“A man must only embrace the artistic profession after having recognized in himself a lively passion for nature and a disposition to follow it with an unfaltering perseverance. To not crave approbation nor the benefits of money. To not be discouraged by criticisms that one could make on his work; he must be shielded in a very strong conviction that can make him walk straight, without dread of any obstacle. An incessant work - either painting or observing. An invulnerable conscience. Filled with this conscience, he would make works in which a salient flaw could be glimpsed; he must go on: one does not become an artist in a day. He must persevere: his conscience will save him. He sees black? Conscientious, he will connect everything together and day by day he will get closer to nature. The important thing is for him to do nothing but what he sees and how he sees it. The only stick he may take to steady his walk is to glance at works by the masters, and the best: MichelAngelo, Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Holbein, Corrège, Titian, le Poussin, Lesueur, Claude Lorrain, Hobbema, Terburg, Metzu, Canaletto. Those inspirations are only to ease the development of his means.”
“In the artistic career, one needs conscience, self-confidence and perseverance. Thus armed, the two most important things in my eyes are the strict study of drawing and that of color values.
Victor Frond: Pantheon of 19th century French illustrations
“Permit me to advise you to seek the utmost naïveté in studies. And please do as you will see. Have self-confidence and the motto: “Conscience and confidence”.”A Augustin, 20 August 1859
“The first two things to study are first form and then values. Those two things are in my opinion the foundations of art. Color and execution add charm to the work. It seemed very serious to me to prepare a study or a painting by starting to indicate the most vigorous color values (assuming the canvas is white) and to continue by following in order until you reach the lightest value. I would give 20 gradual numbers to go from the lightest to the most vigorous color value. Then your painting or study would be established with order. This order must in no way bother the sketcher or the colorist. Always the mass, the whole, what struck us. Never lose the first impression that moved us. The sketch is then the first thing to look for. And then, color values - the relation between forms and values. Those are the foundations. After the color, finally, the execution. Do you want to do a study or a painting? First you must apply yourself to look for the form in conscience. After having made all the efforts of application, move on to values. Look for them with the mass. Conscience. A good way to achieve this: if your canvas is white, start with the most vigorous tone. Follow the order until you get to the lightest tone. It is quite illogical to start with the sky.”
Written on a page of sketchbook.
“One must interpret nature with naïveté and according to one’s personal feelings, with complete detachment from what one knows of the old and contemporary masters. In that way only will you be able to inspire. There are people who are quite gifted but who do not want to use the gifts that were given to them. Such people make me think of a billiard player to whom a complaisant partner would always offer beautiful set-ups that he would not take advantage of. It seems to me, were I to be the player’s opponent, I would end up telling him: “Since that’s the way it is, I will not give you anymore of those!” Instead of God, I would get my revenge on the miserable fools who waste their natural gifts by changing their heart into cork.”Words spoken at Alfred Robaut’s on 19 November 1872.
“Do you see how frank these greens look? I had never done this until now. A worker must work hard without cease until there are no more pegs missing from the furniture.”
Declaration made to Robaut, 1872.
“I had spent two winters at Mr. Bertin’s1 house, learning so little that I could not get myself out of the simplest drawing. Two men were talking to each other: I started sketching them by bits, the heads for example; they departed and I was left with only pieces of heads on my paper. Some children were sitting on the church’s steps, I would start again; the mother was calling them, my book would be filled with bits of noses, foreheads, strands of hair: I made the decision never to go home without a completed ensemble work, and for the first time I tried drawing masses, quick sketching, the only possible. I thus started to define, in the blink of an eye, the first group that came. If the group stayed only for a short while, I would have at least gotten its attitude, its general mood; if the group stayed for a long time, I would add details. I’ve done many such exercises, and I even sometimes sketch in such a way the dancers and sets at the Opera on a little piece of paper at the bottom of my hat.”
Theophile Silvestre: History of living artists
“I am never in a hurry to get to the details; masses and characters of a painting are what interest me the most. ..When this is well established, then I look for finesse of forms and colors. I come back without cease, without being stopped by anything and without any particular system.”
“While I’m seeking conscientious imitation, I do not for one minute lose the emotion that overtook me. Reality is part of art; emotion completes it. If we were really touched, the sincerity of emotion will pass unto others.”
Noted by Corot in a pocket sketchbook
“One would be wrong to get discouraged after two or three mediocre studies. It is the preparation of the good one that profits, without us noticing so, from this seemingly sterile work.”
Moreau-Nélaton: Corot as told by himself
“If it is easy up to a certain point to find an original note when one starts out, what is hardest is to persevere and stay true to one’s own feeling when no one encourages you, and when everyone actually turns their back on you. One overcomes this trial only with a disinterested love of nature.”
