Medium: Oil on paper laid canvas
Size: 31 x 49 cm
Charles Rouvin (his stamp in red wax on the reverse); Private collection.
This work will appear in the forthcoming supplement to the catalogue raisonné of the works of J.B.C. Corot by Martin Dieterle (who has provided a photo certificate).
It was not until towards the end of his career that Corot’ s Roman views made en plein air, usually on paper, began to attract any particular attention from collectors. The artist himself exhibited only one of these during his life time, the View of the Coliseum from the Farnese Gardens (Paris, Louvre), shown at the Salon of 1849 and laid onto canvas for that exhibition, when he described at as an étude. Most of the other works from his first Roman sojourn, aside from the two great finished compositions he sent to the Salon, remained on the paper on which they had been painted and were laid on canvas when sold by him to collectors. In the only auction of a group of his paintings during his lifetime, in 1858, no Roman views were included. The majority of these sketches remained in his studio until his death and, unsigned, were stamped with the atelier Vente Corot mark by the commisseur priseur charged with disposing of his studio contents, when they too were laid on to canvas. Some sold well; a replica of the View of the Coliseum from the Farnese Gardens was bought by the dealer Alexis Eugène Détrimont for 2,656 francs and the most substantial of his View of the Castel and Ponte San Angelo was acquired by Détrimont for 5,000 francs. Corot eventually came to treat the more resolved of these works on paper as finished paintings, études terminées, even though, as Peter Galassi has pointed out, he subsequently modified their foregrounds to make more complete compositions, perhaps to meet contemporary ideas of what constituted a finished work. He bequeathed two of the most refined to the Louvre at his death in 1875, but it was not until almost a decade later that these were put on view, amid objections that as “mere” sketches they were unworthy of inclusion in the greatest French public collection. Several other Italian views were also sold by him sometime subsequent to his return from Italy; one of these, an exquisite View of the Isola di San Bartolomeo was acquired, at an unknown date, by the artist-collector Henri Rouart who had studied with Corot. This work subsequently entered the Gould collection and, in 1985, was acquired by a Swiss foundation. A fine replica of this last that Corot had sold off at some unknown date, had belonged in the 1930s to the great French jewellery designer Henri Vever (1854-1942) but remained unpublished until its exhibition for the first time in 1975 by the New York dealer Wildenstein. This latter painting was acquired by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 2002. There is no information, however, on the date at which Corot sold any of those views that he made in Rome and disposed of by gift or sale during his lifetime. In a number of cases these did not appear on the market until many decades later when they first came to the attention of scholars.
One of the finest of these is undoubtedly this extraordinary panorama across the Tiber, painted on a large sheet of paper almost identical in size to the two works Corot left to the French state and probably produced at more or less the same time. It once belonged to Charles Rouvin, an ardent advocate of the dubious science of phrenology on which he published a study in 1873, but neither the date at which he acquired it nor the date when it was sold by his heirs is known. The most recent owner acquired it in the early 1950s but during this time it was neither exhibited nor sold at public auction. There are no other versions of this splendid composition, which may be compared most directly with the View of the Isola di San Bartolomeo that was taken from slightly further down the river and which appears at a more acute angle in this painting. The view extends on the right from the Ponte Quattro Capi (otherwise known as the Ponte Fabricio), Rome’ s oldest surviving bridge built in 62 BC, with part of the Jewish Ghetto just visible behind. This bridge leads the eye to the south end of the Isola Tiberina (or San Bartolomeo) dominated by the bell tower of the church of San Bartolomeo and the lesser buildings of the adjacent monastery, which abut into the river. In the centre we see the east side of the Ponte Cestio with a partial glimpse of the Ponte Sisto through the arch. The surviving three arches of the Ponte Rotto (Ponte S. Maria) extend into the middle of the river, all that then remained of the bridge rebuilt by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575 and demolished by a disastrous flood in 1598 (only one arch of this bridge has since survived the changing course of the Tiber). The Church of S. Salvatore in Trastevere, which was destroyed with the construction of the Lungotevere, is visible behind and to the south of the Ponte Rotto. In the right foreground may be seen the side of the old water mill which, by the date of Corot’ s painting, had lost the mighty wheel still visible in 18th century views. The highly informative engravings of Rome by Giuseppe Vasi, published between 1746 and 1761, provide us in plate 93 with an almost identical view. From this it is possible to estimate precisely where Corot sat – just adjacent to the mill below the Aventine and close to the remains of the Temple of Virile Fortuna– while a drain clearly visible in both Vasi’s engraving and another anonymous late 18th century engraving dominates the centre foreground plane in Corot’ s painting. Did Corot perhaps refer to this same engraving when completing his painting? He was certainly aware of painted and engraved views by other artists and, within his own milieu it was common practice to copy each other’ s work.
