In the early years of the 19th century there were two approaches to landscape taken in French art. The classical tradition, modeled after the great Italian landscapists Annibale Carracci and Salvator Rosa and the French painters Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet, was experiencing a renaissance, fueled by the theories of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. These artists maintained the idealized historical landscape while at the same time renewing it with a more realistic depiction of nature. The artists who embraced this ideology all traveled to Italy, were inspired by the great French and Italian masters of the 17th century, and were all painters of historical landscapes, humanistic in approach and recomposed in the studio. During his early years, and under the tutelage of Achille-Etna Michallon, the young Camille Corot was introduced to this school of artistic thought.
In contrast to this imaginary, idealized landscape of the Neoclassicists, another approach to painting was realistic, intimate and faithful to the topography of the actual sites, drawing more on the example of Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th and 18th centuries. These two tendencies should not be viewed as opposites and the ease with which the French painters of the early 19th century assimilated aspects of both theories cannot be ignored. Admiration for Poussin was compatible with enthusiasm for Ruisdael, while embracing the work of Claude did not discount the contributions of Hobbema.
At this time, French artists also discovered the realism of the late 18th century English landscape artists, particularly that of John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. These English artists set forth a new vision with an emphasis on realism and expressiveness which would also influence Corot throughout his long career.
Corot entered the studio of Michallon in 1822 where he threw himself into landscape painting. Michallon died shortly thereafter, but he exerted a profound influence on the young Corot who wrote: ‘I made my first landscape from nature at Arceuil under the eye of this painter, whose only advice was to render with the greatest scrupulousness everything I saw before me. The lesson worked; since then I have always treasured precision’ (T. Silvestre, Histoire des artistes vivant, français et étrangers: Études après nature, Paris, 1853, p. 75).
Michallon passed on to Corot his feelings for the Classical landscape tradition and through his first teacher, Corot developed the foundation of his own art, finding a balance between the realism of plein-air painting and the application of memory and imagination to works composed in the studio.
The young artist made his first trip to Italy in 1825 and remained there until 1828. While there he made numerous landscape and figure studies, architectural studies and spent a great deal of time studying the effects of light created by moving or still water and worked to master the play of light in space. Once back in France, Corot took great satisfaction in his Italian stay. He had amassed numerous studies which now embellished the walls of his studio, he had developed an excellent and unique technique for capturing nature and he had grappled with and succeeded at composing a large studio landscape which had been accepted by the Salon.
For Corot at this time, the study was an essential element that preceded the studio landscape. When working in the studio itself, the artist could dispense with the study, and instead rely on his memory and impressions. Italy had nourished his visual memories, and it was in this moment that Corot developed his passion for creating the souvenirs which would so dominate his later artistic career. The views he painted entirely or partially from nature on his return from Italy are regarded as among his most beautiful and accomplished. The artist demonstrated a complete mastery of perspective, light and construction that would pervade his life’s work and serve to inspire a generation of artists that would follow him.
In the years immediately following his return from his first trip to Italy, Corot exhibited frequently and regularly at the Salon. In 1831, he exhibited four paintings, in 1833, he exhibited one painting, and then in 1834, he showed three paintings, probably including the present lot under the title Site d’Italie. During this period, the paintings that he showed at the Salon had essentially two themes: views based upon his studies and memories of his trip to Italy, and views of the forest of Fontainebleau.
Italiens d’Albano was composed in Corot’s studio in 1834, most likely just before his second trip to Italy which lasted only six months. The work incorporates the artist’s memories of this picturesque area just outside Rome where he spent a significant amount of time during his first excursion abroad. The classical influence of his formative years under the tutelage of Michallon and his second teacher Jean-Victor Bertin is clearly demonstrated in Italiens d’Albano; however, all of the elements that contributed to the successes of his later career and earned him the title ‘Poet of the Landscape’ are evident in this charming painting.
The artist has adroitly mastered the aerial perspective, leading the eye of the viewer from a point above the landscape itself, down the winding path, through the light green meadow and to the shores of Lake Albano. The artist’s penchant for dividing the landscape into distinct fore, middle and background is accomplished with the addition of figural groups; the caped figure walking the path by the two seated women, the man in the red vest walking up the hill, the shoreline of Lake Albano and the architectural element in the far background all work together seamlessly to take the viewer on a walk through a landscape. The effects of light and shadow on the landscape itself, from the darkened rocky outcroppings that dominate the right side of the painting, to the sunlight illuminating the middle ground, to the shimmering water under the clear Italian sky in the near background, demonstrate the burgeoning abilities of an artist who would ultimately become the spiritual link between Poussin and Sisley, Claude Lorrain and Monet.