Conversation with Alfred Robaut
“I realize after trial that it is very useful to start drawing one’s painting very purely on a white canvas, to have previously written its effect on a grey or white paper, and then to do one’s own painting bit by bit and to make it as finished as possible within the first try so as to have very few things to do once the canvas is all covered. I’ve noticed that everything that was done on the first try was more frank, prettier in its forms and that one could take advantage of chance more, while when one goes back to one’s work, that harmonious primitive tint gets lost. I believe this way works especially well for vegetation which requires a little more abandon. Man-made things and bodies, in general quite regular, always require a lot of rectitude. I also see how important it is to be strict and not to content ourselves with a hastily done sketch. How many times I have regretted, while looking at my drawings, not to have had the courage to spend half an hour more on them! They embarrass me and only give me a vague idea of the state I made them in until now. If they rub against each other while in transit, I don’t recognize anything! One should also have the patience to varnish them. There can’t be any indecison in any thing.”
Excerpt from the sketchbook
“For me, no one has taught me anything. When you’re left to your own devices against nature, you manage however you can, and naturally you develop your own personal style. Yes, I do add white in all my colors, but I swear that I do not do it out of principle. It is my instinct that pushes me to do so and I obey my instinct.”
Conversation with Alfred Robaut 2 January 1874
“May that only your feelings guide you. Only, as we are simple mortals, we are subject to error: listen to critiques, but only follow those whom you understand and who echo your feelings. — Firmness; docility. — Follow your convictions. It is better to be nothing than the echo of other painters. As the wise man said: when you follow someone, you’re always behind. The beauty in art is the truth bathed in the impression we got from the look of nature. I’m struck when I see any place. While I seek the conscientious imitation, I do not lose for one moment the emotion that came over me. Reality is a part of art that emotion only completes. For nature, first seek the form, then the values or hues, color and execution; and submit the whole to the emotions that you felt. What we feel is indeed real. In front of any site, any object, we are moved by a certain elegant grace. We shall never abandon this and when seeking truth and exactitude, we shall never forget to give it that sheath that amazed us. Whatever the site or the object, let’s submit ourselves to the first impression. If we have been truly moved, the sincerity of our emotion will pass unto others...”
Notes jotted down on the flyleaf of a sketchbook
Declarations made to Théophile Silvestre - History of Living Artists
“After my excursions, I invite Nature to spend several days at my house; thus my madness begins: with my paintbrush in hand, I look for hazelnuts in the woods of my studio. I hear the birds sing there, the leaves of the trees rustle in the wind; I see the streams and rivers flowing with the thousands reflections of heaven and earth; the sun rises and sets at my house.”
“I paint a woman’s breasts just as I would a common milk box.”
“Courage! With a persevering work seasoned with love, one can triumph!”
A Brandon, 27 November, 1859
“If it doesn’t depend on an artist to be born a genius and to become a great painter, the first man that comes along can succeed, except for some disability, to realize the proportions of forms and color relations. Fashion store owners rarely make any mistakes in their arrangements. There is at my sister’s2 house in Ville d’Avray a woman gardener who makes flower arrangements very well: she could teach the laws of harmony to several of our famous painters.”Remarks quoted by Silvestre in History of Living Artists
“Supposing that there exists two absolutely identical objects, the sun would not light them one or the other in the same fashion.”Corot as told by himself
“In order to correctly enter into my landscapes, one must have the patience to let the fog lift; one can penetrate it little by little, and once in it, one must like it there.”Told by Théophile Silvestre - History of Living Artists
One day, in the forest, somebody, standing still, watching him paint, anxiously asks him: “But, Monsieur, where do you see this beautiful tree that you’ve placed here?”. Corot removes his pipe from in between his teeth, and without turning around, points with it to an oak behind them...Paul Valery: Pieces on Art
A young beginner who is exposing his studies is introduced to him. He carefully examines them, then without masking his feelings: “It’s missing accent. The values are indecisive. There shouldn’t be any of that. Exaggerate rather in the opposite direction. Take pure black and pure white as well, if you want. You will be too hard. But harshness is better in a beginner than dullness.” And, as one deplores the difficulties of the trade, the bad weather that too often thwarts the landscape painter: “What a fuss! But, all these miseries, Claude Lorrain and Ruisdaël were subjected to them, like us, throughout their careers. It is in order to do better paintings that God sends us some annoyances. He wants to try us. True artists come out stronger from these trials: so much the better! The others get discouraged: so much the better still!”
