The Leaning Tree Trunk
The right side of 'The Leaning Tree Trunk' is dominated by a dense mass of foliage and the gnarled trunk of a tree, some of whose branches twist to the left. Two single trunks stand in the foreground; that on the right bends gracefully, while that on the left reaches right out across the picture. In the background is a lake. There are three figures: a boatman in his boat, a woman gathering twigs from the tree and another woman sitting under the tree.
'The Leaning Tree Trunk' is very closely related to a painting in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 'The Bent Tree (Morning) (Ville d’Avray, Bouleau Pond)' (R1122) (fig. 2), which, like NG 2625, was formerly in the collection of the accountant Alexander Young4. The paintings differ only in that the Melbourne picture includes a cow at the right and buildings on the far side of the lake.
The basic composition shared by these two works is to be found in a number of other paintings, including: Ville d’Avray. 'Lake with the Leaning Tree Trunk' (R1497, Reims, Musée des Beaux-Arts; fig. 3); 'Ville d’Avray. Lake with the Leaning Tree Trunk' (R1498, Evening sale, Christie’s, 24 June 2008, lot 21); 'Lake with the Leaning Tree Trunk' (R1980, location unknown) and 'Lake with the Leaning Tree Trunk: Souvenir of Castel Gandolfo' (R1626, Paris, Musée du Louvre).
A drawing also in the Louvre, 'Leaning Trees on the shores of the Lake, 1855–60' (RF 4035; fig. 4), is almost certainly a study for the Melbourne picture, to which it is more closely related than to NG 26255.
A picture in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, also shares the motif of branches reaching out across the picture surface6. A number of the paintings, including the Melbourne picture, are associated with Ville d’Avray and its lake. The Reims picture is an accurate view of the lake at Ville d’Avray from the south-west, painted on the spot with the foreground of leafy trees added later in the studio, and it has generally been given first place in the series, with the view gradually transformed in subsequent versions, often with elements such as the boat and boatman added7.
What has not been previously noted is that Corot took the motif of the trees directly from a drawing he had made in 1826 during his first visit to Italy, 'Clump of Trees at Civita Castellana' (Washington, National Gallery of Art; fig. 5). The Reims painting follows the disposition of the trees in the drawing almost exactly, from the kink in the trunk arching across, with its slender off-shoots, to the upright silver birch trunk on the right, which is copied from the straight vertical trunk on the extreme right of the drawing. Both these trees are integral to the mass of intertwined trunks and foliage which dominate the right of both the (Italian) drawing and the painting.
By the time Corot painted NG 2625 and the Melbourne picture, the two single tree-trunks have broken away from the rest of the trees to stand in front as two separate decorative elements in the composition. Both have become more stylised, and the trunk leaning across has lost its off-shoots. The lake setting has also become more generic in 'The Leaning Tree Trunk', as in other paintings of the series, with the buildings suppressed.
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.