Story type: Essay
The sun sinks more and more behind the horizon. Bam! he throws his last ray, a streak of gold and purple which fringes the flying clouds. There, now it has entirely disappeared. Bien! bien! twilight commences. Heavens, how charming it is! There is now in the sky only the soft vaporous color of pale citron–the last reflection of the sun which plunges into the dark blue of the night, going from green tones to a pale turquoise of an unheard-of fineness and a fluid delicacy quite indescribable…. The fields lose their color, the trees form but gray or brown masses…. the dark waters reflect the bland tones of the sky. We are losing sight of things–but one still feels that everything is there–everything is vague, confused, and Nature grows drowsy. The fresh evening air sighs among the leaves– the birds, these voices of the flowers, are saying their evening prayer.
—Corot’s Letter to Graham
Most young artists begin by working for microscopic effects, trying to portray every detail, to see every leaf, stem and branch and reveal them in the picture.
The ability to draw carefully and finish painstakingly is very necessary, but the great artist must forget how to draw before he paints a great picture; just as every strong writer must put the grammar upon the shelf before he writes well. I once heard William Dean Howells say that any good, bright High-School girl of sixteen could pass a far better examination in rhetoric than he could–and the admission did Mr. Howells no discredit.
“Would you advise me to take a course in elocution?” once asked a young man with oratorical ambitions of Henry Ward Beecher.
“Yes, by all means. Study elocution very carefully, but you will have to forget it all before you ever become an orator,” was the answer.
Corot began as a child by drawing very rude, crude, uncertain pictures, just such pictures as any schoolboy can draw. Next he began to “complete” his sketches, and work with infinite pains. If he sketched a house he showed whether the roof was shingled or made of straw or tile; his trees revealed the texture of the bark and showed the shape of the leaf, and every flower contained its pistil and stamens, and told the man knew his botany. Two of his pictures done in Rome in his twenty-ninth year, “The Colosseum” and “The Forum,” now in the Louvre, are good pictures–complete in detail, painstaking, accurate, hard and tight in technique. They are bomb- proof–beyond criticism–absolutely safe. Have a care, Corot! Keep where you are and you will become an irreproachable painter. That is to say, you will paint just like a hundred other French painters. There will be a market for your wares, the critics will approve, and at the Salon your work will never be either enskyed nor consigned to the catacombs. Society will court you, fair ladies will smile and encourage. You will be a success; your name will be safely pigeonholed among the unobjectionable ones, and before your wind- combed shock of hair has turned to silver, you will be supplanted by a new crop of fashion’s favorites.
It is a fact worth noting that the two greatest landscape-painters of all time were city-born and city-bred. Turner was born in London, the son of a barber, and Fate held him so in leash that he never got beyond the sound of Bow Bells until he was a man grown. Corot was born in Paris, and his first outdoor sketch, made at twenty-two, was done amidst the din and jostle of the quays of the Seine.
Five strong men made up the Barbizon School, and of these, three were reared in Paris–Paris the frivolous, Paris the pleasure- loving. Corot, Rousseau and Daubigny were children of the Metropolis.
I state these facts in the interests of truth, and also to ease conscience, for I am aware that I have glorified the country boy in pages gone before, as if God were kind to him alone.
Turner made over a million dollars by the work of his hands (reinforced by head and heart); and left a discard of nineteen thousand sketches to the British Nation. Was ever such an example of concentration, energy and industry known in the history of art? Corot, six feet one, weight two hundred, ruddy, simple, guileless, singing softly to himself as he walked, in peasant blouse, and sabot-shod, used to come up to Paris, his birthplace, two or three times a year, and the gamins would follow him on the streets, making remarks irrelevant and comments uncomplimentary, just as they might follow old Joshua Whitcomb on Broadway in New York.
British grandees often dress like farmers, for pride may manifest itself in simplicity, but the disinterested pose of Camille Corot, if pose it was, fitted him as the feathers fit a wild duck. If pose is natural it surely is not pose: and Corot, the simplest man in the world, was regarded by the many as a man of mannerisms. His work was so quiet and modest that the art world refused to regard it seriously. Corot was as unpretentious as Walt Whitman and just as free from vanity.
