“There is only one master here—Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing.”
- Claude Monet
One of the world’s most important artists, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s contributions to the history of art are immeasurable. Acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest landscape painters and widely regarded as the first Impressionist, Corot's paintings served as inspiration for entire generations of artists who followed him. In this phenomenal and monumental work, entitled Le Passeur (The Ferryman), his groundbreaking ability to express the very essence of the landscape with subtle poeticism and impressionistic luminosity is clear.
The work is both a meditation on nature’s beauty and a study in serenity, deftly reflecting the artist’s own self-confessed affinity to retreat from the world. The ferryman's boat, mirrored in a tranquil sheet of water, contributes to the calm of the evening scene, while also offering a subtle question as to man’s place in nature. The subject of the ferryman was a familiar one to Corot, who returned to the subject time and time again. A second example, just half the size of the present piece, is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), while another earned him significant critical acclaim when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1873. The present piece remarkably shares the brilliance of these smaller works, and Corot deftly captures the monumentality of the French landscape with his renowned lyricism.
Once owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, Le Passeur was part of the celebrated Henry Field Memorial Collection, along with other pivotal masterpieces such as The Song of the Lark by Jules Adolphe Breton (1884) and Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields by Jean-François Millet (1864). It bears all of the hallmarks of his beloved style. His charming tendency to animate his landscapes with a note of brilliant color is seen in the vibrant red of a ferry passenger's cap, which serves as a beacon in the vast canvas. His brushstrokes, feathery and light, transformed the neoclassical landscape of his predecessors; rather than idealism and order, Corot discovered an intrinsic poetry in nature’s powerful presence. His persistence in capturing variations of light and atmosphere in the same setting portends the innovations of the Impressionists – just 20 years later Monet would do the same when he painted, over and over again, the façade of the cathedral at Rouen. Yet, it was his steadfastness to his style and plein air technique that was the greatest influence on those budding young artists around him. The great Camille Pissarro, in particular, fell under his influence, and he persistently upheld Corot as an example of independence to the Impressionists.
Corot received a classical education in Rouen before turning to painting, at which time he studied with Achille Etna Michallon and Jean-Victor Bertin, both pupils of the leading historical landscape painter Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. He visited the countryside of Rome and produced plein air studies, capturing the area’s natural beauty and classical antiquity. His fresh, starkly lit renditions reflect the debate of the day that sought to reconcile classically inspired idealizations with closely observed depictions of light and climate.
He debuted at the Paris Salon in 1827 and would continue to exhibit there his entire life. Many of these paintings, particularly those produced later in his career, were purchased by the state for public museums, as well as by important collectors such as Emperor Napoleon III. For his enduring contribution to the arts, Corot was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1846 and an Officer in 1867. At the Munich International Exposition of 1869, he was made a Knight of the Order of St. Michael.
As seen in this extraordinary example, Corot’s work shows great strength, purity and a deep understanding of the French landscape. His use of light and shadow breathes life into the canvas and gives the subject an exceptional dimension of realism. Corot was profoundly influential both upon his contemporaries and later generations of artists. Those who counted him as their greatest inspiration include Daubigny, Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, Gustave Courbet and Berthe Morisot.
Canvas: 36” high x 52 1/2” wide
Frame: 45 3/4” high x 62” wide
Signature: Signed "Corot" (lower left)
Arnold & Tripp, Paris
Durand- Ruel, Paris, 1889
Durand-Ruel, New York, 1889
Henry Field, Chicago, 1891
by descent to his wife, Florence Lathrop Field, Chicago
Gift to The Art Institute of Chicago, 1894
Max E. Greenberg, New York
by descent to his wife, Filomen D’Agostino Greenberg
Alexander Gallery, New York
Private collection, California, 2014
M.S. Rau Antiques, 2016
About Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Known for bridging the Neoclassic tradition of allegory set in nature with Realism and plein air practice, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot embarked on his artistic career by studying landscape painting. Although he initially struggled to gain acceptance in the establishment, Corot flourished as a landscapist, benefiting from multiple trips around Europe, especially Italy. His early oil sketches, painted outdoors and characterized by their bright colors, fluid brushstrokes, and prioritization of the expression of mood and atmosphere over topographical details, greatly influenced the Impressionists. In addition to poetic landscapes he painted portraits, and, seeking greater recognition at the Paris Salon, biblical and mythological scenes, which were considered the highest form of painting. Despite only moderate success in the Salon, his body of work earned accolades from the influential poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and fellow artists such as Eugène Delacroix.
French, 1796-1875, Paris, France, based in Paris, France