Related by Alfred Robaut 4 October, 1873“When one looks at one of his paintings3 says he, it seems like we see a real sunset. That’s the effect I too would like to produce; I seek to recreate the quivering nature... Well, this is only obtainable with rigorous observation of values. I’m constantly making efforts to capture all of its nuances and therefore give the illusion of life. I want that while looking at my painting, which however does not move, the spectator feel the impression of the movement of things.” Remarks given in front of Alfred Robaut in Brunoy - 1873
“A young painter having shown him one of his paintings, Corot pointed to some parts that he found to be badly out of place — I thank you, said the other, and I will correct all these first thing tomorrow. — Tomorrow! shouted Corot with a troubled voice. You want to correct it only tomorrow? And what if you died during the night?”François Fosca: Corot
He4 was showing me an ugly painting by a friend where all the color values were equal. As I was sharing this fact with him: “But, he answered, nature shows us such effects as those, in which everything is uniform. — You are mistaken, said I; there are always some differences. They are not always striking at first glance. But then, I make sure I look even more attentively and when I have taken it all in, I never hesitate to exaggerate what I have observed. God who sees how hard I am working, tells himself: “What a clever man! He figured me out!” and, happy with me, he sends me his graces.” The priest started to laugh and said: “Well, as long as God shares his secrets with you, I won’t insist anymore!” As he adds a touch of color here and there on the canvas on his easel, he comments on his work: “I seek to remind myself of what was there, but by adding a little of me. I’m interpreting with my heart as well as with my eye.” He insists on the need to add colors from the prism to whites and blacks. “No matter how intense a light or a shadow is, never a pure white or a pure black. I always color, even the most extreme values.” At one point, he begins to consider his painting as if it were somebody else’s, and bursts out laughing: “What a funny painting! It reminds me of my dear mother’s tapestry. When she was done, she would clean her work, she called it: ‘removing the lice!’. Me too, I am removing the lice.”Related by Alfred Robaut, Gisors 1873
“If I couldn’t paint anymore, he told me one day, do my little branches in the sky, with enough space to let the sparrows go through, it seems to me that, very quickly, I would drop dead. That’s what I was saying to an amateur who was requesting that I put trees with light foliage in a painting for him; he was crazy about that, and I promised to please him: Don’t worry, I work for little birds.”
Henry Dusmenil, Intimate memories, Corot
REMEMBRANCES OF MY GOOD AND INTERESTING TALKS WITH MR. COROT5
“Conscience and confidence.”: Motto by Corot.
One must first get a good feeling for one’s subject; then, when you have seen it well, understood it well, execute; and then, confidence!
I pray to God everyday that He makes me a child, in other words, that He makes me see nature and makes me render it as a child would, without any bias.
Nature before all else.
One always gains by copying nature. And were I to gain only something as little as one centimeter long by copying it, I would still bother to go seek it.
There are some painters who after having produced masterpieces, received awards and attained the highest honors, stop themselves6; some in order to not to tarnish their reputation, others so that their work conserve a greater value, a bigger price. I will work nonetheless: we owe it to art and to those who rewarded our work, our merit. One might say: “The old Corot’s on the decline!” Well, if I wither, too bad! It is necessary to show the youth how much one has to harden and be on ones’ guard in order not to fall.
I am always looking to see immediate effect: I am as a child who blows a soap bubble. It is very small, but already spherical; then he blows it up very gently until he fears it will pop. As such, I work in all of the different parts of my painting at the same time, perfecting them very gently, until I find the complete effect.
I always begin with shadows, and it is logical, because since it is what strikes you the most, it is also what needs to be conveyed first.
What is there to be seen in painting, or rather what I am looking for, is form, ensemble, tone values. Color for me comes after. It is like a person you welcome. Because this person will be upright, honest, without reproach, you will welcome him without fear and even with pleasure. It he is bad-tempered, his honesty will make him tolerable. And if now, he is good-natured, it will be one more charm to be enjoyed; but it wasn’t the main point. That is why, for me, color comes after: because I like above all, the whole, harmony in tones; while color sometimes can be clashing in a way that I don’t like. It might be the excess of this principle that makes people say of me that I often use leaden tones...
There is always a luminous point in a painting; but it must be unique. You can place it anywhere you want: in a cloud, in the reflection of water or in a hat; but there must be only one shade of this value.
1Jean-Victor Bertin, propagator of the historical landscape
2Annette-Octavie Corot, since 1813 spouse of Laurent-Dems Sennegon,, linked with her husband to the fashion business of the Rue du Bac.
3A painting by Claude Lorrain
4Abbé Jouveau, priest of Coubron, a friend of Corot. The painter called for him at his last moments.
5These notes were taken by Mrs. Aviat at Méry-sur-Seine (Aube). Mrs. Aviat was a painter. Allowed to work near Corot, who was at the time (1871) at his nephew, the tax collector, Emile Corot’s house, she collected the artist’s words. A copy of these notes was given by Fernand Corot, the tax collector’s son, to Etierine Moreau-Nélaton who published them in the second tome of his book: Corot as told by himself Paris, Lauren, 1924.
6Cabat (note from the manuscript). Cabat was a landscape painter in fashion at the me. He said: “Let’s be true: nature will be in charge of being beautiful, not needing any naiad or heroes.”