The present work, the whereabouts of which has been unknown for many years, is one of two paintings of the Colosseum executed by Corot within days of his arrival in Rome in December 1825 (see fig. 1). Like most of Corot's early Italian plein air landscapes, it reveals not only a deep reverence for the ancient monuments of Rome -- imbued by the artist's classical training -- but also his profound fascination with the effects of sky and light, which he had inherited as the last and greatest in the line of French Rome-based landscape painters descended from Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (see fig. 2).
Corot studied painting under Achille-Etna Michallon and Jean-Victor Bertin, who themselves had spent much of their career painting from nature in and around the Eternal City. Both of Corot's masters had been students of Valenciennes, the leading exponent of open air oil painting, which developed in the second half of the eighteenth century as an extension of the empirical practice of on-the-spot drawing. Although Valenciennes was conservative in outlook, the studies he brought back to France with him in the 1780s were groundbreaking in their spontaneity. Conceived as private works, they nevertheless laid the foundation stone for a public acceptance of full-scale landscape painting in France, of which Corot was the pioneer. As Peter Galassi writes: "Corot's early Italian work marks the outset of his long career, but it also marks the culmination of open-air painting Italy -- the last great expression of the classical landscape tradition....Corot's achievement was not to overthrow Valenciennes but to recreate a fruitful exchange between the opposing sides of his legacy." (exh. cat., Claude to Corot, The Development of Landscape Painting in France, Colnaghi, New York, 1990, p. 246).
Corot's painting depicts the Colosseum from the area of the Palatine Hill immediately above the Arch of Titus looking North-East towards the distant Sabine hills, a view which today looks radically different due to extensive excavations that were begun in the 19th century. The weather on Corot's arrival was grey, and Corot wrote to a friend: "I can't speak of the Roman climate; it has rained ever since I got here. But it doesn't get to me: I was forewarned." (Quoted in exh. cat., Corot, op. cit., p. 80). Indeed, despite the flashes of blue sky, the cool but suffused winter light in the foreground and clouds over the background hills are pregnant with moisture. The painting was clearly executed after a late afternoon rain shower, as the facade of the building on the extreme right is facing Southwest towards the sun.
Three months later Corot returned to a similar vantage point, a little further back, in a conscious effort to formalise the exercise represented by the present painting. As Peter Galassi writes: "He [Corot] set out to make a trio of finished studies (études terminées), a term that for Valenciennes had been a self-contradiction. Valenciennes had criticised the practice of returning to the same site at the same time on successive days, arguing that the light and weather changed too much from day to day. Yet this is precisely what Corot did. For almost three weeks in March he painted every day on the Palatine Hill, working on one study in the morning, the second at midday, the third in the late afternoon. He followed the sun...The scheme belongs to an old tradition of classifying nature's ceaseless change: the times of day, for example, or the seasons." (P. Galain, In the Light of Italy, Yale, 1991, pp. 150-151)
Like Valenciennes's view of the same subject (see fig. 2), taken from a similar viewpoint, the details of architecture and landscape are given summary treatment. But behind this atmospheric, apparently spontaneously rendered scene lies a carefully constructed work: the oblique angle towards which Corot views his subject, shows a deep concern with perspective; and working in a limited palette, Corot has concentrated on building up his composition with strong tonal contrasts of light and shade, abandoning the stronger emphasis on line obvious in similar architectural views by his master Michallon. Profoundly sensitive to his surroundings he has created at once a work of great fluidity, which simultaneously renders the solidity and permanence of the Eternal City.