At The End Of His Career, This 19th Century Artist Painted As He Pleased

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Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painted thousands of landscapes — he did them well, and he did well by them. By the 1850s he was regarded as "a seriously successful, nationally renowned landscape painter," says National Gallery of Art curator Mary Morton.

Less well-known are Corot's portraits — but an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art aims to remedy that. Corot didn't start painting figures — women, mostly — until the last two decades of his life. And didn't exhibit them except to friends at his sociable studio. How come?

Morton says the figure work is a real departure for Corot. "It's very private," she says. "It has a very different emotional temperature than the landscapes. It's a little bit melancholic, it's quite poetic, it's very much about interior subjectivity. And I think he just felt that it wouldn't play as well."

The women don't look very happy. They sit, they stare, they contemplate. Morton says it could be because Corot made them feel so comfortable, they could show their true selves. "If you're beaming and smiling, you're performing for the lens or the artist," Morton says. "If you're relaxing, this is what you look like."

Many artists had romantic or sexual relationships with their models — but not Corot. "That was not the case, apparently, in Corot's studio," Morton says. "He was very gentle, respectful, kind." The models called him Papa Corot.

He paints some of them in costume — there was a family fascination with fabric — Corot's mother was a famous milliner and his father was a textile merchant. In the 1870 painting Jewish Woman of Algeria, the model wears a bright red skirt and black velvet-looking jacket — loose, with full, graceful, striped sleeves and embroidered gold circles. "It is a perfect piece of painting," Morton says.

His imposing Agostina, from 1866, is an Italian country woman in a burgundy jumper. She's no dainty little thing, standing there at the well with her pitcher, the top of her white undershirt peeking out. With her broad shoulders and big arms, she evokes "the erotics of a powerful women," Morton says. She's kind of a 19th-century Madonna (the singer, not the virgin!)

Interrupted Reading, painted around 1870, shows a real beauty. Wearing long earrings, lovely bead necklaces and a full beige skirt; she's sitting, thinking — maybe about the book open in her left hand. Her head rests on the right hand and arm. Again, the arms are odd — and they're bare.

"He's changed her outfit to reveal more flesh," Morton says. But it's mottled, dappled, and not nearly as worked-over as her face. The skirt also looks unfinished.

"He's still sort of working it out, but it's enough for him," Morton says. "For him, it's completed, although it is not completely refined and finished in a contemporary academic way. ... I think it's enough for him. This is 1870 — this is what Impressionism is going to be. ... This becomes the conversation for the next 20 years."

Corot, in his 70s, is starting that conversation — changing, experimenting, and, says Morton, entitled to paint as he pleases: "When you're an artist that's lived as long as he's lived, you're in the twilight of your career and you're loosening up. You're painting for yourself, in a way. Certainly not for the academy or for exhibition. This is how he wanted it. Just like this."

Portrait of an aging, admired landscape artist — wielding his paints and brushes in new ways — is on view at the National Gallery until December 31.

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