazed surface of the painting, you will see the painting is pieced together from large, outlined sections, something like puzzle pieces, or, more accurately, like the giornata, or daily working sections that a fresco painter creates in wet plaster.

We know Palmezzano worked in fresco. Did he bring his fresco habits to oil paint?

There are many more things to notice, but I will leave them to you, hoping you will spend your own time with this painting or another — they all are worth close examination and contemplation.

stella flowers italy 1931 copy

I spent 26 years of my life in Phoenix, Ariz., and came to know the collection at the Phoenix Art Museum intimately. There were paintings I loved and a very few that I disliked intensely. Most, of course, fell in the middle somewhere.

One painting I felt strong aversion to was Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy, which always seemed to me like a cheap piece of junk-surrealism. On the whole, I am not simpatico with even the best Surrealism.

There is only one thing to do when you don’t like a painting: spend a lot of time with it. So, I figured, if I stayed with the Stella for a while, I would either fully define why I did not, like it, or I would change my mind.

I finally wound up spending more than five hours with the painting, and, another hour or two afterward, reading about the artist and his work.

It was an enormous expense of time and energy, but it paid me back many times over. Now Stella’s Flowers is one of my anchors at the museum and, I cannot get enough of it.

Since the question I am asked most often and most imploringly is “How do you look at art?” it seemed like it might be helpful to describe what I found over those seven hours.

LOOKING AT A PICTURE

Most people like pictures of flowers. They come upon Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy at the Phoenix Art Museum, for instance, and they are likely to respond, ”I like flowers; they’re pretty; I like this painting,” and move on to the next.

But there is much more packed into any good painting, a world of meaning and experience that can only be squeezed out with time and effort.

So, mister wise-guy art critic, how do you look at a painting? It’s a question I have often heard. The answer has three large parts.

The first is looking.

And by looking, I mean spending a very long time noticing all the component parts of a painting, its colors, brush strokes, subject matter, design, size and proportions.

The second is thinking.

After you have noticed every square millimeter of the work, you are then obliged to figure out what it might mean. You dig into yourself — the well of your experience — and try to parse out what all those many bits might add up to.

And third, after you have some good idea what the painting might be communicating, there is the learning. You are interested enough that you want to find a book or person who might tell you more and help you fit this experience into the larger picture. But make sure to wait for this last: After you have experienced the painting, then you can worry about facts.

Too often, we want to start with facts, but if you place them first, they only blur your vision.

Once more, the three steps are: looking, thinking and learning.

Let’s take those same Stella flowers and try the method on them.

It is a large, square painting, about 6- by 6-feet, of dozens, maybe hundreds of flowers in a tangle that seems almost architectural, all against a deep, blue sky.

From a distance — and the way it hangs in the museum currently makes it difficult to view any other way — it seems finely painted and detailed. The paint seems smoothly brushed onto the canvas.

But try to get up close, and you will find that the surface is sloppy with thick gobs of rough paint. The flowers almost seem crude, as if drawn by a not-so-talented child.

Step back again. They regain their refinement.

This is only one of the many contradictions of the work.

Its overall impression and the first thing most people notice, after the flowers, is that the painting is rigidly symmetrical. Draw a line up and down through its middle and you find that the right and left sides mirror each other.

Yet, on closer inspection, nothing on one side exactly reproduces the other. What is a calla lily on one side is balanced by a hibiscus on the other. The painting only appears to be literally symmetrical.

There are two distinct axes to the design. Splitting the painting vertically is a line of plant stalks, pistils, racemes and petals. Each half of the painting is equal.

But cutting the bottom portion from the upper is a line of large white blooms. They sit lower than the halfway mark, settling as if gravity had pulled them down.flowers cross

That giant cross is the basic organizing principle of the work, like an airplane nose down, crashing into the bottom of the frame.

Another contradiction: Most of the blossoms are fairly realistic. You can tell the hibiscus from the aster, the lotus from the lily. Yet, the plant stems are greatly distorted. Many are rigidly straight, up and down. Others are not connected to anything recognizable. The upper portion of the picture, in fact, is divided into three panels by plant stalks that curve around at the top to make what look like Roman arches.

The background is blue sky; the closest part, on the bottom of the frame, is blue water, filled with waterlilies and fish. There are a host of white and red flowers, and a smattering of yellow. But considering this is a painting of foliage, there is surprisingly little green.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned what any of this might mean. Your first obligation is to discover what is there; only then can you worry what it might mean.monkey face

And what about the ”monkey” face?

Human beings are genetically programmed to recognize faces. It is why we so often find virgins in tortillas and aliens staring back from Martian mountains.

At the bottom of this painting, filling the middle third, is an animal face, with two rosy hibiscus for eyes, two birds for ears, and what looks like a red proteus for a nose ridge, crowned with a great white waterlily flower.

arcimboldoLike one of those crazy Arcimboldo faces from the Renaissance, made from fruit or vegetables, it is a visual pun, functioning on two levels at once: face and flower.

