The 1840s were a time of transition for Camille Corot. There is a scarcity of documentation for a large part of Corot’s middle years until the beginning of the 1850s when he began to live on his own. There are no journals from this period and only details about his public life are known, such as his admissions to the Salon (and the rejections) as well as his growing reputation.
In the early years of the decade, from which dates Campagne italienne, Corot’s style became increasingly simplified and the influence of his early devotion to Nicholas Poussin and the Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century is clearly evident. However, it was to Claude Lorrain that Corot increasingly turned for inspiration at this time and these influences appeared in a series of highly lyrical compositions which drew acclaim from the critics for this expression of a new impulse in the work of the master. In this decade, Corot created a type of pastoral evocation previously unknown, suggesting poetry, or a condition of the soul. It was these impulses which would lead to his development of a landscape style universally acknowledged as the pinnacle of landscape painting in the 19th century.
This new summary style and the artist’s attempt to depict the landscape so directly was at first met with harsh judgement by the critics. Corot suffered a series of rejections which lasted through the decade, some of which solicited an outpouring of sympathy by critics and fellow artists alike. Corot worked on, and the rejections came each year until 1847, which two paintings were rejected. This was the last time this would happen in the artist’s lifetime.
Although there were official rejections from the Salon, the critics and writers were enthusiastic about Corot’s originality. One anonymous critic stressed this originality and ‘his rare quality of having a sense of style, color, and arrangement that are his alone and like no one else’s’ (St. L. (Louis-Stéphane Leclerc?), ‘Exposition de 1840’, Le National, 19 March 1840). In the same year, the critic Charles Blanc wrote: ‘M. Corot follows no one’s dictate but his own. I would wager that in the realm of painting no one else has understood the idyll in the same way…there is an inexpressible refinement of sensuality in the appearance of this temperate nature, in which reality blends marvelously with the ideal (C. Blanc, ‘Salon de 1840,’ Revue des progrès 3, 1 May 1840, pp. 356-366).
The austere landscape of Compagne italienne was possibly inspired by the region around Montpelier where Corot traveled in 1836, and the artist has added aspects of the Italian landscape sketched and remembered from his visits in the late 1820s. This stark landscape, which appears in several of Corot’s most important compositions of the late 1830s, was the chief cause of the negative reception of his work in the early 1840s. However, to the modern viewer, the elements of the composition – the foreground plunged into shadow, the water barely visible, the middle and backgrounds strongly lit – presage the most satisfying aspects of the work of the mature artist. This movement from dark to light would be refined, distilled and culminate in the most lyrical works of the 1850s and 1860s.
Eugène Pellentan saw this in Corot’s work as early as 1840, writing: ‘No painter since Claude Lorrain studied light better. M. Corot seeks out not only the shape, the line, in a word the anatomy of nature, but also the very life of the landscape, the attitudes of the trees, the different way that leaves move, the smoke that fills a glade at certain hours of the evening, the diversity and value of the tones in relation to each other. Without making the landscape into a kind of architecture dominated by symmetry, where the hand of man eclipses the hand of God, he has managed to strike a balance between the ideal, which is the painter’s soul, and the reality that is nature’ (E. Pelletan, ‘Salon de 1841,' La Presse, 5 May 1841).