The Oak in the Valley

By examining the layers of paint, we can work out what features Corot painted first. Read on to find out more.

Technical notes

Oil on canvas, lined, 39.8 x 52.8 cm. Signed bottom left in white paint: COROT (followed by a dash in white paint which could possibly be a full stop). (fig.1)

Corot, 'The Oak in the Valley', 1871
fig.1 Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 'The Oak in the Valley', 1871 

 

Support

It is painted on very fine canvas, which Corot increasingly favoured in his later years, glue-lined to a second fine canvas. The stretcher is probably original.

Materials and technique1

The handling, particularly of the tree and foliage, is very typical of Corot’s late style, which was characterised by a wide variation in brushstrokes and brushes, and consistency of paint. The preliminary sketching-in of the trees is visible through the paint and many of the earlier branches, painted in fluid black paint, can be seen under the paint surface. Subsequently, the trunk and most of the branches of the oak tree were picked out in a brown glaze-like paint, a common device of Corot’s at this period. To the right a single thin trunk in the same brown paint is painted on top of all the other paint layers.

The sky has been brought around the tree, and some of the pale blue of the sky is painted over it. Corot often used quite a dry brush, and the lines of the bristles are visible, as in some of this sky paint which he has added over the branches and foliage, for example the pale blue to the top right of the tree. By contrast he has used a thicker paint in the long stroke of blue and white of the sky, added at a late stage, which follows the line of the distant hills.  Here the brush is loaded with thick paint, and the bristles show as textured lines in the paint (fig. 2).

Detail from Corot, 'The Oak in the Valley', 1871
fig. 2 Detail from Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 'The Oak in the Valley', 1871

 

Corot also used the end of the brush to scratch into the paint, for example in the immediate foreground. However, in many areas the paint is thin, as at the bottom left foreground, where the colour of the ground is visible in many places through the pale brown ébauche (initial sketch). The area to the extreme left is painted very thinly in brown fluid paint, with all the brushstrokes visible. Corot painted the area around the lake and immediately behind the tree in a milky brown tending to mauve and to green around the lake. This colouration results in the pervading silvery tonality characteristic of Corot’s late work.

The ground is white, consisting of lead white extended with china clay or talc, and chalk. Cobalt blue and lead white are present in the sky, and in the dull grey-green of the foreground there are traces of viridian, lead white and red and yellow earths. At a late stage of working Corot added strong olive-green highlights, for example in the tree and along the bottom edge (fig. 3). They are a mixture of emerald green, translucent yellow-brown and earths.

Detail from Corot, 'The Oak in the Valley', 1871
fig. 3 Detail from Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 'The Oak in the Valley', 1871

 

Medium analysis has shown the presence of walnut oil, linseed oil and heat-bodied walnut oil (in the white impasto of the cloud). Heat-bodying the oil would have ensured more rapid drying, with a smooth glossy surface.

Conservation and condition

NG6466 has not been treated by the Gallery. It is in generally good condition. The thinness of paint is due to Corot’s original technique rather than to abraded condition. There is, however, substantially discoloured varnish engrained in the texture of the paint.

 

1.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.

2. For Corot in the north of France see D. Horbez, Corot et les peintres de l’école d’Arras, Tournai 2004, particularly pp. 23–4.

 

3. Alfred Baron adopted the stage name Cléophas in 1857 when he took the role of that name at the Théâtre de la Tour-Maubourg. He was a friend of Daumier, who inscribed his address in one of his account notebooks for 1865–70, ‘M. Cléophas, 3 bis rue de Tivoli’ (J. Cherpin, Daumier et le théâtre, Paris 1953, pp. 48–9).  He was particularly admiring of Corot’s work and owned at one time or other at least fourteen of his paintings. In 1873 Corot worked at times in a studio at 19 bis rue Fontaine, put at his disposal by Cléophas. It was here that he painted Pastorale (R2107, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove), acquired by the dealer and exhibited at the Salon of that year. Robaut relates  the anecdote: in around 1874 Corot was painting at Ville-d’Avray, a circle of admirers watching him, among them, Cléophas, who had put his blue silk hat on the ground, where it was hit by a falling paint brush loaded with white paint. Corot immediately took it up and turned it into a composition of a tree by water with clouds. E. Moreau-Nélaton in Robaut 1905,  I, pp. 305–6.

 

4. Surville was another former actor who turned to picture dealing.  The sale of his estate took place at Petit, 14 February 1884, and included four paintings by Corot. Three were figure paintings. The dimensions of the fourth, Paysage - Etude, are listed as 19 x 22 cm, too small to be those of The Oak in the Valley.

 

5. The Oak in the Valley was also among the pictures offered to the Gallery in 1962 and was one of the five chosen by the director (Board Meeting, 1 March 1962). At the meeting of 4 October this particular painting had dropped out, and two others were being offered in its place (which were not in the end acquired).

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