The present work was painted at the peak of Corot's career. The Exposition Universelle of 1855 had earned Corot a first class medal, and his reputation grew steadily, culminating in the Salon of 1859. It was during this period that Corot came to be recognized as the greatest French landscape painter by critics such as Philippe de Chennevières who called him a "poet of the landscape". 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'.
Corot's work had a profound impact on a number of younger artists who eventually became members of the Impressionist movement: Berthe Morisot was his student for a period and Camille Pissarro described himself as a pupil in the Salon brochures.
Claude Monet stated in 1897: "There is only one master here - Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing" reflecting the sentiments of nearly every important artist who worked during Corot's lifetime.
Étretat. Un Moulin à vent is an exceptional example of Corot's mature style. Painted en plein air, landscapes of this type could be considered the best ever produced by the artist. The brushwork is vigorous and the painting is imbued with a vivid sense of light. The present work exemplifies not only his innate ability to capture his local environs, but his capability of poetically translating in paintthe atmospheric effects associated with a particular time of day and season of the year in a very spontaneous way. Corot captures the effect of the diffused, pale sunlight. The figures are in complete harmony with their surroundings. The windmill here depicted is on the chemin de Saint-Clair and was owned by the miller Victor-Nicolas Thomas.
Étretat was a thriving fishing village 26 kilometres east of Le Havre. It had been a popular with Delacroix and was later favoured by Courbet and Monet, to quote but a few, all captivated by the beauty and the dramatic landscapes of the area (fig. 1).
The critic Edmund About wrote: "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).