During the War of the Rebellion, Whitman bankrupted himself in purse and body by caring for the stricken soldiers. At the siege of Paris, Corot could have kept outside the barriers, but safety for himself he would not accept. He remained in the city, refused every comfort that he could not divide with others, spent all the money he had in caring for the wounded, nursed the sick by night and day, listened to the confessions of the dying, and closed the eyes of the dead. To everybody, especially the simple folk, the plain, the unpretentious, the unknown, he was “Papa Corot,” and everywhere did the stalwart old man of seventy-five carry hope, good-cheer and a courage that never faltered.
Corot, like Whitman, had the happiness to have no history.
Corot used paint just as if no one had ever painted before, and Whitman wrote as if he were the first man who had ever expressed himself in verse–precedent stood for naught. Each had all the time there was; they were never in a hurry; they loafed and invited their souls; they loved all women so well that they never could make choice of one; both were ridiculed and hooted and misunderstood; recognition came to neither until they were about to depart; and yet in spite of the continual rejection of their work, and the stupidity that would not see, and the ribaldry of those who could not comprehend, they continued serenely on their way, unruffled, kind– making no apologies nor explanations–unresentful, with malice toward none, and charity for all.
The world is still divided as to whether Walt Whitman was simply a coarse and careless writer, without either skill, style or insight; or one with such a subtle, spiritual vision, such a penetration into the heart of things, that few comparatively can follow him.
During forty years of Corot’s career the critics said, when they deigned to mention Corot at all, “There are two worlds, God’s World and Corot’s World.” He was regarded as a harmless lunatic, who saw things differently from others, and so they indulged him, and at the Salon hung his pictures in the “Catacombs” with many a sly joke at his expense. The expression, “Corot Nature,” is with us yet.
But now the idea has gradually gained ground that Camille Corot looked for beauty and found it–that he painted what he saw, and that he saw things that the average man, through incapacity, never sees at all. Science has taught us that there are sounds so subtle that our coarse senses can not recognize them, and there are thousands of tints, combinations and variations in color that the unaided or uneducated eye can not detect.
If Corot saw more than we, why denounce Corot? And so Corot has gradually and very slowly come into recognition as one who had power plus–it was we who were weak, we who were faulty, not he. The stones that were cast at him have been gathered up and cemented into a monument to his memory.
The father of Camille Corot was a peasant who drifted over to Paris to make his fortune. He was active, acute, intelligent and economical–and when a Frenchman is economical his economy is of a kind that makes the Connecticut brand look like extravagance.
This young man became a clerk in a drygoods-store that had a millinery attachment, as most French drygoods-stores have. He was precise, accurate, had a fair education, and always wore a white cravat. In the millinery department of this store was employed, among many others, a Swiss girl who had come up to Paris on her own account to get a knowledge of millinery and dressmaking. When this was gained she intended to go back to Switzerland, the land of liberty and Swiss cheese, and there live out her life in her native village making finery for the villagers for a consideration.
She did not go back to Switzerland, because she very shortly married the precise young drygoods-clerk who wore the white cravat.
The Swiss are the most competent people on this globe of ours, which is round like an orange and slightly flattened at the poles. There is less illiteracy, less pauperism, less drunkenness, more general intelligence, more freedom in Switzerland than in any other country on earth. This has been so for two hundred years: and the reason, some say, is that she has no standing army and no navy. She is surrounded by big nations that are so jealous of her that they will not allow each other to molest her. She is not big enough to fight them. Being too little to declare war, she makes a virtue of necessity and so just minds her own business. That is the only way an individual can succeed–mind your own business–and it is also the best policy with a nation.
The way the Swiss think things out with their heads and materialize them with their hands is very wonderful. In all the Swiss schools the pupils draw, sew, carve wood and make things. Pestalozzi was Swiss, and Froebel was more Swiss than German. Manual Training and the Kindergarten are Swiss ideas. All of our progress in the line of pedagogy that the years have brought has consisted in carrying Kindergarten Ideas into the Little Red Schoolhouse, and elsewhere. The world is debtor to the Swiss–the carmine of their ideas has tinted the whole thought-fabric of civilization.
The Swiss know how.
Skilled workmen from Switzerland are in demand everywhere.
