Painted c. 1820-1821, Vue du Panthéon à Paris is one of only two views of Paris that the young Corot painted before his first trip to Italy in 1825. Finished a year before he entered the studio of Achille Etna Michallon, it is an accomplished demonstration of the innate abilities of the young artist who would become not only one of the most renowned and beloved artists of the age but also would inspire the generation of artists of the Impressionist movement later in the century.
Because of its extremely early date, Vue du Panthéon à Paris offers the viewer a unique insight into the development of Corot’s oeuvre. Clearly painted in situ, the young artist is painting an impression of what he sees. Gone is the underlying, precise drawing which was evident in landscape painting up to the time. Instead, Corot uses quick brushstrokes that denote the architecture of the Parisian skyline in 1820, capturing the essence of the French capital. So that Corot could capture such a compressed view of the Pantheon on the Rive gauche with the church of Saint-Eustache on the right bank occupying the middle ground, the artist must have been standing in the hills of Montmartre. In the lower right corner of the picture is the dome of the late 18th century Halle au Blé, which in the second half of the 19th century would be transformed into the Bourse de Commerce.
This small canvas provides a unique glimpse into the natural talent of the great master, created as it was before the artist had received any formal instruction on the synthesis of formal landscape painting. Here we see the young Corot’s artistic talent in its raw state and understand the unlikely devotion he inspired in the artists of the Impressionist movement. We see the ability to render beautiful, clear light delineated by an astonishingly economic use of color and brushwork. Each stroke is just enough to describe the desired sensation of detail yet each is beautifully expressed. Corot’s unique style, an aesthetic sensibility which would contribute to the re-orientation of the art of landscape painting, is already at hand.
That Corot’s influence reached well into the years following his death is evident by the frequent mention of his name and work throughout the letters written by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo. As early as 1875, the young Vincent writes to Theo that he has gone to see the Corots in the Salon and specifically mentions the three paintings on view there. In the years of his artistic maturity, van Gogh maintains his high opinion and recognition of the influence of ‘pere’ Corot. ‘Although people are now working in yet another very different manner, it is the work of …Corot that remains and changes don’t affect it…I hope that you’ll often go and look at the Luxembourg and the modern paintings in the Louvre so that you get an idea of what Millet, a Jules Breton, a Daubigny, a Corot is. You can keep the rest.’ (Letter to Theo van Gogh, 22 August 1888). In A View of Paris from Montmartre (fig. 1), van Gogh uses the same motif of a composition split in two with almost half of the picture plane dedicated to the sky and effects of light. Van Gogh, too, is painting Paris from the hills of Montmartre, and he captures the architectural motifs of the roofs of the city by using the same short, confident brushstrokes as Corot had done sixty-two years before.
These small plein-air canvases exemplified an approach to landscape painting that was realistic, intimate and faithful to the topography of actual sites. They represent a new vision, which was also evident in the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable, and would ultimately form the basis for the Impressionist movement in France. The critics of the day appreciated this unique sensibility which runs throughout Corot’s oeuvre and saw in it the seeds of the new painting in France. Andre Michel, writing in 1896 and with the benefit of hindsight, observed, ‘If one could place on one side of a gallery the ‘official’ compositions that Corot painted in his first years – following the rules and for submission to the Salon to be judged by his masters and the public – and on the other side the small studies that he made on his own…one would be struck by the deep differences between them. He seems as constrained and forced in the one group as he is spontaneous, original and charming in the other’ (A. Michel, Notes sur l’art modere (peinture): Corot, Ingres, Millet, Eug. Delacroix, Raffet, Meissonier, Puvis de Chavannes. À travers les Salons, Paris, 1896, p. 14).