Monday, 27 February 2012

Corot: Peasants under the Trees at Dawn National Gallery Art through Words

Corot’s landscape ‘Peasants under the Trees at Dawn’ was the February painting to be discussed at the Saturday morning Art through Words event and which was attended by about 20 people.  Viyki Turnbull was our describer with Caroline Smith guiding us to the painting in the gallery.  There are usually 2 or 3 people to advise on various topics in the art world and, as I commented on the guest post by Linda Bolton of the National Gallery, directions are given to “point” in the next direction.  This is something which seems to be built into the DNA of the National Gallery. 
If you are on your own, the staff are very helpful. I am beginning to recognise some of the regulars at this event and the minutes spent at the Sainsbury Wing waiting area is a good chance to exchange information on many activities for the visually impaired including practical transport tips.  A couple from Wolverhampton were there again as was the usual North London contingent including me.  We even had a few from South of the River Thames, though no one admitted to coming from Croydon.

Corot painted this landscape between 1840 and 1845.  The setting is near Lormes in the Morvan district to the west of Dijon in France and the landscape illustrates a rather poor agricultural area with an almost limestone dry soil and trees with very gnarled trunks and roots. I am familiar with some of the countryside around Dijon and Beaune having enjoyed the company of Meursault and Volnay among others.  The peasants seem to be coppicing wood and Viyki mentioned that Corot used to buy charcoal in the area. 

The timing of the painting was before the revolutionary period of 1848 which struck many parts of mainland Europe.  (One of the visitors mentioned that many French painters and even authors had gone into exile in Italy during times of political upheaval and turmoil in France and that artists such as Claude Lorrain were at their most prolific in exile.) 

I had taken my guide to the Hockney ‘A Bigger Picture’ on show at the Royal Academy.  Given that the Hockney landscapes are huge, these paintings by Corot are quite small.  The Peasants under the Trees at Dawn is about A3 in real life so the copy we had was life size.  Another comment was made about government or state approval in France for large paintings being required or commissioned so that many artists had to sell into the growing middle class market. 

One could even describe this market as Pret a Porter. Corot had a reasonable income from his parents.  His father was a wig maker and his mother a milliner.  The family went into the hat trade.  In this background Corot had financial security and did not have to live on the bread line. Corot was prolific with 3000 works.  Coincidentally the Metropolitan Opera was broadcasting Ernani by Verdi which was premiered in 1844 and was based on a play by Victor Hugo, himself no stranger to political exile. 

Having introduced the painting Viyki set the main points of the painting before working on the geometry.  Many of us have very poor vision with limited shape and colour definition.  The geometry helps us to understand where an object is and how it (and its shadow) are drawn.  The painting is set at dawn and Viyki explained ‘raking light’ and ‘contr-jour’  The rising sun casts very long shadows and this has strange effects on the painting.  For example there is a large dark area in the painting which is the shadow of a goose which is almost a fraction of the shadow and is itself quite light and bright.  Other objects which seemed to be illuminated by the sun were a horse and some boulders.  We were not sure about the horse.  Was it a mane or a tail that was bright and how was the horse drinking from the trough. 

Some of us could not see the horse and I agreed with one other who had in fact thought that the boulders were sheep.  The peasant couple stand by a tree which is an inverted triangle covering a large area above the horizon and a smaller reflected triangle showing a root system.  There are buildings which appear in subdued mauve colours and have the odd spot of direct light, often in a stunning lead white or even a golden colour which could be a thatched roof someone thought.   The couple is shown with the woman standing on the right of the off centre tree.  The man is sitting.  There is a red piece of colour on the woman’s hat and someone commented that Constable used this technique.

Viyki described the colours and they are mainly green for the land and foliage and a chrome green was popular.  Dark greens are not my strong point and as the greenery was described Viyki dropped a bombshell: Corot painted in the sky after he had drawn and painted in the trees with foliage.  The sky is a mix of cobalt blue and lead white.  We wondered about the practicalities of painting the sky around the greenery when to us it would have been easier to paint the sky and then put the trees on top.    We still had a mystery to solve.  There is a rather smart woman lurking at dawn and what was she up to?  Viyki explained this woman as a bit of “staffage”.  

At this time it was the moment to go and view the painting which is in a room about as far as it is possible to go in the National Gallery.  This is the moment which, for me is the best part.  We stroll in groups and those on their own can tag on or borrow an arm or stay within sound by talking.  I strolled with Viyki and by the time we got to the gallery, Caroline was standing in the group and one of the visitors was discussing glaciation and its effect on the landscape especially in the shape of valleys and boulders or erratics. 

As I write this up, with no notes or recording, Ernani is finishing and BBCRadio4 is doing an Archive Hour on ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger in 1972.  The National Gallery are keen to ask what we see and at no time is there an “imposed” interpretation.  With contemporary art there has to be some impression of how the background of the artist and specific context can influence what is seen.  I have learned from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery that many of those attending the talks have a hinterland which they can share. 

There are a few scientists who go to the art talks.  Over the talk we had discussed Louis Philippe, patronage of the arts, agriculture pigments and art in Europe.  We were quite a large group in a small room with a few other Corots on show.  I had first come across Corot in Paris in 1975 when the Orangerie of the Tuileries by the Louvre had a major exhibition of landscapes on show.  I had been delighted by these paintings and this was at a time when one raced through a major art gallery in an hour.  That exhibition of Corot has remained with me and though I can’t make much of the print I can still envisage the landscape as some of the detail is imprinted in my mind.  The names of the colours and pigments tune in with my background and I mentioned to Viyki that I had bought a small painting directly from an artist on the strength of the answer to the question “What colour would you call that? The answer came back Alizarin”.  I bought it on hearing the name of an organic pigment which is often known as red madder.  (The Arts sector has absorbed quite a lot of chemical techniques and even embraced spectrometry in checking dates, authenticity and preservation.)

In the guest blogpost of Linda Bolton, Linda mentioned the poster which we take away from Art through Words  as a souvenir or a relic from a pilgrimage.  Thus when I got some postcards in the shop the assistant who helped me find the Corot postcards suggested that as my hands were full with crutch and cane I could do with a smart NG paper carrier bag with string handles to loop round the crutch grip.  That is observation, kindness and attention. (Physiotherapists take note!)

Thanks as always to the National Gallery.

PS The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1796-1975
Landscape at Arleux-du-Nord, 1871-4 by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1796-1975

An exhbition has just opened at the National Gallery titled "Turner Inspired in the light of Claude" and runs from 14 March to 5 June.  More information is available at: