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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 JUNE 2018 — Perhaps one of the most attractive aspects of Corot, le peintre et ses modéles is that it is presented in the Marmottan Monet Museum, one of the loveliest in Paris. Originally a hunting lodge, it houses the world’s largest collection of works by Claude Monet bequeathed by the painter’s son, Michel Monet.  Situated in a green, leafy area of the city, it was given to the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris in 1932, and is unique in that it was someone’s house, albeit a magnificent, roomy one surrounded by gardens; people lived there in peace and tranquility.

Once inside and heading for the Corot exhibition of over 60 paintings, one passes what was possibly a dining-room where it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the wealth of the surrounding masterpieces on the walls. One walks past no less than four sublime Renoirs which hang side by side with outstanding works by Caillebotte, Pissaro and Morisot. Indeed, on the floor above there is a whole room dedicated to the green, pink, white, blue and silver canvases of Berthe Morisot, donated by her descendants in 1996, where each is more beautiful than the next. The Salle Daniel Wildenstein alone, with the miniatures of the Middle Ages and its wooden painted sculptures, is also more than worth a visit.

However, one is here to discover a lesser known aspect of the work of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, best loved for his exquisite landscapes peopled by men and women, gods and goddesses, or nymphs and satyrs, and with a harmonious fusion of figure and landscape. One has grown to associate a dreamlike aspect in his paintings which portray both the ideal and reality.

Corot: Portrait of Claire Sennegon

But he was also a remarkable painter of figures, a fact which only became apparent to the public after his death. Painting few portraits which he considered were experimental, these were unfailingly of his close circle, his family, children and friends. Around 1830, in the early portraits of his nieces, one can sense the influence of Ingres, but it wasn’t until some years later that isolated figures became increasingly prominent in what was Corot’s "private, or secret collection". Although he frequently gave them away, they were never meant to be shown.

One can admire the quiet luminosity of La Moissonneuse,  the young girl resting in the middle of a field, her scythe in her hand and a gentle smile on her face. Tiny figures can be seen in the background, while the setting sun lights up her blouse which has slipped off her shoulder. In contrast, there is the classic perfection of the Portrait of Claire Sennegon, his niece, depicted with her hand raised touching her chin, a painting which recalls the work of  Ingres. The portrait, predominantly worked in black and white, has only a few touches of colour, in the blue of her bonnet and in the orange light from the sunset behind her.

There are also some spectacular and surprising nudes in another section of the exhibition, the strangest and certainly the most perverse being Bacchante à la panthère completed in 1860, a painting inspired by works of the Italian Renaissance. A rather large, well-endowed lady has taken off her clothes and is lying down, one arm stretched out offering a scraggy dead bird to a panther. Her bow and arrow lies beside her, but surprisingly, the animal is carrying a small child on its back.

Corot: La Dame en Bleu

However, at the end of the exhibition, there is Corot’s sublime masterpiece, his La Dame en Bleu. Painted in 1874, it is the culminating point of all Corot’s studies. His model and friend, Emma Dobigny is depicted in a long, blue, contemporary dress, an unusual detail for the artist. She is painted from behind, her pretty face turned sideways towards the viewer, but Corot has concentrated on her remarkable dress, where the silky material cascades down her back. Her right arm leans on a bordeau coloured cushion, which is placed upon a heavy oak table. Unlike most of the other figures, seen in an outside settings, Emma Dobigny poses in Corot’s workshop, with two landscape paintings hanging on the wall behind her, one framed, the other, one assumes, unfinished. Far from being inspired by the Renaissance, the work brings to mind both Degas and Manet.         

The exhibition is a little uneven. While presenting several masterpieces, works on loan from the Louvre museum and so on view to the public well after July, it shows a selection of lesser known paintings, including some which probably would not have had a place here if they had not been completed by Corot. One feels that the artist painted them to prove both to himself and to critics that he was not only a landscape painter, a form in which many claim he has rarely been equaled for the delicacy and poetic nature of his approach.

Corot and his Models
Through 22 July 2018
Marmottan Monet Museum
2 rue Louis Boilly
75016 Paris

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. 

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