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Property of a Private U.S. Collector

La Plâtrière (Un village dans la montagne)

La Plâtrière (Un village dans la montagne)
signed ‘Corot’ (lower left)
oil on paper on panel
10 ¼ x 14 ¾ in. (26 x 37.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1830.
E. Magnien, by 1893.
His estate sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 23-24 March 1905, lot 9.
with Axel Beskow, New York and Hollywood, by 1923.
Private collection, Kansas City.
Helen Evans Smith (1904-1995), Pasadena, CA.
with James Mackinnon, London, by 23 October 1996.
with Montgomery Gallery, San Francisco.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner, 11 November 1997.
'La Journée d'hier a l'Hôtel Drouot', The New York Herald, Paris, 23 March 1905, p. 5.
'Succession E. Magnien', Journal des artistes, Paris, 23 March 1905, p. 3.
'Succession E. Magnien', Journal des artistes, Paris, 19 November 1905, p. 4892.
A. Robaut, L'Œuvre de Corot: catalogue raisonné et illustré, Paris, 1965, vol. II, pp. 122-123, no. 344, illustrated, as Un village dans la montagne.
Stockholm, Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and New York, Consignment Arts Building, Axel Beskow Art Collection, 1921, p. 9, no. 43.
New York, W. M. Brady & Co., Inc., Aspects of Landscape: 1760-1880, 23 October-15 November 1996, no. 25, illustrated.

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Lot Essay

Originally dated to circa 1830 in Alfred Robaut’s catalogue raisonné of Corot’s work, in 1995 the late Corot scholar Martin Dieterle suggested instead an earlier date of circa 1823-24, placing the work before Corot’s first trip to Italy, rather than after this formative event in the young artist’s life. This earlier date allows us to situate the work not long after Corot began his earliest formal training in the studio of Achille-Etna Michallon in 1822, and during his training with his second teacher, Jean-Victor Bertin. Such an early date sets La Plâtrière (Un village dans la montagne) apart as an accomplished demonstration of the innate abilities of the young artist who would not only become one of the most renowned and beloved artists of his age but also inspire the generation of artists of the Impressionist movement later in the century.
As an early work, the present painting offers the viewer a unique insight into the development of Corot’s oeuvre. Like so many of the his early works, it is painted on paper and as such was likely painted in situ, with the young artist painting an impression of what he saw on the easily portable medium. Gone is the underlying, precise drawing which was the foundation of landscape painting up to that time. Instead, Corot uses quick brushstrokes which capture the essence of the scene, delineating the buildings of the foreground and ridges of the middle and background with acute painterly economy. Even at this early stage, Corot’s ability to render beautiful, clear light is apparent. Corot’s unique style, an aesthetic sensibility which would contribute to the re-orientation of the art of landscape painting, is already at hand, and it is no surprise that on his first trip to Italy only a few years later Corot’s contemporary Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny singled him out already as the best painter among their group of friends.
Corot’s earliest plein air sketches were generally centered on Paris and the surrounding areas, and the limestone quarries and plaster of Paris kilns to the south and east of Paris would have been easily accessible for the artist, though quarries at Carrière-Saint-Denis or Mantes, where Corot often traveled to visit friends, may have also provided inspiration for the subject. It has also been suggested that Corot’s interest in painting a kiln may have been sparked by Gericault’s Le four à plâtre, now in the Louvre (fig. 1). The painting was included in the auction of Gericault’s work which took place after his death in 1824 and the composition similarly has a rounded track at left with horses and a cart approaching a kiln at right. Certainly the inclusion of an industrial building is an unusual choice for Corot. However, the small cluster of buildings so dwarfed by the hills they are nestled amongst may have been symbolically resonant as a reflection of the power of nature, especially for an artist who had recently dedicated himself to landscape painting. This approach also represents a marked contrast to Gericault’s handling of the same subject.
Corot’s earliest works (fig. 2, and catalogued as number 2 in Robaut’s catalogue raisonné) illustrate an early interest in showing a darkened foreground through which can be seen a more expansive, well-lit background. In La Plâtrière (Un village dans la montagne), Corot has begun to play with this formula, illuminating the foreground, but using a shadowed middle ground with a small opening between the two ridges opening on to a well-lit background to function much as the gate opening does in his earliest painting of the Bois-Guillaume. What is most striking in the present work is the young artist’s confident handling of the sharply angled light on the undulating contours and angled forms of the landscape, the warmest orange tones of the late afternoon sun just becoming apparent in a few places at the peaks of the ridges. The small pond at lower right presages Corot’s extraordinary skill in capturing reflection in his landscapes throughout his later career as well.
Corot’s plein-air works exemplified an approach to landscape painting that was realistic, intimate and faithful to the topography of actual sites. They represent a new vision, which was also evident in the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable, and would ultimately form the basis for the Impressionist movement in France. The critics of the day appreciated this unique sensibility which runs throughout Corot’s oeuvre and was apparent in the seeds of the new painting in France. André Michel, writing in 1896 and with the benefit of hindsight, observed, ‘If one could place on one side of a gallery the ‘official’ compositions that Corot painted in his first years – following the rules and for submission to the Salon to be judged by his masters and the public – and on the other side the small studies that he made on his own…one would be struck by the deep differences between them. He seems as constrained and forced in the one group as he is spontaneous, original and charming in the other’ (A. Michel, Notes sur l’art modere (peinture): Corot, Ingres, Millet, Eug. Delacroix, Raffet, Meissonier, Puvis de Chavannes. À travers les Salons, Paris, 1896, p. 14).

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