Dated circa 1865-1870, La danse des trois bergères was painted during the most creative and successful periods in Corot’s career. By this time, Corot had perfected the misty, often idyllic pastoral landscapes for which he became so revered. Corot was considered to be the leading landscape painter of his time, and La danse des trois bergères is an exquisite example not only of his innate ability to capture his local environs, but also his ability to translate onto his canvas the atmospheric effects of any given time of day.
The contemporary critic Maxime Du Camp, after reviewing the Salon of 1864, explained that Corot ‘never copies nature, he dreams it and reproduces it as he sees it in his reveries: gracious reveries that belong to the land of the fairies…Is his color correct? Is his drawing exact and pure? It doesn’t even occur to me to think about it, so powerfully does this poetry move and captivate me’ (M. Du Camp, ‘Le Salon de 1864’, Reveries des deux mondes, 2nd, ser. 51, June 1, 1864, p. 160).
Théodore Duret best defined a key quality of Corot’s art in the 1860s when he noted that the painter fixed on canvas not only the visual spectacle before him, but also ‘the exact sensation of something he experienced’ (Théodore Duret, Les peintres français en 1867, Paris, 1867, p. 27). Théodore de Banville expressed this observation perfectly when he wrote, ‘This is not a landscape painter, the 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 to the woodlands that surrounds them. He knows, more than anyone, he has discovered all the customs of boughs and leaves; and now that he is sure that he will not distort their inner life, he can dispense with all servile imitation (Théodore de Banville, ‘Le Salon de 1861’ Revue fantanstique 2, July 1, 1861, pp. 235, 236).
The artist himself recalled, ‘I never hurry to arrive at details; the masses and the character of a picture interest me before anything else,’ (Anonymous, ‘Préceptes de Corot, L’Amour de l’art 17, February 1936, p. 72). Even when painting outdoors, Corot positioned himself away from his subject in order to view the scene as a whole before forming his composition. In these works, masses and forms come before draftsmanship, character comes before tonality. It is interesting to note that in the 1860s, Corot became interested in photography and it is at this time that his paintings take on a more monochromatic quality.
‘What there is to see in a painting, or rather what I am looking for, is the form, the whole, the value of the tones…That is why for me the color comes after, because I love more than anything else the overall effect, the harmony of the tones, while color gives you a kind of shock that I don’t like. Perhaps it is the excess of this principle that makes people say I have leaden tones’ (Ibid., p. 72).
In La danse des trois bergères, three young girls dance beneath a massive tree while a fourth looks on, playing a flute. It is evening and the light is soft and diffuse, bathing the dancing figures in muted tones echoed by the landscape beyond. The inclusion of these dancing figures into the landscape harkens back to Corot’s Neoclassical roots, and with the branches of the overhanging tree mimicking the poses of the three dancers, Corot has completely integrated the figures into his landscape. The composition harkens back to Une Matinée (La danse des nymphes), the artist’s great critical success of 1850 (fig. 1), with its group of dancers in a sunset landscape. The present work, executed later in the artist’s career, displays the more atmospheric effects characteristic of the work of the 1860s.
We are grateful to Claire Lebeau and martin Dieterle for confirming the authenticity of this work.