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.
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.