Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot – Lady in Blue (1874)

It was the autumn of 1909 when a curious Parisian crowd gathered at the Grand Palais to witness the unveiling of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s decades long, well-kept secret. Thirty-four years had passed since the great French landscape artist had died, and much had happened in the meantime. Impressionism had changed the face of the art world and unshackled its conventions. Post-impressionism, fauvism, cubism and other art movements followed suit, like raucous, ambitious children eager to outdo their parents.

It was rather ironic that Corot would find his art exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, held every fall since 1903 as a reaction against the conservative Salon de Paris, when the latter had always welcomed the French artist like a star. But the crowd gathered at the Grand Palais wasn’t there to admire Corot’s notorious landscapes, well-prized by academics and the traditional art establishment. They were there to have a peek at the Frenchman’s private love affair with figurative art. It was a very intrusive endeavor, to say the least, since the relationship had been kept away from public view throughout the artist’s life and decades after that. Only those closest to him, who visited his studio, were in on the secret.

In total, twenty-four canvases were exhibited, drawing the admiration of new converts like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and André Derain. The dreamy, melancholic women emerging from Corot’s paintings had a timeless, yet relevant quality about them. Most of them were dressed in traditional costumes and represented types: the Italian, the Greek, the reader, the mandolin player, the woman fetching water at the fountain. Consequently, Corot inspired Braque’s paintings of women playing instruments and Picasso’s classical figures.

What may have started as an innocent flirtation with figurative studies, essential to the artist for his historical paintings, developed over time into an integral part of the pleasure he derived from art. The Frenchman routinely hired models to pose for him, dressing them up in costumes that he had shipped from Italy. He wasn’t concerned with accurately depicting his subjects, favoring the first impression, above all. Thus, he would often ask his models to move around and not sit still, always searching to capture the elusive, fleeting emotions that inspired him. Part poetry, part realism, these artworks are infused with an unmistakable charm.

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot - Lady in Blue
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot – Lady in Blue (1874), oil on canvas

Considered an essential part of his oeuvre, Lady in Blue is one of Corot’s last figure paintings, completed months before his death. Given its expressiveness and quick brushwork, at first glance you might confuse this modern gem with one of Degas’ artworks. As it turns out, Degas was a very big fan of the artist, owning one of his early figure paintings and declaring in 1887 “I believe Corot painted a tree better than any of us, but still I find him superior in his figures.” It was also Degas who urged his collector friends to acquire Corot’s figure paintings, including Henri Rouart, who ended up owning this featured artwork.

The painting shows a woman dressed in a fashionable, sleeveless, blue dress with her back partly turned to the viewer, holding a fan and leaning against a maroon, velvet pillow. (Heads up: beneath the pillow are what appear to be cushions with a decorative motif which resembles swastikas.) The model for this painting was Emma Dobigny, a favorite of Corot’s, who also posed for Manet, Degas and Puvis de Chavannes. The manner in which she’s glancing away, her right hand on her chin, gives her a very contemplative, yet determined look. The scene takes place in the artist’s studio and we can see two landscape paintings on the wall behind her. It’s interesting how the woman is ignoring both the viewer and the artworks, immersed in her own thoughts.

Equally important is the dress that the model is wearing, which captures much of our attention and fascination. This was a highly unusual choice for Corot, who preferred to depict his subjects wearing traditional costumes. Even though the woman is standing still, the cascade of folds and creases tumbling from her waist down offer the illusion of movement. We can almost picture her pacing impatiently around Corot’s studio, stomping her high heels on the floor. Which is exactly the sort of movement the artist expected from his models.

We might look at Lady in Blue and think of all the ways that being contemporary with the Impressionists might have impacted Corot towards the end of his life. But we’d have it backwards. Not only did he mentor artists such as Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Alfred Sisley, but many other Impressionists and avant-garde artists tipped their hats off to le père Corot, acknowledging his influence in their art.

21 thoughts on “Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot – Lady in Blue (1874)

  1. I always try to make sense of the subject’s facial expressions in paintings like this. She looks deeply contemplative… or maybe that dress is just really uncomfortable since her shoulders and back are kind of hunched! Great painting and write up

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  2. Very interesting post, but then I think they all are. Her pose to me does not look natural and looks uncomfortable. I see her as originally resting her chin on her fist and looking straight ahead but Corot painted her just as she turned her head to the right to ask, in a gumpy tone, “how much longer”. That’s one of the nice things about art, unless the critics and historians tell you something very different, you can enjoy your own little world you create in the artists’ works.

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    1. I see what you mean. I get that same feeling too, that the model is somewhat restless. Either she’s impatiently following Corot’s directions or there’s something else bugging her… Maybe she’s waiting for a lover or a letter. I better stop now before I write a novel with her as the lead character!

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  3. Fascinating. Swastikas were originally symbols of good luck, before the Nazis appropriated them and flipped them back to front. In the Hindu religion this version represented the sun and good luck. The back to front (Nazi) version, represents an aspect of the goddess Kali.
    I find the lady’s sleeveless dress, strangely intimate. I think its because you can see her muscles in her upper arm. Makes her seem very modern too. Like she’s just come back from a disco, almost!

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    1. Thank you for pointing out the origin of swastikas, Emma! I’m not sure if those are truly swastikas or they just happen to look eerily similar. For sure, the dress is very revealing and the model’s well-defined arm makes her look rather tense, but also modern. A strong woman!

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    1. I haven’t heard of this story. I’m picturing her with gloves now, and I think that would have made her look too seductive. Her bare arm gives the impression of strength and earnestness.

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  4. Great write up<Gabriela 🙂 The big blue dress does form the center of attention in the painting, but one can't help but feel entranced by the soft features of the model.
    The look could be of contemplation or she is just walking around in that big a dress 🙂
    Swastikas, by the way, were known to me through my culture/religion first before I ever got to know of its connotations with respect to Hitler etc (
    Yet it is intriguing to see those here, I wonder what they could mean …
    ( This was all before Nazism was making any presence felt in Europe right ?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so glad you stopped by! I was actually thinking about you, wondering where you disappeared again. I know that at the beginning of the 20th century there was quite an interest in Eastern philosophy. Maybe it started earlier. As for the Nazis, yes, they adopted the swastika decades later.

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