Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851–1934)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1851. Died there, 1934. Corot.—Six Portraits. By Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer. 1889.]

“TRUTH,” said Corot, “is the first thing in art, and the second and the third.” But the whole truth cannot be told at once. A selection from the mass of Nature’s truths is what the artist shows—a few things at a time, and with sufficient emphasis to make them clearly felt. You cannot paint summer and winter on a single canvas. No two successive hours of a summer’s day are just alike, and you cannot paint them both. Nor, as certainly, can you paint everything you see at the chosen moment. Crowd in too much and you spoil the picture, weaken the impression, conceal your meaning, falsify everything in the attempt to be too true.

This was Corot’s creed. What now were the truths that he interpreted at the necessary sacrifice of others which were less important in his eyes? They are implied, I think, in the words I have already written.

Corot prized effects rather than what the non-artistic world calls solid facts. But effects are as truly facts as are the individual features and details which make them. Indeed, they are the most essential as well as interesting of all facts. It is effects that we see first when we are in Nature’s presence, that impress us most, and dwell the longest in our minds. Outlines, modelling, local colors, minor details—these shift, appear and disappear, or alter vastly as light and shadow change; and most of them we never really see at all until we take time to analyze. Look at the same scene on a sunny morning or by cloudy sunset light. It is not the same scene. The features are the same, but their effect has changed, and this means a new landscape, a novel picture. The mistake of too many modern painters, especially in England, is that they paint from analysis, not from sight. They paint the things they know are there, not the things they perceive just as they perceive them. This Corot never did. He studied analytically and learned all he could about solid facts; but he painted synthetically—omitting many things that he knew about, and even many that he saw at the moment, in order to portray more clearly the general result. And this general result he found in the main lines of the scene before him; in its dominant tone; in the broad relationships of one mass of color to all others; in the aspect of the sky, the character of the atmosphere, and the play of light; and in the palpitating incessant movement of sky and air and leaf.

Look at one of Corot’s foregrounds and you will see whether it is soft or hard, wet with dew or dry in the sun; you will see its color, its mobility. Look at his trees and you will see their mass, their diversities in denseness, their pliability and vital freshness. Look at his sky and you will see its shimmering, pulsating quality: it has the softness of a blue which means vast depths of distance, or of a gray which means layer upon layer of imponderable mist, and the whiteness of clouds which shine as bright as pearls but would dissipate at a touch. And everywhere, over all, behind all, in all, you will see the enveloping air and the light which infiltrates this thing and transfigures that; the air and the light which make all things what they are, which create the landscape by creating its color, its expression, its effect; the air and the light which are the movement, the spirit, the very essence of nature. No man had ever perfectly painted the atmosphere till Corot did it, or the diffused, pervading quality of light; and for this reason no one had painted such delicate, infinite distances, such deep, luminous, palpitating skies.

See now how Corot managed to paint like this—to interpret the life, mood, and meaning of the scene he drew. It was just through that process of omission and suppression which the superficial misread as proof that he did not really “render” nature at all. Even the smallest, simplest, natural fact cannot be “rendered” in the sense of being literally reproduced; and to attempt the literal imitation of large features is merely to sacrifice the whole in favor of what must remain but a partial rendering of a part. A leaf can be painted, but not a myriad leaves at once; we are soon forced to generalize, condense, suppress; and to try to paint too many leaves is to lose the tree, for the tree is not a congregation of countless individual leaves distinctly seen—it is a mass of leaves which are shot through and through with light and air, and always more or less merged together and moving. It is an entity, and a live one; and which is the more important—that we should see the living thing or the items that compose it? What we ask the painter is not just how his tree was constructed, but just how it looked as a feature in the beauty and aliveness of the scene. What we want is its general effect and the way it harmonized with the effect of its surroundings.

Does it matter, then, if he omits many things, or even if he alters some things, to get this right result? Such altering is not falsifying. It is merely emphasis—a stress laid here and a blank left there that (since all facts cannot possibly be given) the accented fact shall at least be plain. The generalized structure of Corot’s trees, their blurred contours and flying, feathery spray—these are not untruths. They are merely compromises with the stern necessities of paint, devices he employed, not because he was unable to draw trees with precision, but because, had he done this, his foliage would have been too solid and inert for truth. A twig is never long in one position. It cannot be painted in two positions at once. But a twig that is blurred to the eye because it is passing from one position to another—this can be painted, and this Corot preferred to paint rather than ramifications with exactness or leaf-outlines with a narrow care. So his trees are alive, and, as he loved to say, the light can reach their inmost leaves, and the little birds can fly among their branches.

It is the same thing with color. The color schemes to which Corot kept were never as strong and vivid as those we find with some of his contemporaries and many of his successors. Browns and grays and pale greens predominate on his canvas with rarely an acuter accent, a louder note. But he fitted his themes to his brush, so that we feel no lack; or, in better words, he chose his color schemes in accordance with the character of the natural effects that he loved most. And within the scale he chose his coloring is perfect. His tone (the harmony, or, as used to be said, the “keeping” of his result) is admirable beyond praise. Yet it is gained at no sacrifice of truth in local color. There are cheap processes for securing tone, which are indeed falsifications of nature,—ways of carrying over into one object the color of another, throwing things out of their right relationships, harmonizing with some universal gauze of brown or gray. But Corot’s was not a process like any of these. His power to harmonize and unify his colors sprang from the fact that he studied colors with a more careful and penetrating eye than ever before had been brought to bear, and never forgot their mutual relationships. Look at one of his pictures where the general effect, perhaps, is of soft delicious greens. Everything in it is not greenish. The sky is pure blue and the clouds are purest white. The water is rightly related to the sky, and where things were gray in nature, or brown, or even black, they are so on canvas. Harmony does not mean monotony, tone does not mean untruth; and this Corot could accomplish because he studied “values” as no painter before him had studied them.

This word—new in our language but indispensable—has been a little hard of comprehension to those who know nothing of the painter’s problems and devices. But it means, as simply as I can say it, the difference between given colors as severally compared with the highest note in the scale—white, and the lowest—black; the difference between them as containing, so to speak, more light or more dark. This does not mean the same thing as the relative degrees of illumination and shadow which may fall upon them. The one quality may be involved in or dependent upon the other, but the two are distinct to the painter’s eye.

It is not easy even to perceive differences in value. Given two shades of the same tint, as of a blue-green or a yellow-green, it is easy enough to say which is the darker; but it is more difficult when a yellow-green is compared with a blue-green, and still more when we set a brown beside a green, or a blue beside a yellow. Yet the painter must not only learn to see values in nature but to transpose them correctly on canvas—for color can never be exactly copied on canvas; from the nature of paint, there must always be transposition, adaptation, compromise. Corot mastered the difficulty as no one else had done; and this mastery has made him the guide and teacher of all the landscape painters who have since been born.