Stella is having it both ways once again.

Notice, too, that the bottom third of the painting acts like a very close, in-your-face wall, like a hedge that blocks the distant view behind. The painting then, maps out very clearly the near and the far.

Over and over, there are contradictions: things split into two — near-far, up-down, flower-face, greenless plants, realistic distortion.

There are dozens of other things you might notice. I’ve only listed a few; a complete list could fill an entire book.

But what does it all mean? The experience is all well and good, the looking slows us down and we discover scores of little details that we could not have noticed racing through the museum.

But it is the meaning we are after.

Well, the first thing you are likely to think about is the flowers. Any painting with this many maniacal flowers is likely to be about fecundity. This is one fertile painting.

And the details certainly substantiate that. Look at the top, with the day lily hanging upside down over the long, white tendrils that draw up the center line of the painting. It sits with its pollen-laden anthers just touching the tendril, which we must read as an abstracted pistil. The very moment of fertilization.

It is the climax of the painting, so to speak.

But the rest of the painting is no less orgasmic. Look at all the large flowers. Almost every one is a yonic horn with a large, phallic nub at its center. They are hibiscus and lotus, contradictory male and female at the same time. Near the very center of the painting is a jack-in-the-pulpit, with a lurid phallus sticking straight up from its bowl-like pulpit.

You would need an computer to keep track of the phalli and yoni in this picture.

Even that monkey face, looked at again turns into the female reproductive organs, with fallopian leaf fronds and ovarian hibiscus.

So, does this mean Stella had a dirty mind? Or was his subconscious playing Freudian games?

No. There is something else going on.Hubert_Robert Roman_Ruins

If we were to search the history of art for this painting’s ancestors, the most direct would be the 18th century picturesque landscapes of Hubert Robert and his like.

They usually showed a Roman or Greek ruin taken over by vines, with animals or people living and playing around them. Nature reconquers the works of man.

Stella has given us the ruin, in the form of the vegetal arches at the top of the painting. In his ”ruins” nature reconquers the world in a fit of fertility.

In the older paintings, we know that conventional iconography implies that the ruins symbolize death; the vines, the recurrence of life.

In Stella, the ruins are only suggested, and death — the arching plants that roof the painting — is itself seething with life.

The contradictions are all the more emphatic when we learn more about Stella and his art.

stella mugHe was born in Italy in 1877 and immigrated to the United States in 1894, where he died in 1946. He first achieved notice as an artist with a series of paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island, done before 1920.

In those, he brought the current Italian movement called Futurism to the U.S. Futurism glorified modernity, machines, speed and motion. Most of the noted Futurists were Italian; Stella was America’s only serious member.

But the contradictions in Stella’s personality kept him from continuing in this direction. Something in him mistrusted machines, even as he felt awestruck by the engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge.brooklyn bridge stella

”Many nights I stood on the bridge — and in the middle alone — lost — a defenseless prey to the surrounding swarming darkness — crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers,” he wrote.

In another place, he called his home, New York City, ”Monstrous dream, chimeric reality, Oriental delight, Shakespearean nightmare . . . its enormous blocks of buildings barring one’s way . . . its dreadful closed windows barren of flowers.”

In his mind, Stella contrasted the steel, cold, northern city with the fertile, warm, sunny southern Italian town he had grown up in.

”Returning to my birthplace, I find all of nature smiling like a friend, greeting my arrival with festive salutes.”

And in another place, ”My drowsing energy, tortured by the cold of Northern countries, was awakened as if by magic, set aglow by the radiance of gold and purple light. All the ardor of my youth surged through me with the overflowing, stinging, demanding desire for new conquests in the virgin lands of art.”

Over and over in Stella’s letters, you find a man driven ecstatic by the abundance and plenitude of nature. Man’s works, so glorified in the Futurist paintings, became the fodder for ruins, which were ennobled by the fecundity of nature.stella purissima

It is a theme that shows up in many of Stella’s better paintings (and it should be noted he was a very uneven painter). They have titles such as Joy of Living, Dance of Spring, Apotheosis of the Rose and Tree of My Life.

Stella had an almost Hindu sense of the ecstasy of nature, the sense that everything is burning with aliveness.

And in the end, even his famous paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge were not about human life and technology, but, as he wrote, ”I felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion, or in the presence of a new Divinity.”

He was one of those painters, like Van Gogh, who yearned to express the exploding aliveness of the world, a man with a visionary sense of cosmic energy.

Finally, his Flowers, Italy is no more about mere sex than the cave paintings of Ajanta or the athletics of Henry Miller. It is a vision of perpetual life, renewing itself and burning, a non-Christian version of Dante’s Divine Rose, or the sacred Garden of Eden.

And it is at this level that, in Stella, as in the Vedic religion, all contradictions are transcended.

NEXT: Looking at an earlier painting, using the same techniques

corot avray

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.