During the early 19th century many French painters embarked on their artistic careers by travelling to Italy in search of inspiration from the masters of the Italian Renaissance. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot first set out for Italy in 1825 and the impact of the campagna bathed in Italian light would stay with the him for the rest of his life. His interest was not confined to the cities of Rome and Venice, but expanded to rural landscapes - timeless and abundant in their untamed state.
The landscape sketches executed on paper by Corot during his first trip to Italy are considered of seminal importance in the development of French landscape painting, and marked the culmination of a tradition of working en plein-air begun some 30 years earlier by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in the Roman campagna. This body of work is considered the crucial link with the younger generation of artists who would go on to form the Barbizon School and, later, the Impressionist movement.
In April 1827, Corot began a series of plein-air works painted in the countryside around Olevano, Mariano, Albano and Civitella (fig.1). Despite Alfred Robaut's assertion that the present lot depicts Albano, it has been observed that the rocky scene seems far more reminiscent of La Serpentara near Olevano; a region outside of Rome renowned for its oak forest.
In 1827, the artist himself said: 'I have only one goal in life, which I desire to pursue with constancy: that is to paint landscapes'. Of his landscapes, the critic Edmund About wrote in praise: "No artist has more style or can better communicate his ideas in a landscape. He transforms everything he touches, he appropriates everything he paints, he never copies, and even when he works directly from nature, he invents. As they pass through his imagination, objects take on a vague and delightful form. Colours soften and melt; everything becomes fresh, young, harmonious. One can easily see that air floods his paintings, but we will never know by what secret he manages to paint air" (quoted in G. Tinterow, Corot, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Exh. Cat., pp. 236-237).
Corot's oil sketches were largely personal études, unsigned and, like the present work, kept by the artist until his death. They purposefully avoided the picturesque to concentrate instead on effects of light and colour, and to provide a quick and immediate impression which could serve as the starting point for a more elaborate picture if necessary. Here, Corot's main concern seems to have been to capture the volume of the huge rocks and the fleeting colours of the evening sky. Most of Corot's plein-air paintings from his early Italian trips were on paper and this work is no exception. According to Martin Dieterle, the art dealer Détrimont transferred this sheet of paper to canvas, most probably in the 1870s and Détrimont’s stamp remains visible on the reverse.