The Leaning Tree Trunk

Discover how Corot created a shimmering effect in this painting and find out which of his other paintings and drawings share the motif of branches reaching out.

Technical notes

Oil on canvas, lined, 49.7 x 60.7 cm. Signed bottom right in brown paint: COROT. (fig.1)

The original canvas is fairly fine. It has been relined, but the stretcher is probably original. The original tacking holes are intact at the sides and bottom, but mostly missing at the top. The number 2176 (not identified) is written in blue crayon on the stretcher.

Corot, 'The Leaning Tree Trunk', about 1855-60
fig.1 Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 'The Leaning Tree Trunk', about 1855-60

 

Materials and technique

This painting is representative of a change in style in Corot’s work which occurred in the 1860s and 1870s. During this period colour became less important and he increasingly favoured muted tones. His brushwork also changed; he often painted quite thinly, leaving parts of the ébauche (initial sketch), or even the ground visible.

He would work the picture surface with innumerable small touches of paint, creating a shimmering effect. This can be seen here in the branches to the left of the main clump of trees, where the foliage is painted in touches of grey paint. Corot’s usual practice throughout his life was to paint the sky last, over which he added extra branches and foliage to trees already painted. This is the case here with those branches which stretch out to the far left of the picture.

The ground is composed of lead white, over which a brown translucent undercolour has been painted which can be seen through the top paint1. Corot has used cobalt blue in the sky and in the greyish mauve of the middle distance. The mid-green foreground is created from blue and yellow, made up of a transparent yellow (possibly chrome) and a fine blue (possibly Prussian blue) mixture with white, red and black in small amounts.

Much has been written, from Robaut onwards, on how Corot preferred to mix his greens, rather than use ready-made ones but in actual fact he used both, as is evidenced by other paintings in the collection2. The very bright orange streaks in the boat and on the woman’s cap have been identified as cadmium orange, a pigment which came into use in the latter half of the 19th century. It has also been identified in Corot’s Les Evaux, near Château Thierry, dated by Robaut to 1855 to 1865 (R1292, private collection)3.

Analysis of the paint medium has shown heat-bodied walnut oil to be the binding medium. Heat-bodying the oil would have ensured more rapid drying, a smooth glossy surface, and few visible brushstrokes. There are also traces of pine resin and dammar resin in a sample of green taken from the right edge of the picture. Resins, which would have been incorporated in the form of varnish, were added to improve the working qualities and gloss of the paint and to give greater saturation of colour.

Conservation and condition

NG 2625 was cleaned and restored by the Gallery in 1980.

It is in generally good condition apart from some wearing in the dark areas and a small vertical damage in the sky above the left horizon.

 

1. As noted by  Roy 1999, pp. 330–42  (332)

2. See, for example,  Alfred Robaut, Documents sur Corot, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes,  Yb3 949, II, p. 15, which is quoted in A. Roquebert,  ‘Quelques observations sur la technique de Corot’, in Corot, un artiste et son temps. Actes des colloques organisés au Musée du Louvre par le Service Culturel les 1er et 2 mars 1996 à Paris et par l’Académie de France à Rome, Villa Médicis, le 9 mars 1996 à Rome, Paris and Rome 1998, pp. 73–97 (90). For a further discussion on Corot’s use of greens see the entry for The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct (NG 3285).

3. See R. Woudhuysen-Keller, ‘Observations Concerning Corot’s Late Painting Technique’,
Barbizon. Malerei der Natur – Natur der Malerei, eds A. Burmester, C. Heilmann and  M.F. Zimmermann, Munich 1999, pp. 192–200 (193).  Commercialisation of cadmium began in the 1840s, but it was initially both scarce and expensive. In a Devoe and Co. (New York) catalogue of 1878 cadmium yellows and orange cost 15 dollars a pound, to chrome yellow’s 70 cents a pound.  See  I. Fiedler and M.A. Bayard, ‘Cadmium Yellows, Oranges and Reds’, in  R.L. Feller ed., Artists’ Pigments. A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, vol. 1, Washington DC and Oxford 1986, pp. 68–9. Cadmium yellows and oranges have been identified on Corot’s palette in the Louvre. See A. Roquebert,  ‘La technique de Corot’ in V. Pomarède et al., Madrid and Ferrara 2005–6, pp. 57–71 (66), French translation, pp. 343–7 (345), Italian edn, pp. 59–71.