That Swiss girl in the Paris shop was a skilled needlewoman, and the good taste and talent she showed in her work was a joy to her employers. There are hints that they tried to discourage her marriage with the clerk in the white cravat. What a loss to the art world if they had succeeded! But love is stronger than business ambition, and so the milliner married the young clerk, and they had a very modest little nest to which they flew when the day’s work was done.
In a year a domestic emergency made it advisable for the young woman to stay at home, but she kept right along with her sewing. Some of the customers hunted her up and wanted her to do work for them.
When the stress of the little exigency was safely passed, the young mother found she could make more by working at home for special customers. A girl was hired to help her, then two–three.
The rooms downstairs were secured, and a show-window put in. This was at the corner of the Rue du Bac and the Pont Royal, within sight of the Louvre. It is an easy place to find, and you had better take a look at the site the next time you are in Paris–it is sacred soil.
Corot has told us much about his mother–a Frenchman is apt to regard his father simply as a necessary though often inconvenient appendage, possibly absorbing the idea from the maternal side of the house–but his mother is his solace, comforter and friend. The mother of Corot was intelligent, industrious, tactful; sturdy in body and strong in mind.
In due course of time she built up a paying business, bought the house in which they lived, and laid by a goodly dot for her son and two daughters. And all the time Corot pere wore the white cravat, a precise smile for customers and an austere look for his family. He held his old position as floorwalker and gave respectability to his good-wife’s Millinery and Dressmaking Establishment.
The father’s ambition for Camille was that he should become a model floorwalker, treading in the father’s footsteps; and so, while yet a child, the boy was put to work in a drygoods-store, with the idea of discipline strong in mind.
And for this discipline, in after-years Corot was grateful. It gave him the habit of putting things away, keeping accurate accounts, systematizing his work; and throughout his forty years or more of artistic life, it was his proud boast that he reached his studio every morning at three minutes before eight.
Young Corot’s mother had quite a little skill as a draftsman. In her business she drew designs for patterns, and if the prospective customer lacked imagination, she could draw a sketch of the garment as it would look when completed.
Savage tribes make pictures long before they acquire an alphabet; so do all children make pictures before they learn to read. The evolution of the child mirrors the evolution of the race. Camille made pictures just as all boys do, and his mother encouraged him in this, and supplied him copies.
When he was set to work in the drygoods-store he made sketches under the counter and often ornamented bundles with needless hieroglyphics. But these things did not necessarily mean that he was to be a great artist–thousands of drygoods-clerks have sketched and been drygoods- clerks to the end of their days. But good drygoods-clerks should not sketch too much or too well, else they will not rise in their career and some day have charge of a Department.
Camille Corot did not get along at haberdashery–his heart was not in it. He was not quite so bad as a certain budding, artistic genius I once knew, who clerked in a grocery-store, and when a woman came in and ordered a dozen eggs and a half-bushel of potatoes, the genius counted out a dozen potatoes, and sent the customer a half- bushel of eggs.
Then there was that absent-minded young drug-clerk who, when a stranger entered and inquired for the proprietor, answered, “He’s out just at present, but we have something that is just as good.”
Corot hadn’t the ability to make folks think they needed something they did not want–they only got what they wanted, after much careful diplomacy and insistence. These things were a great cross to Corot pere, and the dulness of the boy made the good father grow old before his time–so the father alleged. Were the woes of parents written in books, the world would not be big enough to contain the books. Camille Corot was a failure–he was big, fat, lazy, and tantalizingly good-natured. He haunted the Louvre, and stood open- mouthed before the pictures of Claude Lorraine until the attendants requested him to move on. His mother knew something of art, and they used to discuss all the new pictures together. The father protested: he declared that the mother was encouraging the boy in his vacillation and dreaminess.
Camille lost his position. His father got him another place, and after a month they laid him off for two weeks, and then sent him a note not to come back. He hung around home, played the violin, and sang for his mother’s sewing-girls while they worked. The girls all loved him–if the mother went out and left him in charge of the shop, he gave all hands a play-spell until it was time for Madame to return. His good nature was invincible. He laughed at the bonnets in the windows, slyly sketched the customers who came to try on the frivolities, and even made irrelevant remarks to his mother about the petite fortune she was deriving from catering to dead-serious nabobs who discussed flounces, bows, stays, and beribboned gewgaws as though they were Eternal Verities.
