Even though Corot himself stated that he had ‘but one aim in life and that is to paint landscapes’, he considered the figure paintings to be his most intimate works and kept the majority of them in his studio in his personal collection. His meditative models are, in Pierre Georges words, ‘the image of his dreams in the midst of his memories’ (P. Georges and A.-M. Lecoq, La peinture dans la peinture, exh. cat., Paris, 1982-1983, p. 185). Reverie becomes a leitmotif in Corot’s figure paintings, and it perhaps reveals more about the artist’s character than the landscapes. Although generous and jovial to those who knew him, the pensive expressions of Corot’s figure paintings suggest a more sensitive and melancholy soul.
During the 19th century, Corot’s figure paintings were largely overlooked as the artist chose to only exhibit four of these during his lifetime. Yet even in his landscapes the painting of the human figure was of fundamental importance in providing the action sentimentale which he considered, following the principles of de Valenciennes, to be an essential ingredient in the conception of the poetic landscape. In the 20th century, this critical neglect of his figure paintings has been for the most part reversed, and his remarkable melancholic studies of women have been particularly admired and compared to the work of Vermeer. In 1909, the exhibition of twenty-four figure paintings at the Salon d’Automne permanently altered the way Corot’s achievement in rendering the human, and particularly female, figure was appreciated.
Corot’s first series of Italian models was painted in the winter of 1825-26 (figs. 1, 2) during the artist's first visit to Italy. These studies demonstrate the influence of his first teacher, Achille-Etna Michallon, and show the same concern with the capturing of the textures of the fabrics, the same rapidity of execution, and the same preoccupation with the human body and lack of attention to the background. However, although the young artist shows considerable interest in documenting regional costumes, he is even more intrigued by the physical expression, the position of the body and the psychological suggestion of a personality.
In Italienne debout tenant une cruche Corot has chosen to depict his model in near full-length, facing forward and clearly gazing outside of the picture plane. Her arms are stretched out at her sides in an effort to balance the cruche perched atop her head. Her raven black hair and very dark eyes are in striking constrast to her pale skin and this is echoed in the juxtaposition of the deep claret red of her underdress and the creamy white of her apron and collar. Where Michallon would concentrate on accurately capturing the details of the costume, Corot is undoubtedly more interested in capturing the attitude of his subject, and in this case, her overt sensuality.
Indeed, it is in his figure paintings, Corot comes closest to being considered a painter of modern life. The American painter John LaFarge wrote in 1908, 'the extraordinary attainment of Corot in the painting of figures is scarcely understood today even by many of his admirers and most students. And yet the people he represents, and which he represents with the innocence of a Greek, have a quality which has skipped generations of painters' (J. LaFarge, The Higher Life in Art: A Series of Lectures on the Barbizon School of France Inaugurating the Scammon Course at the Art Institute of Chicago, New York, 1908, p. 162).
Even one of the foremost artists of the Impressionist movement, Edgar Degas, expressed his admiration for Corot’s rendering of the human form. Degas, who, when asked to agree that Corot knew how to draw a tree, replied, 'Yes, indeed...and I think he is even finer in his figures' (Moreau-Nélaton in A. Robaut, op. cit. 1905, vol. 1, p. 336). Corot’s figural works resonated with the artists of the Impressionist movement and beyond, and his young women’s haunting visages found expression in the figurative and abstract work of Picasso, who became interested in Corot in the 1910s, making a free copy of one of his figure portraits.
This work, most likely executed in his studio upon his return from his first trip to Italy when he was just starting out on his journey as an artist, remained in his studio his entire life and was not sold until after his death. Corot considered his small portraits and figure studies to be very personal objects, and he would rarely part with them. It is in these renditions, that we see a different side of an artist known primarily for his landscapes – we see a glimpse into his soul. Even this early in his long and productive career, Corot has essentially shattered the narrative in favor of a purely painterly execution. Corot painted ‘for the pleasure of painting, for the joy of capturing on canvas a lovely dark gaze or harmonizing the white blouse with the yellow of a sleeve or the red of a skirt’ (É. Moreau-Nélaton, ‘Les figures de Corot,’ L’Art et les artistes, 2 December 1905, pp. 178-179). The young artist is experimenting with the concept of rendering the human figure directly, and the painterly depiction of his model becomes an end unto itself. By not placing his model into any historical, narrative or topological context Corot makes a leap into modernity that will be seized upon by the artists of the Impressionist and Modern movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Édouard Manet (fig. 3). Much of the power of this intimate painting is embedded in the directness and intensity of her gaze, which is that is a very real woman and not an idealized ‘type’, which creates the unusual intimacy found within this extraordinary painting.
In 1896, 21 years after Corot’s death, André Michel wrote, ‘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 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 moderne (peinture): Corot, Ingres, Millet, Eug. Delacroix, Raffet, Meisonnier, Puvis de Chavannes. À travers les Salons. Paris, 1896, p. 14).