The present work is a major addition to the corpus of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's oeuvre. By far the most finished of the six recorded paintings of Naples by the artist, it is also one of his largest works on paper.
Corot spent approximately seven weeks in Naples in the early spring of 1828, painting more in the surrounding campagna than the city itself. After over two years in Italy his style had evolved considerably. Whereas in his early Roman works Corot preferred the earthy tones and contrasts of light and shade (for example lot 175), he gradually became more interested in tonal harmonies, discovering the silvery light that eventually become the hallmark of his later career. As Peter Galassi writes, '...he preferred the raking light and subtle transitions of early morning or late afternoon; and instead of working with the light behind him, he often painted facing into the light. It is as if he had transferred his allegiance from Poussin to Claude, exchanging the former's airless geometries for the latter's atmospheric harmonies.' (P. Galassi, Corot in Italy, Yale, 1991, p. 199).
The present work depicts the limpid light of early morning, facing East towards Vesuvius. The technique of painting into the sun, à contre jour is one that Corot first developed in late 1826 at Piediluco (fig. 1), and carried over into the present work. The overarching mood in both paintings is of complete stillness, and there is only the subtlest transition between light and water. The low light dissolves contrasts and mutes the brown towns of the buildings on the left, with only the hulls of the two boats creating any sense of strong relief. Human activity is limited to the tiny fishing boat in the background and the figure on the far left, both of which are almost completely subsumed into the composition.
The high level of finish, as well as the existence of a very detailed preparatory drawing (fig. 2), and the existence of carefully spaced pinholes around the edge of the paper (used either for support or to square up the painting to a drawing) suggest that the present work was almost certainly executed in a studio, possibly in Rome. It is quite different in effect to a similar composition, but painted en plein air, which Corot executed around the same time (fig 3.). The painting contains certain characteristics that are only found in early works of this period, such as the detailed rendition of human figures in the foreground, which can also be found in a few Venice paintings of the period. The work is also notable for combining very defined motifs - such as the boats and rocks, which balance the sweeping curve of the bay -- and a highly suffused atmosphere.
Certain key details of the present work bear testament to Corot's extraordinary powers of observation. For example, the boats which can just be distinguished on the horizon reflect the daily habits of Neopolitan fishermen, who invariably set off in the first light of day. Their departure was timed to coincide the early morning winds, the atmospheric effect of which is described by the vaporous horizon, sweeping across the bay of Naples as the sun starts to warm the land, but not yet strong enough to disturb the stillness of the bay close to the city shoreline.
The present is sold with photo-certificate no. 4300, dated 21 April 2008, by Martin Dieterle and Claire Lebeau, and will be included in the forthcoming Sixth Supplement to the Robaut catalogue raisonné.