Constantin Guys, Promenade, india ink and was on paper, date unknown
“Who was the first modern painter?” This question necessarily poses problems. In Charles Baudelaire’s essay The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863 (but written three years earlier), the painter of modernity is not Eugène Delacroix, Claude Monet or Edouard Manet. Baudelaire claims that it is Constantin Guys - a former soldier and war correspondent for the nascent illustrated mass press during the Crimean War. According to Baudelaire, Guys was “not precisely an artist, but rather a man of the world.” Guys sketched his surroundings - Parisian streets, night life, bohemian manners, interactions and fashions of the day. But there are other modernities that Baudelaire’s theory does not quite capture.
Installation of Corot paintings at the Met
In late April, I was lucky enough to explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the only day during the week that it is closed to the public. The Corots stole the show.
Corot, Italian Landscape, oil on paper on canvas, late 1820s
Corot did not start painting until about 1821, at which point he was in his mid 20s. Considering the career path of professional artists back then, he had a late start. In the beginning he was taught by Achille Etna Michallon, who was one of Jacques-Louis David’s students. Although Corot was trained in the neo-classical tradition of art, which prized ancient Greek and Roman mythological subjects and idealization of the human form - his oil sketches reveal how he broke with his teachers to embrace a different way of looking at the world around him.
Corot, Landscape at Civita Castellana, oil on paper on canvas, 1826/1827
The landscape sketches at the Met were painted while Corot spent time in Italy in the areas surrounding Rome. A landscape can be a reliable barometer of where painting is headed at the time of its making. That has partly to do with its absence of human traces. The lack of bridges, roads and other such structures that are only occasionally included by Corot, create images of unfolding sceneries that are not yet fully defined and thus ambiguous. To depict the natural world in a sketch means to accentuate how we see and how we go about making visible through paint what is in front of us. Corot used small-sized paper sheets that were later mounted on canvas: this allows for a less constrictive painting approach and creates works that differ from larger-scale paintings on canvas. Such is the case for The Bridge at Narni, shown below. Paper is easier to transport, cheaper than canvas, and oil paint dries faster on it. With these advantages in mind, Corot is less bound to a traditional painting process while allowing himself more room for experimentation in terms of finding forms, finding colors, contrasting dark with light areas and depicting varying degrees of spatial depth. Ultimately, he asks what it means to represent.
Corot, The Bridge at Narni, oil on canvas, 1826-27
By doing so, Corot arrives - intentionally or not - at a form of painting that has come to be associated with modernity. In this instance, modernity describes how the experienced present is appropriated in a mode of presentness: quick brushstrokes, fluid outlines, flat shapes, suggested space, a limited palette and over all the translucency of each applied layer. Baudelaire’s fleeting urban ghosts and Manet’s brushes seem to have dwelled in Corot’s landscapes long before they were absorbed by city life.
Edouard Manet, Landscape with a Village Church, oil on canvas, early 1870s