When Camille Corot’s figure paintings last went on display more than a century ago, they stunned Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who both later paid tribute to the French painter in their groundbreaking cubist creations.
Until December 31, the National Gallery of Art in Washington is presenting dozens of Corot’s portraits of women that are some of the most intimate, rarely seen and modern works of an artist celebrated for his dreamy landscapes.
They reveal the 19th-century painter as a missing link between the staid formalism of classical and romantic painting with the impressionism and modernism that followed.
The tension of works caught between these radically different approaches is palpable. With these portraits, Corot pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable as a finished painting in ways he never dared with his popular landscapes, of which he created nearly 3,000.
“It was a rarefied arena in which he could be more experimental and try out new things,” said exhibition curator Mary Morton, the head of the gallery’s department of French paintings.
The show includes works loaned from some of the most prestigious public and private collections in Europe and the United States.
There are nudes – daringly devoid of classical references – that are almost comical riffs on myths and models, often dressed in Italian “peasant” garb and imbued with a kind of erotic melancholy particular to Corot, complete with nonchalant cleavage.
The pictures are sometimes hazy but the languid faces emerge into sharper focus with near-abstract elements painted with quick, loose brushstrokes.
The sometimes unsettling aesthetics paved the way towards painting for the sake of painting, where a picture that deliberately reveals the artist’s hand is presented as finished without being completely resolved.
Unlike a separate show at the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris earlier this year, this one focuses exclusively on Corot’s female subjects, apart from a lone picture representing Saint Sebastian.
A portrait that bears the mysterious title Woman with a Pearl (circa 1868-1870) references both Johannes Vermeer’s famous portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring and, with her unsettling gaze, none less than Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Corot created a myth all of his own in Bacchante with a Panther (1860), an intriguing composition featuring a child mounted on a panther while a reclining nude dangles a dead bird before the feline’s mouth, the whole thing made even more enigmatic by dark lighting.
Coming full circle, Corot towards the end of his life in the late 1860s and early 1870s depicted some of his models in studio settings, sitting down with one hand touching a painting one of his landscapes and the other holding a mandolin, hinting at his love of music.
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