“Mamma is a sculptor who improves upon Nature,” one day Camille said to the girls.” If a woman hasn’t a good form Madame Corot can supply her such amorous proportions that lovers will straightway fall at her feet.” But such jocular remarks were never made to the father– in his presence Camille was subdued and suspiciously respectful. The father had “disciplined” him–but had done nothing else.
Camille had a companion in Achille Michallon, son of the sculptor, Claude Michallon. Young Michallon modeled in clay and painted fairly well, and it was he who, no doubt, fired the mind of young Corot to follow an artistic career, to which Corot the elder was very much opposed.
So matters drifted and Camille Corot, aged twenty-six, was a flat failure, just as he had been for ten years. He hadn’t self-reliance enough to push out for himself, nor enough will to swing his parents into his way of thinking. He was as submissive as a child; and would not and could not do anything until he had gotten permission–thus much for discipline.
Finally, in desperation, his father said: “Camille, you are of an age when you should be at the head of a business; but since you refuse to avail yourself of your opportunities and become a merchant, why, then, I’ll settle upon you the sum of three hundred dollars a year for life and you can follow your own inclinations. But depend upon it, you shall have no more than I have named. I am done–now go and do what you want.”
The words are authentic, being taken down from Corot’s own lips; and they sound singularly like that remark made to Alfred Tennyson by his grandfather, “Here is a guinea for your poem, and depend upon it, this is the first and last money you will ever receive for poetry.”
Camille was so delighted to hear his father’s decision that he burst into tears and embraced the austere and stern-faced parent in the white cravat.
Straightway he would begin his artistic career, and having so announced his intention to the sewing-girls in an impromptu operatic aria, he took easel and paints and went down on the towpath to paint his first outdoor picture.
Soon the girls came trooping after, in order to see Monsieur Camille at his work. One girl, Mademoiselle Rose, stayed longer than the rest. Corot told of the incident in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-eight–a lapse of thirty years–and added: “I have not married–Mademoiselle Rose has not married–she is alive yet, and only last week was here to see me. Ah! what changes have taken place–I have that first picture I painted yet–it is the same picture and still shows the hour and the season, but Mademoiselle Rose and I, where are we?”
Turner and Corot trace back to the same artistic ancestor. It was Claude who first fired the heart of the barber’s boy, and it was Claude who diluted the zeal of Camille Corot for ribbons and haberdashery.
Turner stipulated in his will that a certain picture of his should hang on the walls of the National Gallery by the side of a “Claude Lorraine”; and today in the Louvre you can see, side by side, a “Corot” and a “Claude.” These men are strangely akin; yet, so far as I know, Corot never heard of Turner. However, he was powerfully influenced by Constable, the English painter, who was of the same age as Turner, and for a time, his one bitter rival.
Claude had been dead a hundred years before Constable, Turner or Corot was born. But time is an illusion; all souls are of one age, and in spirit these men were contemporaries and brothers. Claude, Corot and Turner never married–they were wedded to art. Constable ripened fast; he got his reward of golden guineas, and society caught him in its silken mesh. Success came faster than he was able to endure it, and he fell a victim to fatty degeneration of the cerebrum, and died of an acute attack of self-complacency.
It was about the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty-two that Constable gave an exhibition of his work in Paris–a somewhat daring thing for an Englishman to do. Paris had then, and has yet, about the same estimate of English art that the English have now of ours–although it is quite in order to explain in parentheses that three Americans, Whistler, Sargent and Abbey, have recently called a halt on English ribaldry as applied to American artists.
But John Constable’s exhibit in Paris met with favor–the work was singularly like the work of Claude Lorraine, the critics said. And it was, for Constable had copied Claude conscientiously. Corot saw the Englishman’s pictures, realized that they were just such pictures as he would like to paint, and so fell down and worshiped them. For a year he dropped Claude and painted just like Constable.
There was a time when Turner and Constable painted just alike, for they had the same master; but there came a day when Turner shoved out from shore, and no man since has been able to follow him.
