Six Paintings by Corot: Methods, Materials and Sources Sarah Herring

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National Gallery Technical Bulletin 30th anniversary volume, 2009

Six Paintings by Corot: Methods, Materials and Sources
Sarah Herring

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Corot and a number of articles on his technique have been published. The most significant is A. Roquebert’s essay, ‘La Technique de Corot’ (note 1). Working through the components of a painting – support, canvas preparations through to pigments and media – Roquebert married statements and theories by Corot and others, notably Alfred Robaut, author of the first catalogue of Corot’s works, and the critic Philippe Burty, with technical analysis carried out at the Laboratoire de recherche des musées de France (C2RMF) on pictures at the Louvre. This approach forms the basis of a number of other articles on Corot, all of which combine detailed examination and conservation work with quotations from original sources (note 2).

In fact Corot himself is notably reticent on technique. Robaut lists 85 carnets, which Corot used for both sketches and notes, but only a few contain notes relating to working methods. However, what is missing from Corot is made up for in Robaut’s unpublished papers, which contain a wealth of information on Corot’s technique, much of it gleaned through conversations with the artist (note 3). Roquebert quotes extensively from these papers, some of which will also be used in this article.

The National Gallery’s Corots

The Gallery’s collection of Corots is strongest in the area of landscapes, which range from an early study made on Corot’s first trip to Italy, ‘Landscape in the Roman Campagna’, through to paintings made towards the end of his life, including those made in northern France (note 4). Six of the paintings out of a total of 22 will be examined here. The question of continuity and development in Corot’s technique will be addressed, as well as the circumstances surrounding the painting of each work. The paintings have all been examined in the Gallery’s conservation studio in preparation for the first volume of the catalogue of nineteenth-century paintings. This survey has included sampling for pigments and media, and technical photography where appropriate (see Appendix II on pp. 108–9). Pigment samples have been analysed using optical and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), energy dispersive X-ray microanalysis (EDX), X-ray diffraction and microspectrophotometry (msp). Gas-Chromatography–Mass-Spectrometry (GC–MS) and FTIR-microscopy have been used to identify paint media. Some results have been published elsewhere (note 5).

Corot’s life and working practice

Corot was born in Paris in 1796, the son of a cloth merchant and a milliner. After an education at the Collège de Rouen and two abortive apprenticeships with drapers, his parents gave him the financial freedom to devote himself to painting. He initially studied with two former pupils of Pierre-Henri Valenciennes (1750– 1819), Achille Etna Michallon (1796–1822) and Jean- Victor Bertin (c.1767–1842) before making his first trip to Italy in 1825. On his return to France in 1828 he established a pattern of working during the winter months in his studio, and travelling in the spring and summer, filling numerous sketchbooks with drawings, and painting in the open air. In 1827 he made his debut at the Salon, where he was to exhibit historical and religious landscapes throughout his life. Alongside these he painted portraits and figure studies, which he never exhibited. He returned to Italy in 1834 and again in 1843, and also travelled extensively around France, as well as visiting Holland and Belgium in 1854, Switzerland on a number of occasions, and London in 1862. Corot generally presented himself as self-taught, yet his time in the ateliers of Michallon and Bertin would have given him a grounding in the principles of classical landscape and an introduction to the teachings of the academy in landscape painting, which emphasised the mastery of drawing and modelling before colour. In common with other painters of his generation Corot followed academic practice in the construction of his compositions, sketching with a pencil before painting an ébauche, or preliminary monochrome layer of darks and lights. Corot always had a large number of canvases on the go at any one time, all in different stages of completion:
These first ones [canvases] that he sketched [in pencil] were not resumed until after having undergone an incubation period. They would then be brought back to his easel in order to be sketched in. Supplied with a fairly sombre and rather poorly organized palette composed of pure tones, armed with strong and pliable brushes, the master would establish, using umber, black and white, heightened with sienna and ochre, the arrangement of his picture in terms of values and lighting effects, by first fixing everything in the two extremes: the greatest light and the greatest strengths. He thus asserted the principal forms with an almost violent firmness, which he moderated afterwards with the aid of some light scumbling. A new abandon followed this principal effort. Then when the rough sketch was quite solid, the master would try to obtain the colour and harmony of his work with the help of coloured paints, both pure and thinned (note 6).
Corot’s choice of canvases, grounds, pigments and painting media were similar to those of his fellow artists of the Barbizon school. Although early in his career it is probable that on occasion he prepared and even stretched his canvases himself, in later years he bought his canvases ready-primed (note 7). While employing a wide range of traditional pigments – earths, ochres, siennas, umbers, vermilion, and red and yellow lakes – he also made wide use of the newly available pigments, favouring cobalt blue for his skies, and using both green mixtures that he prepared himself, and new ready-made greens such as viridian and emerald green (note 8). It is not known whether Corot prepared his own paints in the early part of his career but it is likely that as an established artist he made use of ready-prepared paints. All of the paintings discussed here contain mainly heat-bodied binding oils, whether linseed, walnut or poppy. Heat-bodying the oil would improve the drying properties of the paint, and allow a smooth glossy surface with few visible brushstrokes. All three oils, linseed, walnut and poppy, would have been readily available to Corot and there are several examples where different types of oil have been detected in the same painting. This could be accounted for in part by the use of ready-prepared paints. No particular pattern can be found in the samples analysed at the National Gallery, but Corot may have bought different colours prepared in different types of oil. Additional oil, not necessarily of the same type, may also have been added to the paint to achieve the right consistency. Unfortunately it is not possible to distinguish analytically between walnut oil and a mixture of poppy and linseed oils. Results that suggest the use of walnut oil may in fact indicate a mixture, especially if poppy oil has been identified elsewhere on the painting, or the paint contains a mixture of pigments which could have been prepared in different oils.
The binding media, in a significant proportion of the paintings by Corot in the National Gallery collection, were also found to contain small quantities of natural resins. Pine resin was detected most often but copal, mastic and fir balsam have also been identified and sometimes a mixture of resins was present within one sample. The resin would have been incorporated into the paint in the form of varnish, which Corot presumably added on his palette as he worked. Where copal was identified, a prepared product such as ‘huile copal’, essentially drying oil with a little copal was probably used. The addition of a little varnish would have improved the working properties and increased the transparency and gloss of the paint, giving greater saturation of colour (note 9).
There is a marked difference between Corot’s early and late styles. His early work is distinguished by highly defined forms and fresh clear colours. In the 1850s his style changed to become softer and subtler, and he adopted a restricted range of colours, emphasising instead tonal harmonies. Throughout his life he painted landscapes based on observation but in later years he produced large numbers of studio landscapes, some based on real places, others purely imaginary, and many peopled with bathers, bacchantes and allegorical figures.
However, although his style changed dramatically over time, aspects of Corot’s working practice, such as the order in which he composed his landscapes, remained consistent. Whether painting out of doors or in the studio, he always chose to paint his trees first and the sky last: ‘a good method to follow: on your white canvas, begin with the strongest tone. Follow in order as far as the lightest tone. It is not logical to begin with the sky’ (note 10). In this he was going against the great theorist and champion of academic landscape, Valenciennes, who advised always to start with the sky as this was the most important element in the composition (note 11).

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