Born in Paris on 17 July 1796, Corot was the son of a cloth merchant and a milliner. After an education at the Collège de Rouen and two abortive apprenticeships with drapers, he was given the financial freedom at the age of 26 to devote himself to painting.
He first studied with the landscapist Achille Etna Michallon, and after his death with Jean-Victor Bertin (around 1767 to 1842), both pupils of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. In 1825 to 1828 Corot made the trip to Italy considered so essential to the formation of a landscape artist, spending time in Rome and the Campagna, before travelling to Naples. In 1827 he sent his first paintings to the Paris Salon: View at Narni (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada) and Roman Campagna (Zurich, Kunsthaus).
Corot returned to Italy in 1834 and 1843. He also travelled extensively in France, to Normandy, Provence, the Morvan region in Burgundy, to which he returned for many years, and to north-east France in 1871 during the Commune. In 1854 he travelled in Holland and Belgium; he regularly visited Switzerland, and in 1862 he was in London.
During these trips Corot painted in the open air and filled numerous notebooks with drawings. His early oil sketches, such as those painted in Italy, were clearly defined and fresh, using bright colours in fluid strokes. During the winter months he worked in the studio on ambitious mythological and religious landscapes destined for the salon. Hagar in the Wilderness (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), exhibited at the salon of 1835, is characteristic of his early work, and, like his open-air studies, features the clear-cut forms and colours of academic painting.
His reputation was established by the 1850s, which was also the period when his style became softer and his colours more restricted. In his late studio landscapes, which were often peopled with bathers, bacchantes and allegorical figures, he employed a small range of colours, often using soft coloured greys and blue-greens, with spots of colour confined to the clothing of the figures.
Topographical detail was suppressed in favour of mood and atmosphere, above all in his ‘souvenirs’, which were based on memories of real landscapes. The popularity of these combined with Corot’s encouragement of younger artists to copy his pictures (which he then signed), either as a learning exercise or for producing works for sale, resulted in numerous forgeries and imitations, as well as difficulties of attribution.
At the Exposition Universelle of 1855 Corot showed six paintings and won a gold medal. His influence on later 19th-century landscape painting, including the Impressionists, was immense, particularly in his portrayal of light on the landscape. For a long time, however, especially among collectors, the popularity of his late work overshadowed appreciation of his early studies.