Corot’ s own views were to be reference sources for a generation of his artist friends to whom he lent his sketches for them to replicate or use. This painting, however, shifts the viewpoint and embraces the back and side of S. Salvatore that are omitted in Vasi’ s engraving. It must therefore be directly based on Corot’ s own observations from nature, but in a series of repeated sittings done at the same time of day, a practice common to each of his other études terminées. A drawing by the 18th century Roman artist Carlo Marchionni, Veduta del Ponte Rotto verso Trastevere, illustrates precisely this view of the east end of S. Salvatore and testifies to the accuracy of Corot’ s topography. There are minor discrepancies in details of the buildings below the rear of the church of San Bartolomeo in this work and the two Isola views, which suggest that while the painting was done primarily en plein air, it may have been worked on further in the studio. As with the views bequeathed by the artist to the Louvre (which are on same size paper) the foreground area was augmented by the artist later, perhaps when it was laid on to canvas and sold, with the foliage on the extreme right added over the top of the other layers (including the reworked sky), as in the Louvre View of the Coliseum. The sharply angled light suggests this work was painted in mid-late morning, in a series of sessions each begun at the same hour, the artist then painting (as he described himself) “part by part, each as finished as possible from the start, so as to have little left to do once the whole canvas is covered.” As in the other finished études, but most notably in his view of the Isola, the artist has portrayed a series of interlocking geometric shapes delineated by a narrow ranging palette of whites, ochres and terracotta pigments placed between the brilliant blue of the sky and the softer blues of the water, the latter overlain with the reflections of the buildings. Each architectural feature, however, retains its form and integrity with perspective described in confidently painted lines and shadows, interspersed with the soft green of the foliage, the whole forming a unified composition that allows the viewer to experience the overall effect even while marvelling at each part of this complex mosaic. The small trees on the island are a more notable feature than in the two Isola views while the moderated angle, taking in more of the south side, introduces a perspective invisible in his two other paintings of the island. It is later in the morning than the Isola view, the shadows sharper and stronger, the sky a clear blue with just one, long, thin cloud reaching from above the church tower to just above the east end of the Ponte Rotto. From his arrival in Rome in 1826 until he left in 1828, Corot travelled widely in the Roman campagna making drawings and plein-air oil sketches. Little is known of his precise itineraries, although he was apparently resident in Rome in the late winter of 1826, again in 1827 (writing from the city in February and March of each year) and early 1828. Corot wrote home of being awoken every morning ‘ by a blaze of sunlight that strikes the wall of my room. In short the weather is always beautiful. On the other hand, I find this brilliant sunlight dispiriting. I feel the complete impotence of my palette’. In this view Corot has clearly achieved what he often found so difficult; a complete mastery of the light, of the majesty of the ancient buildings that follow the banks of the Tiber and their subtle reflections in the waters of the great river.
Corot himself described to Robaut how he had painted each of his three views from the Farnese gardens (two of which he bequeathed to the Louvre), turning his easel towards each perspective at the same hour each day, for three weeks. It is possible, therefore, that he followed the same procedure lodgings… Corot’s practice later and throughout his career of endlessly moving between the out-of-doors and the atelier reinforces this surmise.” Ultra-violet examination demonstrates a second, later reworking of much of the sky, some of the highlights on the buildings and the lower left portion of the Tiber, when foliage in the lower right was painted over by the artist. This foliage was then painted back subsequently in a similar fashion to the added foliage in the Louvre Coliseum view. In this painting, however, he has placed a small flat bottomed boat in the right foreground with a washerwoman and companion, and in the waters to the left, another small vessel with two brawny peasants crossing from the far side; these were painted in the first campaign and pre-date his later reworkings to complete the painting. That a similar boat may be seen in Vasi’ s engraving is evidence of their frequency on the river rather than an indicator that Corot himself referred to Vasi’ s print, while the inclusion of small figures is a characteristic of the landscapes Corot painted throughout his career. Indeed, during his time in Rome and the Campagna, he made a number of painted oil studies of such figures, detailing the colourful peasant costumes that had also attracted the attention of his friend and teacher, A. E. Michallon. Despite the small size of the boatmen in this work, the sharpness of the artist’ s observation of their movements provides a further testament to his genius. The majority of the works that have survived are small and sometimes quite inconsequential; a view of some roofs, a distant view with the dome of Saint Peter’ s, some Roman archaeological remains or the portrayal of one well-known public building. This work is one of the very few complete views, painted with a degree of finish that is matched only in the two Louvre works, the more substantial of the views of the Castel and Ponte San Angelo and the two views of the Isola di San Bartolomeo. In exceptional condition, it may perhaps be considered the greatest of all his Roman works.