4. Oil on canvas, 44.3 x 58.5 cm. Felton Bequest, 1907. See R. Zubans, The Barbizon Painters, National Gallery of Victoria, 1983, pp. 7–8; Preston 1983, pp. 502–7 (502), and Hoff 1995, p. 70. Preston states that NG 2625 has a ‘brighter and faintly warmer evening tonality’. Both are mentioned in G.E. Halton’s article on Young’s collection in The Studio in 1906. He talks at length about the Melbourne picture: `The wonderful gradation of tones in the trees and foreground, the subtle beauty of the distant view, the massing and treatment of the trees against the luminous sky - all these could belong only to Corot. The composition is superb, while the colour-scheme shows the artist’s usual dignified restraint. But it is the poetry and rhythm in the picture which appeal most to the beholder, and for that reason the full extent of its beauties cannot be realised at once; indeed we know of no other Corot which has more reserve. It is a small picture, about 24 inches by 16 inches.’ About NG 2625 he has this to say: `The collection contains another picture, similar in arrangement, but it is an evening effect.’ See Halton 1906, pp. 3–22 (9).

5. The drawing was no. 146 in Corot. Le génie du trait. Estampes et dessins, exh. cat., Paris 1996. Claude Bouret  (p. 95) states that the drawing is a study for the picture of 1855–60 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but he must surely mean Melbourne. 

6. L. Eitner, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century. Part I: Before Impressionism, National Gallery of Art, Washington 2000, pp. 78–81,  compares it compositionally with Souvenir of  Mortefontaine, but it is actually closer to this group.

7. See Michel 2005–6, pp. 213–36 (220), and French translation, pp. 377–82 (378), and Pomarède 2009, p. 177.

8. Related paintings include Boatman at Mortefontaine (1865–70) (New York, Frick Collection, which also holds its study, R1671), Morning Mists at Mortefontaine (R1669) and Gathering at Mortefontaine (Schoeller and Dieterle 1948, no. 58); Gathering at  Ariccia (R2320); The woodcutter in the clearing  (R1916); Love passes. Souvenir of  Mortefontaine (R1672); Gathering at  Mortefontaine (R1670) and  Little  Souvenir of Mortefontaine (R1222).  For further examples see Eitner 2000, pp. 78–81, and Bazin 1942, pp. 53–4, 3rd edn 1973, pp. 48–50. A charcoal drawing with a related composition was at Sotheby’s, London, 14 June 2005, lot 244.

9. Corot’s views of the Mortefontaine area are R889, R898, R899, R900. The views of the Italian lakes are R357, 358, 455 and 359. See  V. Pomarède, M. Pantazzi and G. Tinterow,  Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875), exh. cat., Paris/Ottawa/New York, 1996–7, pp. 301–2.

10. Bazin 1973, pp. 48–50.

11. [Anon.] `The French School in the National Gallery’, Burlington Magazine, XIII, 1908, pp. 339–40. 

12. H. Toussaint, G. Monnier and M. Servot,  Hommage à Corot, exh. cat., Paris 1975, no. 78, pp. 88–90.

13. Bazin 1942, pp. 53–4; 1973, pp. 48–50.

14. Bazin 1942, pp. 53–4; 1973, pp. 48–50. Pomarède, Pantazzi and Tinterow write of the number of pictures where Corot made use of the ‘combination of water, a clump of trees, and a single dramatically leaning tree, as seen here’, and remark that some of the pictures are based on the pond of Ville d’Avray. They do not, however, make the distinction between the two forms of the composition. See Paris/Ottawa/New York 1996, pp. 301–2.

15. Salmon in Beauvais 1987, pp. 80–2.

16. Oil on canvas, 50.8 x 60.5 cm.

17. On Young see the obituary in The Times,  17 August 1907. E.G. Halton wrote a series of articles on Young’s collection in The Studio in 1906 and 1907. For his importance to the National Gallery see Herring 2001, pp. 77–89.

18. For Salting see S. Coppel, ‘George Salting (1835–1909)’, in Landmarks in Print Collecting : Connoisseurs and Donors at the British Museum since 1753, ed. A. Griffiths, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and elsewhere 1996, pp. 189–210 ; and S. Coppel, ‘Salting, George (1835–1909)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004, vol. 48, pp. 768–70.

19. The author is grateful to Nathalie Michel-Szelechowska (formerly Nathalie Michel) for her information on both Nicholas and Duparc. Duparc wrote Salon reviews in Le Correspondant during the 1870s and edited the Correspondance de Henri Regnault, catalogue complet de H. Regnault, Paris 1873. 

20. The Melbourne picture was in his collection by 1888.

21. In Salting’s notebook in the National Gallery archive the cost is noted as [£]5500. In the stock book of Young’s paintings at Agnew’s the painting is listed as no. 6, Young no. 79, bought by Salting on 8 December 1906. There is no price recorded. The author is grateful to Agnew’s for giving access to the stock book.

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