In 1851, after the death of his mother in February, Corot traveled to Arras, Brittany and Normandy. In July, he went to La Rochelle with his friends Brizard and Comairas, lodging with a local merchant and painting frequently with his friends. After staying in La Rochelle for three weeks, the artist returned to Paris with one oil painting, Vue du port de La Rochelle (fig. 1) and several oil studies, entirely painted on-site. This group of La Rochelle images and other townscapes executed in the early fifties have been largely regarded as the most modern images of Corot's oeuvre. These were not well received by the critics when Corot attempted to exhibit them, and only in 1889 did Robaut manage to get Vue du port de La Rochelle exhibited at the Exposition Centenelle. It was hung in a corner for the duration of the exhibition.
When Renoir saw the La Rochelle studies in 1918 he told the art dealer Rene Gimpel: 'There you have the greatest genius of the century, the greatest landscape artist who ever lived. He was called a poet. What a misnomer! He was a naturalist. I have studied ceaselessly without ever being able to approach his art. I have often gone to the places where he painted: Venice, La Rochelle, ah, what trouble they've given me! It was his fault, Corot's, that I wanted to emulate him. The towers of La Rochelle - he got the color of the stones exactly, and I could never do it.' (Gimpel, 1963, entry for March 20th, 1918, p. 28).
Un port de mer en Bretagne has not been identified as a specific place; however it is clearly meant to depict a village on the northern coast of France. It bears much in common with the La Rochelle studies, with its cool, diffuse light and the extraordinary symphony of whites, grays and blues. The houses nestle together along the quai, and their white and gray facades topped by darker grey roofs serve as an anchor to create the solid middle ground of the painting. They are almost abstract in their simplicity. The foreground with the mound of earth and the bassin depicted at low tide presages the exquisite passages which are found in Corot's later landscapes. The tufts of greenery in foreground are painted with such delicate impasto that they shimmer softly in any light; the shallow pool of water at the bottom of the basin is still deep enough to reflect the houses as well as the cloudy sky.
Corot has captured perfectly a late afternoon on the northern coast of France. The atmosphere is almost palpable; the cool, silvery light is that of sunlight filtered through puffy clouds. The overall effect is one of quiet - the boats are empty and moored for the evening, their occupants walking towards the village at the end of day. All the shadows are softened by the cloudy sky. Corot has also captured expertly the effect of the clouds at the shore. The more even clouds over the village are suddenly broken up into denser, more ominous looking formations out to sea.
Charles Baudelaire, one of the great writers of the 19th Century and a fervent admirer of Romantic art, wrote in his Salon review of 1845:
'Obviously this artist loves nature sincerely, and knows how to look at her with as much knowledge as love. The qualities by which the excels are so strong - because they are qualities of heart and soul - that M. Corot's influence is visible today in almost all the works of the young landscape painters - in those, above all, who already had the good sense to imitate him and to profit by his manner before he was famous and at a time when his reputation did not extend beyond the world of the studios.' (C. Baudelaire, Art in Paris, 1845 - 1862. Salons and Other Exhibitions, (ed. J. Mayne), London, 1965, p. 24).
We would like to thank Martin Dieterle for confirming the authenticity of this work.
(fig. 1) Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot, Vu du port de La Rochelle (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven).