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Noelle Paulson
Independent art historian and administrative coordinator of the Block Research Group, ETH Zurich
PhD in art history, Washington University in St. Louis

“Beauty in art is truth steeped in the impression made upon us by the sight of nature. I am struck on seeing some place or other. While seeking conscious imitation I do not for an instant lose the emotion that first gripped me. Reality forms part of art, feeling completes it.”1 With these words, written as friendly advice to the young painter Berthe Morisot in 1857, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot summarized his approach to painting, a philosophy that he would continue to put into practice throughout the rest of his career. Corot also spoke in concert with prominent aesthetic theories of the time, perhaps most famously aphorized by the novelist Émile Zola in his definition of the naturalistic work of art as “a corner of nature seen through a temperament.”2

Reality completed by feeling or nature evidenced through temperament is certainly apparent in Corot’s Le chemin des vieux, Luzancy, Seine-et-Marne, a gentle, elegantly designed landscape scene completed in the early 1870s as the painter approached the end of his long, highly successful career. Two figures, a woman facing the viewer near the front of the picture plane and a man leaning on a walking stick with his back to the viewer in the middle ground, walk on a well-worn dirt path that winds through grass, brush, and trees. The trees are carefully structured. Their bold, dark forms dominate the composition, backlit by the blue sky.3 While a few distant buildings are visible near the horizon, the setting is resoundingly rural, without further visual elements to indicate the specifics of either place or historical time. The noontime sun shines from straight above—the female figure in the foreground casts no angled shadow—and the richness of the foliage suggests that the season is summer or early autumn. White flecks of pigment, especially in the areas of foreground brush, may indicate the full flowering of late summer. Although the woman in the foreground appears to wear a white bonnet and a plain brown and blue dress, her clothing cannot be understood as representative of a specific region or time period. The hem at the bottom of her skirt seems uneven and may perhaps be tattered by poverty, but given the overall indistinctness of Corot’s brushstrokes, it is also not possible to interpret her dress as indicative of a particular social status or profession.

As Corot himself wrote, “I’m never in a hurry to arrive at details; the masses and the general character of a picture interest me more than anything else.”4 The painterly masses that most interested Corot in Le chemin des vieux were arguably those of the two largest trees. Interestingly, he constructed an opening between them, where the shock of the blue sky and the white clouds provides contrast to the deep greens of the trees’ foliage, but this is a framing device that frames only empty sky rather than figures or buildings, once again emphasizing broad formal massing over details.5 Corot repeated the bright white of the clouds in the woman’s bonnet, effectively drawing the viewer’s attention from the gap in the trees down to the figures on the path. The same white appears again dotted lightly in the brush on either side of the path, thus unifying the composition and encouraging one’s eye to dance across the surface.

Despite the painting’s lack of detail, its title is highly specific. It explicitly identifies the location as a particular path—Le chemin des vieux, or the Path of the Old People—in Luzancy, a village in central France. Luzancy is situated on a bend in the rather narrow Marne River but is otherwise distant from any large body of water. Yet the strip of blue on the left side of the horizon suggests an ocean or lake in the distance. Indeed, Alfred Robaut—the painting’s first owner, Corot’s biographer, and coauthor of the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s paintings— described this blue patch as “a horizon of sea.”6 Furthermore, Robaut himself apparently requested this alteration to the view and gave the painting its title.7 Robaut’s few short words about Le chemin des vieux prompt questions about landscape painting, memory, and the roles of the patron and the artist in conversation with each other. Why would Robaut request the addition of the sea but then give the location of Luzancy in the title? Robaut wrote that the purpose was to “give a false impression” (donner le change) about the place where the painting was painted.8 Why might Robaut want to do this? And why would Corot comply?

Le chemin des vieux resembles another work by Corot, Luzancy—Arcade de verdure sur un sentier du coteau (Luzancy—Arcade of Greenery on a Hillside Path) (1871–72; present location unknown), which depicts what is likely the same path, identifable because of the same prominent, distinctively shaped trees that arch over it. That canvas is more squarely shaped, however, and the composition is more closely cropped, so the distant view of buildings and a body of water does not appear.9 Presumably Luzancy— Arcade de verdure is the more accurate depiction of the landscape in Luzancy, while the addition of the sea in Le chemin des vieux marks it as a fictional locale. As Fronia Wissman has noted, “Robaut’s request for the change, and Corot’s acquiescence, point out what a small role topographical accuracy played in Corot’s late works; the formal construction of the picture and the mood it created were far more important than the delineation of a specific locale.”10

In its lack of details, including the intentional obscurity of the location depicted, Corot’s scene is deliberately timeless. What results is an embodiment of the memories that a place can evoke. Recent scholarship on Corot’s late works has focused on the role of memory in his construction and depiction of landscape scenes. The art historian Eileen Yanoviak emphasizes the contrast between Corot’s earlier landscapes, the titles of which often include the word vue (view) and which portray identifiable locations, including recognizable structures or other landmarks, and his later landscapes, which are typically titled with the word souvenir (remembrance). The late works might still depict specific, identifiable locations, but they are often interpreted first and foremost as poetic recollections of the feelings evoked by a place, as if the artist drew as much from his emotional memories as from his sketches made en plein air. As Yanoviak writes, “While the late paintings are not particularly concerned with a topographical view, the sense that they project attachment and sentiment towards the landscape is pervasive.”11 In both depictions of the grove of trees over the path at Luzancy, memory and topography combine. Indeed, particularly later in his career, Corot often painted numerous depictions of the same location, emphasizing different aspects in each variation as mood or memory struck him. As he told his biographer Théophile Silvestre, “When a collector wants a repetition of one of my landscapes, it is easy for me to give it to him without seeing the original: I keep a copy of all my works in my heart and in my eyes.”12

Attachment and sentiment are evident in Le chemin des vieux, with its atmospheric layering of pigments and delicate, carefully placed touches of paint, thick in places and very thin in others. The location was clearly meaningful to Corot. Between 1850 and August 1874, when he last visited the area, he returned frequently to the small village of Luzancy (which would later be occupied by German troops during World War I). His friend the painter Louis-Jean Marie Rémy, who, like Corot, had begun as an apprentice to a draper before starting his artistic training in the studio of Jean-Victor Bertin, had a vacation house in Luzancy. Corot visited there often, even after Rémy’s death in 1869.13 Other artists were also attracted to the area around Luzancy since it offered a more secluded retreat compared to the popular nearby Forest of Fontainebleau.14

Following his friend’s death, Luzancy may have taken on a new significance for Corot. Its paths and groves might have reminded him of their long friendship and the times they spent there together. If the painting is interpreted as a meditation on memories and comradery, its title—Le chemin des vieux—takes on an additional subtext. It is possible that the path’s name, like the patch of sea in the distance, is fictional. The other painting of the same trees does not include the specific name of the path; its inclusion here may be a reflection not only on the two figures depicted on the path but also on the artist’s age and the loss of friends with whom he had shared a lifetime. Corot and Rémy may have walked this path—or one like it—together as “old people.”15 In any case, Corot extended the path to the bottom of the picture plane, giving viewers unhindered entry into the composition, as if to invite us too to walk along the path of the old people.

In Robaut’s catalogue raisonné of Corot’s oeuvre, Le chemin des vieux is dated 1870–71. Subsequent scholars have dated the work a year later, however, to 1871–72, based both on the dates of many other works depicting Luzancy from that time as well as the frequency of Corot’s travels there during that period.16 Whatever the actual date of creation, Le chemin des vieux may certainly be placed near the end of Corot’s life, during a time when he had witnessed not only the tragic deprivations of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in 1870–71 but also the more personal, immediate tragedies of the loss of friends and family members, including Rémy of Luzancy. With its evocative atmosphere that eludes a precise geographic mapping, Le chemin des vieux may be understood as one of Corot’s souvenirs. Memory and nature are combined, producing a meditation on the pleasures of friendship through a landscape that surely had deeply personal meaning for the artist.

  • 1 Camille Corot, letter to Berthe Morisot, 1857. Quoted and translated in Kathleen Adler and Tamar Garb, Berthe Morisot (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 16. All other translations are mine except as noted. Many thanks to Allison Unruh and Jane Neidhardt for their helpful comments and suggestions.
  • 2 Émile Zola, “Proudhon et Courbet I,” Le salut public, July 26, 1865; quoted and translated in Henri Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 319n1.
  • 3 The art historian Eileen Yanoviak has argued that backlighting of the type Corot used here may relate to the effects produced by the collodion photographic process. Beginning in the 1850s that process was popular with landscape photographers such as Eugène Cuvelier, whom Corot knew well. Yanoviak, “From Vue to Souvenir: Time, Memory, and Place in Corot’s Late Landscapes,” Southeastern College Art Conference Review 16 (January 1, 2012), /From+Vue+to+Souvenir%3a+time%2c+memory%2c+and+place+in+ Corot%27s+late...-a0314801320.
  • 4 Corot, quoted in Dorit Schäfer and Margret Stuffmann, Camille Corot: Natur und Traum (Karlsruhe, Germany: Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, 2012), 406n21.
  • 5 On emptiness versus fullness in Corot’s late work, see Dorit Schäfer, “Der reflexive Blick: Anmerkungen zu Corots Bildstrukturen,” ibid., 406.
  • 6 Alfred Robaut, L’oeuvre de Corot (1905; Paris: Léonce Laget, 1965), 3:268; see also Fronia E. Wissman’s analysis of this work in Joseph D. Ketner et al., A Gallery of Modern Art at Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, 1994), 26.
  • 7 Robaut, L’oeuvre de Corot, 3:268.
  • 8 Ibid.
  • 9 See Luzancy—Arcade de verdure sur un sentier du coteau, in Robaut, L’oeuvre de Corot, 3:274–75, no. 2084.
  • 10 Wissman, in Ketner, A Gallery of Modern Art, 26.
  • 11 Yanoviak, “From Vue to Souvenir.”
  • 12 Corot, quoted and translated in Simon Kelly, “Strategies of Repetition: Millet/Corot,” in The Repeating Image: Multiples in French Painting From David to Matisse, ed. Eik Kahng (Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2007), 81.
  • 13 Noël Coret, Les peintres de la vallée de la Marne: Autour de l’impressionisme (Tournai, Belgium: Renaissance du livre, 2000), 56.
  • 14 The Forest of Fontainebleau, near the village of Barbizon and the Château de Fontainebleau, had by this time been overrun by artists and photographers following the success of the influential school of Barbizon painters, who were active in the area from the 1830s to about 1870. Ibid., 56. See also the essay on Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña’s Wood Interior in this volume, pages 73–77.
  • 15 That the figures in the painting appear to be walking away from each other, in opposite directions, perhaps could be seen as a poignant allusion to a departed friend.
  • 16 For the time period 1870–71, Robaut’s catalogue raisonné lists no other depictions of Luzancy. A larger group of works was painted there in 1871 or 1872, however, and one painting is even specifically dated to August 1872; see Luzancy–Le chemin des bois, in Robaut, L’oeuvre de Corot, 3:274, no. 2087. With a vigor belying his seventy-six years, Corot spent much of 1872 traveling from place to place, visiting many friends throughout France, and the chronology of his travels places him at Luzancy on August 21. Such a date, at the height of summer, is in keeping with the direct sunlight and lush vegetation depicted in Le chemin des vieux. Since Robaut requested the addition of the sea, however, Corot may have worked on this painting over a number of months or even years, both on-site and in the studio. For a chronology of Corot’s activities in 1871 and 1872, see Françoise Cachin, Corot, 1796–1875 (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1996), 35.