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Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Father and His Son

The relationship between artists and their families has always been an interesting one for me, especially that which exists between fathers and sons. In today's American culture, parents are mostly supportive of their children's interests and eventual career choices. Would-be artists today seldom encounter resistance from their parents as they struggle through various forms of art schooling and then try to make a name for themselves as practicing professional artists. That's largely been the case for the past hundred years or more.

 In 1846, when a painting by an artist named Camille Corot's led to his receiving the highest award given to French artists, his father, who had always considered him little more than an amiable good-for-nothing, remarked that "...maybe the boy had some talent after all." By then the "boy" was fifty years old. Of course Corot had been forty before he sold his first painting at which time the father had pretended distress, complaining that no longer did he have a complete collection of Corot's work. To his credit, Corot's father had supported his artist-son all his life, so perhaps the "old man" had good reason to be surprised at such a distinguished award.

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot was born in Paris over his mother's millinery shop in 1796.  He was an unexceptional student and when he announced his desire to be a painter his father was at first horrified. But, reluctantly, he decided to give "the boy" a chance, though not expecting much.  He noted that he was good only for "having fun".  Years later, Corot agreed with his father's assessment: "My whole life I painted and had fun."

Ville de Avray, 1865
Camille Corot
 Corot had the best art education money could buy. He went with his teacher to Italy where he ignored the Raphaels and Michelangelos in favor of the Italian landscape. When he returned from Italy, he took up the French landscape in its place. His early work is sharp, precise, and classically academic in subject matter, but always with an expressive, spirited landscape. Later, his drawing and painting became softer, relying more and more on color rather than draftsmanship. It was a generally accepted fact, even amongst his friends, that Corot "never knew how to draw", which was not true. He simply defined drawing differently from his peers. His father's wealth allowed him the freedom to be "himself" and as a result, his work defies the usual categorization so dear to art historians. Like Boudin and Millet, Corot is best thought of as one whose influence upon the Impressionists may have been as important as his body of work. His early advice to a young Camille Pissarro was one such instance: "Never lose the first impression which moved you."  Pissarro, in turn, passed this entreaty on to a generation of artists who were themselves moved by Corot's "impressions".

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