And no one can copy Corot. The work that he did after he attained freedom and swung away from Claude and Constable has an illusive, intangible, subtle and spiritual quality that no imitator can ever catch on his canvas. Corot could not even copy his own pictures–his work is born of the spirit. His effects are something beyond skill of hand, something beyond mere knowledge of technique. You can copy a Claude and you can copy a Constable, for the pictures have well- defined outline and the forms are tangible. Claude was the first painter who showed the shimmering sunlight on the leaves, the upturned foliage of the silver poplar, the yellow willows bending beneath the breeze, the sweep of the clouds across the sky, the play of the waves across the seashore, the glistening dewdrops on the grass, the soft stealing mists of twilight.
Constable did all this, too, and he did it as well as Claude, but no better. He never got beyond the stage of microscopic portrayal; if he painted a dewdrop he painted it, and his blades of grass, swaying lily-stems, and spider-webs are the genuine articles.
Corot painted in this minute way for many years, but gradually he evolved a daring quality and gave us the effect of dewdrops, the spider-threads, the foliage, the tall lilies, without painting them at all–he gives you the feeling, that is all, stirs the imagination until the beholder, if his heart be in tune, sees things that only the spiritual eye beholds.
The pale, silvery tones of Corot, the shadowy boundaries that separate the visible from the invisible, can never be imitated without the Master’s penetration into the heart of Nature. He knew things he could never explain, and he held secrets he could not impart. Before his pictures we can only stand silent–he disarms criticism and strikes the quibbler dumb. Before a Corot you had better give way, and let its beauty caress your soul. His colors are thin and very simple–there is no challenge in his work, as there is in the work of Turner. Greens and grays predominate, and the plain drab tones are blithe, airy, gracious, graceful and piquant as a beautiful young Quaker woman clothed in the garb of simplicity and humility–but a woman still. Corot coquettes with color–with pale lilac, silver gray, and diaphanous green. He poetizes everything he touches–quiet ponds, clumps of bushes, whitewashed cottages, simple swards, yellow cows, blowsy peasants, woodland openings, stretching meadows and winding streams–they are all full of divine suggestion and joyous expectancy. Something is just going to happen–somebody is coming, some one we love–you can almost detect a faint perfume, long remembered, never to be forgotten. A Corot is a tryst with all that you most admire and love best–it speaks of youth, joyous, hopeful, expectant youth. The flavor is Grecian, and if the Greeks had left us any paintings they would all have been just like Corot’s.
The bubbling, boyish good-cheer that Corot possessed is well shown in a letter he once wrote to Stevens Graham. This letter was written, without doubt, in that fine intoxication which comes after work well done; and no greater joy ever comes to a mortal in life than this.
George Moore tells somewhere of catching Corot in one of these moods of rapture: the Master was standing alone on a log in the woods, like a dancing faun, leading an imaginary orchestra with silent but tremendous gusto. At other times, when Corot captured certain effects in a picture, he would rush across the fields to where there was a peasant plowing, and seizing the astonished man, would lead him over and stand him before the canvas crying: “Look at that! Ah, now, look at that! What did I tell you! You thought I never could catch it–Oho, aha, ohe, tralala, la, la, la, loo!”
This willingness to let the unrestrained spirit romp was strong in Corot–and it is to be recommended. How much finer it is to go out into the woods and lift up your voice in song, and be a child, than to fight inclination and waste good God-given energy endeavoring to be proper–whatever that may be!
Corot never wrote anything finer than that letter to his friend Graham, and, like all really good things, it was written with no weather-eye on futurity. The thought that it might be published never came to him, for if it had, he would probably have produced something not worth publishing. It was scribbled off with a pencil, hot from the heart, out of doors, immediately after having done a particularly choice bit of work. Every one who writes of Corot quotes this letter, and there are various translations of it. It can not be translated literally, because the language in which it was written is effervescent, flashing, in motion like a cascade. It defies all grammar, forgets rhetoric, and simply makes you feel. I have just as good a right to translate this letter as anybody, and while I will add nothing that the spirit of the text does not justify, I will omit a few things, and follow my own taste in the matter of paragraphing.
So here is the letter:
A landscapist’s day is divine. You are jealous of the moments, and so are up at three o’clock–long before the sun sets you the example.
You go out into the silence and sit under a tree, and watch and watch and wait and wait.
It is very dark–the nightingales have gone to bed, all the mysterious noises of night’s forenoon have ceased–the crickets are asleep, the tree-toad has found a nest–even the stars have slunk away.
