The Four Times of Day c1850 by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot has been purchased for the nation with the help of a grant from the Art Fund. The four panels have a long association with the UK. Representing Morning, Noon, Evening and Night, they were acquired by artist Frederic, Lord Leighton in 1865 and were among the earliest Corot works to be acquired by a British collector. Lord Leighton displayed them as the focal point of his London home, where they provided inspiration for his fellow Victorian artists. After his death, the paintings spent more than a century in the same family collection and have been on loan to the National Gallery since 1997. The pictures were acquired for Lord Wantage at Christie’s in 1896 and their sale to the nation was negotiated by Christie’s.
Corot painted the four large panels, which trace the deepening light of the sky from sunrise to star-studded night, to decorate the Fontainebleau studio of his friend and fellow painter Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. He completed the cycle in a single week prompting Decamps to exclaim, ‘Not so fast, don’t hurry so; there is still enough soup for a few days more.’ Decamps apparently spent hours in contemplation of the panels, filled with dismay at their quality, technique and effect compared to his own work.
The Four Times of Day belong to a decade in which Corot’s work was shifting to a more personal impression of nature, one in which ‘souvenirs’, (studio landscapes composed from memories or sketches of real landscapes), played an increasing part. It is one of the largest decorative cycles by the artist where all the paintings can still be viewed together in one place – and the only in the UK.
The Four Times of Day complements 21 paintings by Corot in the National Gallery collection, ranging from plein air oil studies painted in Italy and France to a substantial group of late studio landscapes in his characteristic mature style – plus the recent gift by Lucian Freud of one of Corot’s late, great, majestic studies of women, Italian Woman, or Woman with Yellow Sleeve (‘L’Italienne’) of about 1870.
National Gallery Director Dr Nicholas Penny, said: “The Four Times of Day are without narrative although there are figures blended with the natural forms. Each painting is a meditative evocation of the beauty of nature and at the same time a bravura demonstration of the artist’s skill in improvising landscape compositions that are subtly interrelated in both colour and form. They are among Corot’s greatest works and we are delighted that – with support from the Art Fund – we are able to make them a permanent addition to the national collection.”
That the National Gallery is the perfect home for The Four Times of Day was recognized as far back as 1896 when the Pall Mall Gazette art critic, Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, commented at the studio sale after Lord Leighton’s death, “The Corots deserve a place in the National Gallery, and if any millionaire should care for Corot, Lord Leighton, England, or art, he could not do better than present them to the nation.”
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, at the age of 26 he was given the financial freedom to devote himself to painting. He first studied with the landscapist Achille Etna Michallon, and after his death with Jean-Victor Bertin, 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. Corot travelled extensively in Europe throughout his life, and during these trips he painted in the open air and filled numerous notebooks with drawings. His early oil sketches 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.
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. His influence on later 19th-century landscape painting, including the Impressionists, was immense, particularly in his portrayal of light on the landscape.