Le Batelier passant derrière les Arbres de la Rive was painted in 1865-70. Jules Castagnary wrote not long thereafter: "(Corot) played his role in the revolution from which the modern landscape emerged. He was one of that first glorious group who so boldly battled the influence, then supreme, of the Michallons and the Bertins, and now at the end he is the last surviving victor. A master in his turn, he saw many generations of young men pass through his studio. They came to ask him the secret of his strength." (quoted in G. Tinterow, "Le Pére Corot: The Very Poet of Landscape", Corot, 1996, exh. cat., p. 259). Corot is credited with being a progenitor of Impressionism. His method of painting en plein air drew the interest of Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Morisot and Pissarro--all of whom either experimented with Corot's technique or called themselves his "pupils."
From the mid-1860s onward, the demand for Corot's paintings was inexhaustible. His studio was often crowded with critics, collectors, dealers and students who clamored to see him at work. During this period Emperor Napoleon III bought two of Corot's paintings: his 1864 Salon entry Souvenier de Mortefontaine (Musée du Louvre) and La Solitude of 1866 (location unknown), and contemporary critics wrote glowingly of his work: "M. Corot has a remarkable quality that has eluded most of our artists today: he knows how to invent. His point of departure is always nature, but when he arrives at the interpretation of it, he no longer copies, he remembers it" (Du Camp, 1864) and "This Corot...who feels, who suffers, who searches within himself, who breaths the sadness of the desolate forest, the ineffable melancholy of the evenings, the bursting joy of springtime and daybreaks; he understands what notion bends the branches and folds up the leaves; he knows what the paths deep in the woods would say, if they could speak" (de Banville, 1861).
Financially independent, Corot did not have to rely on the Académie des Beaux Arts system for his advancement and remuneration, and thus he had always been free to paint in his own manner. While his works had always received acclaim, it was not until the period in which Le Batelier passant derrière les Arbres de la Rive was painted that Corot was given more official sanction in the form of honors and responsibilities that had heretofore been awarded to those followers of a more Academic style. After the public protests that surrounded the Salon of 1863, Corot was elected by the constituent artists to serve as a member of the jury in 1864, 1865, 1866 and 1870, eventually becoming hors concours and thus able to enter his own work to the Salon directly. Corot was therefore able to advance his artistic vision by the promotion of his followers in the Salon. He was elected an officer of the Legion of Honor in 1867, and the same year he received a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle.
The vast majority of Corot's Salon entries during the years 1865-70 were landscape subjects that were given generalized titles to emphasize their independence from meaningful incident. Le Batelier passant derrière les Arbres de la Rive is typical of these landscapes which came to be referred to as "musings on nature" and which are distinguished by their open, light-filled compositions and exquisite pale-blue and grey harmonies. The canvas is imbued with a luminous, silvery light that gives the paintings a mystical quality. More than being simply a direct transcription of topography, the painting gives the "effect" or impression of the scene with its vigorous brushwork. While Corot owed the inspiration of his earlier landscapes to Poussin and Vernet, Le Batelier passant derrière les Arbres de la Rive shows Corot's evolution as a landscapist in its emphasis on the overall effect and harmony of tones over narrative. The figure's posture echoes the motif of the reaching branches of trees and the foreground is punctuated with hints of color to suggest flowers. Corot said of his later landscapes, "The first two things to study are the form, then the values. For me, those are the mainstays of art. Color and touch give the work its charm." (G. Tinterow, p. 265). True to the tenants of Romantic landscape, Corot strove to communicate emotion in his painting, so that the picture became more of a reminiscence of a place than an exact transcription of it. Indeed, Martin Dieterle has suggested that the figure of the boatsman with his red cap which reoccurs in Corot's oeuvre, may be a reference to his earlier years in Italy and to the Neapolitan fishermen who wore similar caps. The large scale of Le Batelier passant derrière les Arbres de la Rive suggests that it may have been painted in the studio, either as a direct expansion on a plein air sketch or as a wholly invented composition. Between 1855 and 1874 approximately one-fifth of all the works Corot exhibited publicly were landscapes (G. Tinterow, p. 262).
Le Batelier passant derrière les Arbres de la Rive was in two important American collections. It's first American owner was Charles Yerkes. It was also in the collection of the American collector George Walbridge Perkins (1862-1920). Mr. Perkins was a financier and industrialist who served as Vice President of the New York Life Insurance Company and as a partner of the financial firm of J. P. Morgan where he helped structure the International Harvester Company and the U. S. Steel Company. A close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, he was also politically active. Mr. Perkins was involved with the landscape conservation efforts of Andrew H. Green and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society that supported saving the Palisades and between the years 1900-1920 he served as President of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.