There is scarcely anything to be seen at first–only dark, spectral shapes that stand out against the blue-black of the sky.
Nature is behind a veil, upon which some masses of form are vaguely sketched. The damp, sweet smell of the incense of Spring is in the air–you breathe deeply–a sense of religious emotion sweeps over you–you close your eyes an instant in a prayer of thankfulness that you are alive.
You do not keep your eyes closed long, though–something is about to happen–you grow expectant, you wait, you listen, you hold your breath–everything trembles with a delight that is half-pain, under the invigorating caress of the coming day.
You breathe fast, and then you hold your breath and listen.
Bing! A ray of pale yellow light shoots from horizon to zenith. The dawn does not come all at once: it steals upon you by leaps and subtle strides like deploying pickets.
Bing! Another ray, and the first one is suffusing itself across an arc of the purple sky.
Bing, Bing! The east is all aglow.
The little flowers at your feet are waking in joyful mood.
The chirrup of birds is heard. How they do sing! When did they begin? You forgot them in watching the rays of light.
The flowers are each one drinking its drop of quivering dew.
The leaves feel the cool breath of the morning, and are moving to and fro in the invigorating air.
The flowers are saying their morning prayers, accompanied by the matin-song of the birds.
Amoretti, with gauzy wings, are perching on the tall blades of grass that spring from the meadows, and the tall stems of the poppies and field-lilies are swaying, swaying, swaying a minuet motion fanned by the kiss of the gentle breeze.
Oh, how beautiful it all is! How good God is to send it! How beautiful! how beautiful!
But merciful easel! I am forgetting to paint–this exhibition is for me, and I’m failing to improve it. My palette–the brushes–there! there!
We can see nothing–but you feel the landscape is there–quick now, a cottage away over yonder is pushing out of the white mist. To thine easel–go!
Oh! it’s all there behind the translucent gauze–I know it–I know it–I know it!
Now the white mist lifts like a curtain–it rises and rises and rises.
Bam! the sun is risen.
I see the river, like a stretch of silver ribbon; it weaves in and out and stretches away, away, away.
The masses of the trees, of the meads, the meadows–the poplars, the leaning willows, are all revealed by the mist that is reeling and rolling up the hillside.
I paint and I paint and I paint, and I sing and I sing and I paint!
We can see now all we guessed before.
Bam, Bam! The sun is just above the horizon–a great golden ball held in place by spider-threads.
I can see the lace made by the spiders–it sparkles with the drops of dew.
I paint and I paint and I sing and I paint.
Oh, would I were Joshua–I would command the sun to stand still.
And if it should, I would be sorry, for nothing ever did stand still, except a bad picture. A good picture is full of motion. Clouds that stand still are not clouds–motion, activity, life, yes, life is what we want–life!
Bam! A peasant comes out of the cottage and is coming to the meadow.
Ding, ding, ding! There comes a flock of sheep led by a bellwether. Wait there a minute, please, sheepy-sheepy, and a great man will paint you.
All right then, don’t wait. I didn’t want to paint you anyway
Bam! All things break into glistening–ten thousand diamonds strew the grasses, the lilies and the tall stalks of swaying poppies. Diamonds on the cobwebs–diamonds everywhere. Glistening, dancing, glittering light–floods of light–pale, wistful, loving light: caressing, blushing, touching, beseeching, grateful light. Oh, adorable light! The light of morning that comes to show you things– and I paint and I paint and I paint.
Oh, the beautiful red cow that plunges into the wet grass up to her dewlaps! I will paint her. There she is–there!
Here is Simon, my peasant friend, looking over my shoulder.
“Oho, Simon, what do you think of that?”
“Very fine,” says Simon, “very fine!”
“You see what it is meant for, Simon?”
“Me? Yes, I should say I do–it is a big red rock.”
“No, no, Simon, that is a cow.”
“Well, how should I know unless you tell me,” answers Simon.
I paint and I paint and I paint.
Boom! Boom! The sun is getting clear above the treetops.
It is growing hot.
The flowers droop.
The birds are silent.
We can see too much now–there is nothing in it. Art is a matter of soul. Things you see and know all about are not worth painting–only the intangible is splendid.
