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Oil painting of a hill-top town on a clear sunny day

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Avignon from the West

Creation date: 1836

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Avignon from the West. 1836. © The National Gallery, London. Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917

The most surprising thing about this painting by Camille Corot is its date: 1836. It is contemporaneous with the late paintings of Constable and Turner, yet it looks nothing like them. In fact, nothing in the painting of the time is so prophetic of developments of Impressionist and abstract art still to come, many decades later, in France and elsewhere.

The First Impressionist exhibition was held in Paris in 1874, 38 years after Corot painted this work and three participants had received tuition from him: Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Berthe Morisot. And in Australia, in 1889 the Melbourne exhibition known as ‘9 by 5 Impressions’ launched the careers of Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and Frederick McCubbin. Corot was a dominant influence on all of them.

Corot was by far the most admired and influential pioneer of plein-air painting. Since the 1820s, he was in the habit of painting small oil sketches outdoors, taking advantage of the new conveniences of commercially manufactured oil paints in tubes and lightweight collapsible easels that could be transported with ease. He planted his easel wherever his fancy took him. Here, in Avignon, he was about a kilometre away from the old papal palace, and the famous ruined bridge of Avignon can be seen jutting out over the river Rhone.

Corot’s approach to painting landscapes appear simply. He bisects the canvas into sky and land, the mere wisp of a tree, undulations of distant mountains and foreground vegetation add variety. Following his usual approach, Corot broke down the motif into a multitude of small pieces and patches of colour, which fuse together to seemingly effortlessly harmonise and unify the scene.

The National Gallery, London curator Sarah Herring’s recent analysis of the painting demonstrates that subtle changes, such as the foreground overpainting, causes us to focus on the highlighted town. An early description of Corot’s landscape draws attention to the artist’s control of ‘the lights and the shadows, the chromatic richness of the greys, a gentle wind of emotion that blows over everything’.

Camille Saint-Saëns, Rapsodie d'Auvergne in C major, Op. 73, Ian Munro (piano), Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, David Porcelijn

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