The Four Times of Day
Corot painted these four wooden panels – Morning, Noon, Evening and Night – for his friend and fellow artist, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. The panels were to decorate the studio in the house Decamps had recently bought at Fontainebleau, a town southeast of Paris. Other artists, including Bonvin and Philippe Rousseau, were asked to produce paintings for the dining room.The Fontainebleau forest was a popular location for artists in the mid-nineteenth century, especially the area in and around the neighbouring village of Barbizon.
As with many of Corot’s paintings, this group combines aspects of the classical tradition of idealised landscape, as represented by the seventeenth-century French artist Claude, with the practice of sketching in oils outdoors. The series was completed in just one week, and the freshness of Corot’s brushwork particularly impressed Decamps. Corot’s technique was also admired by Impressionist painters such as Monet, who painted series showing different times of the day.
Corot painted these four wooden panels – Morning, Noon, Evening and Night – for his friend and fellow artist, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. The panels – made up of thin vertical boards directly attached to the wall – were to decorate the studio in the house Decamps had recently bought at Fontainebleau, a town southeast of Paris. Other artists, including Bonvin and Philippe Rousseau, were asked to produce paintings for the dining room. The Fontainebleau forest was a popular location for artists in the mid-nineteenth century, especially the area in and around the neighbouring village of Barbizon.
Featuring four different landscapes, the panels trace the day from dawn to night. Each panel includes at least one person, and all frame the landscape between tall trees on either side of the painting. This way of presenting a landscape evolved from the seventeenth-century classical tradition of the idealised landscape, in which landscapes were often thought of as stage-sets or backdrops for episodes from history, mythology or the Bible. The French artist Claude particularly excelled at this type of composition. His Landscape with Hagar and the Angel is a fine example of a painting in which the central figures and the landscape beyond are flanked by trees.
Claude’s depiction of landscapes at specific times of the day (often in pairs or groups), his method of structuring his compositions and his use of light were all important precedents for Corot. But the more recent practice of sketching in oils outdoors was equally significant. Landscape sketching had been described in a number of texts including Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’ Éléments de perspective pratique, published in 1800. Valenciennes devoted a section of his book to the four times of day including advice on the best times to paint outdoors (he advised two hours after sunrise for mornings) and suggestions for subjects, ranging from pastoral to mythological, best suited to each time. He also recommended painting four different landscapes, rather than the same location at different times, to demonstrate a greater range of effects.
Corot had previously painted decorative cycles, principally for domestic settings, but this group is the largest to have survived intact. He may have painted The Four Times of Day as early as the summer of 1858, but it is difficult to be precise and the group may have been painted one or two years later. To the astonishment of Decamps, Corot completed all four paintings in a week. Decamps admired the spontaneity and confidence of Corot’s brushwork, saying to him, ‘What I have been lacking is your supreme possession: sincerity.’ These qualities were greatly admired by other artists too. Just as Corot was influenced by Claude, he himself became an important precedent for the Impressionists, particularly Monet, whose series paintings, such as Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral, depicted different times of the day.
After Decamps’ death in 1860, Corot’s paintings were bought in 1865 by Frederic, Lord Leighton. One of the first British collectors to buy Corot’s work, Leighton first met Decamps in 1855. He also visited Barbizon several times and may have previously seen the panels in Decamps’ house. When his own house in Holland Park Road, London, was completed in 1866, Leighton hung The Four Times of Day in the drawing room, although out of sequence, which was specifically designed to display them alongside other paintings from his collection.