Let’s go home. We will dine, and sleep, and dream. That’s it–I’ll dream of the morning that would not tarry–I’ll dream my picture out, and then I’ll get up and smoke, and complete it, possibly–who knows!
Let’s go home.
* * * * *
Bam! Bam! It is evening now–the sun is setting. I didn’t know the close of the day could be so beautiful–I thought the morning was the time.
But it is not just right–the sun is setting in an explosion of yellow, of orange, of rouge-feu, of cherry, of purple.
Ah! it is pretentious, vulgar. Nature wants me to admire her–I will not. I’ll wait–the sylphs of the evening will soon come and sprinkle the thirsty flowers with their vapors of dew.
I like sylphs–I’ll wait.
Boom! The sun sinks out of sight, and leaves behind a tinge of purple, of modest gray touched with topaz–ah! that is better. I paint and I paint and I paint.
Oh, Good Lord, how beautiful it is–how beautiful! The sun has disappeared and left behind a soft, luminous, gauzy tint of lemon– lemons half-ripe. The light melts and blends into the blue of the night.
How beautiful! I must catch that–even now it fades–but I have it: tones of deepening green, pallid turquoise, infinitely fine, delicate, fluid and ethereal.
Night draws on. The dark waters reflect the mysteries of the sky– the landscape fades, vanishes, disappears–we can not see it now, we only feel it is there.
But that is enough for one day–Nature is going to sleep, and so will we, soon. Let us just sit silent a space and enjoy the stillness.
The rising breezes are sighing through the foliage, and the birds, choristers of the flowers, are singing their vesper-songs–calling, some of them, plaintively for their lost mates.
Bing! A star pricks its portrait in the pond.
All around now is darkness and gloom–the crickets have taken up the song where the birds left off.
The little lake is sparkling, a regular ant-heap of twinkling stars.
Reflected things are best–the waters are only to reflect the sky– Nature’s looking-glass.
The sun has gone to rest; the day is done. But the Sun of Art has arisen, and my picture is complete.
Let us go home.
The Barbizon School–which, by the way, was never a school, and if it exists now is not at Barbizon–was made up of five men: Corot, Millet, Rousseau, Diaz and Daubigny.
Corot saw it first–this straggling little village of Barbizon, nestling there at the foot of the Forest of Fontainebleau, thirty- five miles southeast of Paris. This was about the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty. There was no market then for Corot’s wares, and the artist would have doubted the sanity of any one who might have wanted to buy. His income was one dollar a day–and this was enough. If he wanted to go anywhere, he walked; and so he walked into Barbizon one day, his pack on his back, and found there a little inn, so quaint and simple that he stayed two days.
The landlord quite liked the big, jolly stranger. Hanging upon his painting outfit was a mandolin, a harmonica, a guitar and two or three other small musical instruments of nondescript pedigree. The painter made music for the village, and on invitation painted a sketch on the tavern-wall to pay for his board. And this sketch is there even to this day, and is as plain to be seen as the splash of ink on the wall at Eisenach where Martin Luther threw the ink-bottle at the devil.
When Corot went back to Paris he showed sketches of Barbizon and told of the little snuggery, where life was so simple and cheap.
Soon Rousseau and Diaz went down to Barbizon for a week’s stay– later came Daubigny.
In the course of a few years Barbizon grew to be a kind of excursion point for artistic and ragged Bohemians, most of whom have done their work, and their little life is now rounded with a sleep.
Rousseau, Diaz and Daubigny, all younger men than Corot, made comfortable fortunes long before Corot got the speaker’s eye; and when at last recognition came to him, not the least of their claim to greatness was that they had worked with him.
It was not until Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine that Jean Francois Millet with his goodly brood was let down from the stage at Barbizon, to work there for twenty-six years, and give himself and the place immortality. For when we talk of the Barbizon School, we have the low tones of “The Fagot-Gatherer” in mind–the browns, the russets and the deep, dark yellows fading off into the gloom of dying day.
And only a few miles away, clinging to the hillside, is By, where lived Rosa Bonheur–too busy to care for Barbizon, or if she thought of the “Barbizon School” it was with a fine contempt, which the “School” returned with usurious interest.
