In the present painting Corot has depicted the banks of l'étang neuf and the surrounding hills near his lakeside home in Ville d'Avray, a small commune on the outskirts of Paris, where the artist's family had lived for nearly six decades. Time seems to stand still, as if in a dream about to be revealed, in a world newly awakened. Corot in fact preferred to work during the very early morning hours, lending this scene the veiled, silvery light and misty effects that are famously characteristic of his late landscapes. The artist advised his viewers: "To enter fully into one of my landscapes, one must have the patience to allow the mists to clear, one only penetrates it gradually, and when one has, one should enjoy it there" (quoted in M. Clarke, Corot and the Art of Landscape, London, 1991, p. 121).
Fame came relatively late to Corot, during the mid-1860s, when his annual contributions of landscapes to the Salon met with wide acclaim from both critics and the public alike. He showed seven important paintings at the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris, for which he received a medal and the title of Officier de la Légion d'honneur. Ten pictures had been included the previous year in a group exhibition of French painting shown in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
Collectors clamored at Corot's door, and the artist was hard pressed to meet the demand for his landscapes. These paintings represent a deeply felt and aesthetically refined impression of time and place, and were prized for their sensitivity and poetry. Corot wrote: "We must never forget to envelop reality in the atmosphere it first had when it burst upon our view" (quoted in M. Clarke, op. cit., p. 107). Corot's landscapes were unlike the more bluntly naturalistic and prosaic scenes of the Realist school, by Courbet and Daubigny, and more lately their younger followers Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley. Théodore de Banville praised Corot in his review of the Salon of 1861: "This is not a landscape painter, this is the very poet of landscape, who breathes the sadness and joys of nature... The bond, the great bond that makes us the brothers of brooks and trees, he sees it; his figures, as poetic as his forests, are not strangers in the woodland that surrounds them" (quoted in ibid., p. 262).
Progressively minded commentators, as well as painters themselves, acknowledged Corot as one of the significant forebears of the very newest trends, which Edmond Duranty discussed in his seminal pamphlet The New Painting, published in 1876, a year after Corot's death. Duranty wrote: "The roots of the new painting lie also in the work of the great Corot, that man who was always searching, and whom Nature seems to have loved because she revealed so many of her secrets to him" (quoted in full text version, The New Painting, exh. cat., The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, p. 41). Castagnary wrote of Corot's pictures in the 1874 Salon, the last to which the painter contributed during his lifetime: "A master in his turn, he saw many generations of young men pass through his studio. They came to ask him the secret of his strength. 'Feel deeply,' he told them, 'and communicate your emotion.' How many eyes did he open? How many hands unbind? How many brains set free! And there he is, still standing, still struggling, as young as ever" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 374).