Corots

The Gulbenkian collection contains a number of Corots, an example of the personal character of the collection. After two weeks they are no longer in my mind’s eye, but I remember being struck by the insight that the very natural effect of the paintings as landscape derives its force and pregnancy from effects of composition rather than texture. Many of them depict a country road, and that unmade road’s sandy yellow gathers together the light as well as unifying the composition, not as the source of illumination, but with a slight inner glow reminiscent of El Greco — especially the paintings of Toledo. The Bridge at Nantes demonstrates the effect because the function is here performed by a bridge not a road, but in just the same way, with the river as a contrasting axis of movement. Perhaps my favourite of the Corots shows a flock of sheep in the distance to the top left with a willow tree reflected in a pond in the foreground to the left, and a yellow track heading off from it up to the right. A girl leans on the tree, lending the whole its human dimension and scale. The scene could be in Oxfordshire. An apparent exception to the pattern is a painting of Venice, with the red light of San Marco reflected in the canal and a very Venetian sky; the canal is the thoroughfare that unifies the composition formally, but its unity of light gives it its distinctive character as a Corot — or so I felt when I noticed the red light in the canal, and then the sky.

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