Peasants under the Trees at Dawn

Subject

Under a spreading tree in the left foreground a man and a woman stand on and among piles of logs, branches and tree-trunks. The man appears to be sawing and the woman is gathering twigs from the tree itself.5  A stream winds from behind the foreground boulder through the gully on the left-hand side, behind the two figures and to the hill beyond. The young girl in the background is sitting on the bank, looking down at the water. Behind her a wooden bridge links the house on the extreme right with the buildings on the left.

The light is coming from the right background; the little girl and the logs under the tree are all strongly highlighted in shades of cream. The logs also cast strong shadows over the earthy area in front. The hill, directly against the light, appears as misty grey and green, and the houses and trees dissolve in the light.

'Peasants under the Trees at Dawn' depicts a scene in Lormes, the principal town in the area of the Morvan, in western Burgundy. At that period it was known for its rugged terrain and somewhat remote character.The inhabitants lived mainly by tree felling, the wood being transported by river, or by keeping cattle.7 The exact site has been identified as being in the mill quarter of the town, a little uphill from the mill seen in Corot’s Cottage and Mill beside a Stream (Morvan or Auvergne) of 1831.

The tall building just glimpsed on the left is identified as an imposing house, perhaps a former château, which to this day dominates the town’s mill quarter.The stream is L’Auxois, which worked all the mills in the town. Both the stream and the mills can be seen in a lithograph by E. Bussière, of around 1825–30. The view in NG 6439 would have been on the left of this lithograph.

Corot’s father’s family originated from this region, specifically from the village of Mussy-la-Fosse, north-east of Semur-en-Auxois. In 1831 Corot made his first visit to the area. Subsequently his niece, Laure Sennegon, married on 16 October 1833 a man from Lormes, Philibert Baudot, and Corot paid them a visit in April 1834 on his way to Italy.10 

In the early 1840s Corot visited the area on three occasions. From July to September 1841 he was in Vézelay, Lormes and Saint-André-en-Morvan. In the summer of 1842 he returned to Lormes and Saint-André-en-Morvan, and from September to October 1844 he was again at Saint-André-en-Morvan and at Le Cousin.

There are around 15 paintings of the area dating from this period, described by Kenneth Clark as ‘pictures of a moderate size, firmly constructed, and seen with absolute naturalness, which makes almost every landscape, painted before or since, look slightly artificial’.11 They are distinguished by their originality of composition, including high horizons and closed-in views of dense woodland,12 light effects, and, in this painting in particular, the contre-jour lighting. This exceptional light has led writers to quote Corot’s remark that Claude ‘regardait le soleil en face’.13 Unlike some of the views this painting is undated, and could have been painted on any of these visits.

Copy

The artist William Wyld made a copy of NG 6439, possibly during the period when he owned it (see Provenance).18

 

1. For Mayer see under Provenance.

2. For a full discussion of materials and technique see article by S. Herring, ‘Six Paintings by Corot in the National Gallery: Methods, Materials and Sources’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, 30, 2009.

 

3. Noted by Leighton 1996, pp. 26–7, and by Roy 1999, p. 333. In fact Robaut had already surmised that the study had been painted in six sittings. See Collection Robaut, vol. 3, plate 157.

 

4. See Roy 1999, pp. 330–42 (340). Avignon from the West also has this mixture of vermilion and cobalt blue mixed with white at the horizon.

 

5. Her attitude anticipates that of the woman gathering foliage from the tree in Corot’s Souvenir de Mortefontaine of 1864 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). This is noted by Geiger 1973–5, p. 334.

6. See, for example, the description of Morvan by Augustus Hare: ‘the wild district of Morvan (Montagne noire), which has a Celtic population, weaving the ancient saga, and speaking a patois incomprehensible to the inhabitants of the plain’. A.J.C. Hare, South-Eastern France, London 1890, p. 74, quoted in Clarke 1991, pp. 65–6.

 

7. See K. Baedeker, Le Nord-Est de la France. De Paris aux Ardennes, aux Vosges et au Rhône, Leipzig 1914, pp. 370–1.

 

8. R293. Lot 4 of sale, property of the Greentree Foundation, from the collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, Sotheby’s, New York, 5 May 2004.

 

9. See Berte-Langereau 1993, pp. 8–9 and 17. The compiler is grateful to Berte-Langereau for further clarifying the view of NG 6439 in correspondence.

10. See Balleret 1997, p. 16, who states that it was this marriage that introduced Corot to the area. While it is true that he stayed with them in Lormes in 1834, he had already visited the area in 1831.

 

11. Clark 1966, p. 94. However, not all writers praise this picture. Adams (Adams 1994 p. 122) points out the fragmentation of the figures by the central clump of trees and calls the composition clumsy and disordered. ‘Neither well finished nor picturesque, it would have fallen within the very lowest category of landscape painting.’

12. Exceptions to this are View of Lormes  (R421), jointly owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Mrs Walter Mendelsohn, see A. Schoeller and J. Dieterle, Corot. Premier Supplement à l’Oeuvre de Corot par A.. Robaut et Moreau-Nélaton, Paris 1948, no. 16,  and  Morvan Landscape  (R878), Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts. The panoramic view and long format of these paintings are reminiscent of such paintings as Avignon from the West.

13. See  Toussaint,  Monnier and  Servot,  Paris 1975,  p. 49.

14. William Wyld (1806–1889) was a follower of Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828) who worked and exhibited mainly in France. Apart from this gift, no other details are known about any contact or friendship between Wyld and Corot.

15. According to F. Lugt, Répertoire des catalogues de ventes publiques, The Hague, 1938–87, III, 1964, p. 492, none of the catalogues in existence are annotated with buyers’ names.

16. There is a gap in the provenance from 1890 to 1930. It is possible that the painting belonged at one point to Mme Sanchez Toledo whose name appears on the stretcher. It is also possible that the stretcher was reused.

17. NG 6439 was in the possession of Tony Mayer when it was included in the Corot exhibition at the Galerie Daber in 1951. A letter in the Daber Archives requesting the loan of the painting is dated 12 March 1949. There is also a letter in the same archives from Tony Mayer giving the title of the painting in Bazin ‘à l’époque où il appartenait à la collection Albert S. Henraux’. The author is grateful to M. Blondeau for giving access to the Daber Archives.

 

18. Its present location is unknown. There is a photograph of it in the Gallery dossier for NG 6439.

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