At the Barbizon Inn the Bohemians used to sing songs about the Bonheur breeches, and “the Lady who keeps a Zoo.” The offense of Rosa Bonheur was that she minded her own business, and sold the “Horse Fair” for more money than the entire Barbizon School had ever earned in its lifetime.
Only two names loom large out of Barbizon. Daubigny, Diaz and Rousseau are great painters, and they each have disciples and imitators who paint as well as they; but Corot and Millet stand out separate and alone, incomprehensible and unrivaled.
And yet were ever two artists more unlike! Just compare “The Dancing Sylphs” and “The Gleaners.” The theme of all Millet’s work is, “Man goeth forth to his labors unto the evening.” Toil, hardship, heroic endurance, plodding monotony, burdens grievous to be borne–these things cover the canvases of Millet. All of his deep sincerity, his abiding melancholy, his rugged nobility are there; for every man who works in freedom simply reproduces himself. That is what true work is–self-expression, self-revelation. The style of Millet is so strongly marked, so deeply etched, that no man dare imitate it. It is covered by a perpetual copyright, signed and sealed with the life’s blood of the artist. Then comes Corot the joyous, Corot the careless, Corot who had no troubles, no sorrows, no grievances, and not an enemy that he recognized as such. He even loved Rosa Bonheur, or would, he once said, “If she would only chain up her dog, and wear woman’s clothes!” Corot, singing at his work, unless he was smoking, and if he was smoking, removing his pipe only to lift up his voice in song: Corot, painting and singing–“Ah ha–tra la la. Now I ‘ll paint a little boy–oho, oho, tra lala la loo–lal loo– oho–what a nice little boy–and here comes a cow; hold that, bossy –in you go for art’s dear sake–tra la la la, la loo!”
Look at a Corot closely and listen, and you can always hear the echo of the pipes o’ Pan. Lovers sit on the grassy banks, children roll among the leaves, sylphs dance in every open, and out from between the branches lightly steps Orpheus, harp in hand, to greet the morn. Never is there a shadow of care in a Corot–all is mellow with love, ripe with the rich gift of life, full of prayer and praise just for the rapture of drinking in the day–grateful for calm, sweet rest and eventide.
Corot, eighteen years the senior of Millet, was the first to welcome the whipped-out artist to Barbizon. With him Corot divided his scanty store; he sang and played his guitar at the Millet hearthstone when he had nothing but himself to give; and when, in Eighteen Hundred Seventy-five, Millet felt the chill night of death settling down upon him, and the fear that want would come to his loved ones haunted his dreams, Corot assured him by settling upon the family the sum of one thousand francs a year, until the youngest child should become of age, and during Madame Millet’s life.
So died Jean Francois Millet.
In Eighteen Hundred Eighty-nine “The Angelus” was bought by an American Syndicate for five hundred eighty thousand francs. In Eighteen Hundred Ninety it was bought back by agents of the French Government for seven hundred fifty thousand francs, and now has found a final resting-place in the Louvre.
Within a few months after the death of Millet, Corot, too, passed away.
Corot is a remarkable example of a soul ripening slowly. His skill was not at its highest until he was seventy-one years of age. He then had eight years of life and work left, and he continued even to the end. In his art there was no decline.
It can not be said that he received due recognition until he was approaching his seventy-fifth year, for it was then, for the first time, that the world of buyers besieged his door. The few who had bought before were usually friends who had purchased with the amiable idea of helping a worthy man.
During the last few years of Corot’s life, his income was over fifty thousand francs a year–“more than I received for pictures during my whole career,” he once said. And then he shed tears at parting with the treasures that had been for so long his close companions.
“You see, I am a collector,” he used to say, “but being poor, I have to paint all my pictures myself–they are not for sale.”
And probably he would have kept his collection unbroken were it not that he wanted the money so much to give away.
Of the painters classed in the Barbizon School, it is probable that Corot will live longest, and will continue to occupy the highest position. His art is more individual than Rousseau’s, more poetic than that of Daubigny, and in every sense more beautiful than that of Millet. When Camille Corot passed out, on the Twenty-second of February, Eighteen Hundred Seventy-five, he was the best-loved man in Paris. Five thousand art-students wore crape on their arms for a year in memory of “Papa Corot,” a man who did his work joyously, lived long, and to the end carried in his heart the perfume of the morning, and the beneficent beauty of the sunrise.