Corot wrote to a friend in 1872, 'I am fine, I'm working as if I were seventy' (Corot, letter to Jean de la Rochenoire, August 29, 1871, quoted in Robaut, 1905, vol. 4, p. 345).
During the last years of his life, public affection for Corot had deepened. His popularity had not waned and collectors and dealers alike waited impatiently for his paintings to dry so they could be released from the artist's studio. At the Salon, he continued to be a success, although now that he was either on the jury or served hors concours, his works were automatically accepted. The reviewers of the Salons wrote long elegies on the 'poet of the landscape'.
Corot had become the grand old man of French painting. Young painters such as Berthe Morisot sought out his instruction and approval. Camille Pissarro described himself in his entries to the Salon as 'student of Corot' in an effort to win more respect from his contemporaries and many others did the same. And unexpectedly, Corot was adopted by the critics of the New Painting: Emile Cola, Theodore Duret and Edmond Duranty all considered Corot to be the progenitor of Impressionism. At one time or another, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Pierre Auguste Renoir all experimented with Corot's method and technique.
In Ville d'Avray - Le chevalier à l'entrée du bois, Corot deftly captures the effect of the diffuse, pale sunlight. The figure and his horse merge into the landscape and are in complete harmony with their surroundings. 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. Colors soften and melt; everything becomes fresh, young and 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, exhibition catalogue, pp. 236-237).
Corot has deftly combined all of the elements of his style into Ville d'Avray - Le chevalier à l'entrée du bois, and he uses his unique ability to portray light to bind these elements into a cohesive whole. A figure on horseback, his back to the viewer, makes his way down a sun-dappled path heading to a forest. A woman, perhaps a faggot gatherer taking a rest from her back breaking work, is seated to the side of the road and watches the rider approach. The path is lined by silvery toned birch trees which filter the sunlight onto the sandy path. In the distance, the village peeks through the trees that surround it, hinting at the rider's destination.
With a palette of grays, greens, browns and white, Corot has captured the essence of a late afternoon on the edge of a forest. The silence is palpable, the serenity complete. Overhead, patches of blue sky are punctuated by bright clouds. Through his palette and his ability to capture nature's subtleties, Corot has told the viewer that it is late afternoon in summer.
At the time of his death in 1916, the previous owner of the work, James J. Hill, the founder of the American Transcontinental Railroad network, had amassed a collection of paintings by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot rivaled only by that of the French collector and critic Etienne Moreau-Nélaton, and the pioneer American collectors of Impressionist paintings, Harry O. and Louisine Havemeyer. At the inauguration of the Minneapolis Museum of Arts on January 7, 1915, Hill was asked to speak and his words reveal the sentiments of a collector very ahead of his time. 'I began in a modest way to make a collection. I bought a Rousseau, not a large one but, fortunately for me, a very good one. Then I bought a Corot, a small one, but these pictures were of first-class quality. They mean so much to me. Make your standard high and then live to it. The Institute is to pitch the key, do not pitch the key too low'.
Hill's collection of Corot included eight figure paintings as well as several landscapes. Ville d'Avray - Le chevalier a l'entrée des bois exemplifies the highest degree of quality for Corot as well as the standards of excellence that served as the criteria for the formation of Hill's collection.
We are grateful to Martin Dieterle and Claire Lebeau for confirming the authenticity of this work.