Reading Room

Straight up, the best thing about being on holiday (aside from the good food, booze, friends, family and sun/sea/sandals special) is the reading room it gives you. Out in Italy (poolside as I type), here are some of the things I am enjoying NOT reading right now:

1. Emails (the boring ones)

2. Bills and bank statements

3. Letters from our building berating us for bringing food and beverage into the pool area

4. The manual for our new TV remote

5. The shopping list

6. The back-to-the-shopping list, with the things on I forgot the first time

And here are the things I AM enjoying reading:

1. Trashy magazines (purely to keep my finger on the pulse, you understand)

2. Recipes for what we’ll cook tonight

3. Protection details on the side of a sunscreen bottle

4. Books, books and more books

Reading (the right things) is relaxing, no two ways about it, we’ve all read the statistics that prove as much. I’m guessing it’s because going into a good book lets you get into another world, and opens up fresh vistas for the mind’s eye. It was this thought that sprang instantly to mind when I saw this painting for the first time: it’s called Forest of Fontainebleau (1834), by the French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875). Corot started out working in the family drape business, but moved over to art with the help of an allowance from his father: good thing too, as he evolved a sublime and separate style that became key to the development and direction of French art.

This work is a biggun’ and says all sorts of things, about Corot’s training and the tastes of the times: the academic landscape tradition was being re-booted right now and Forest of Fontainebleau was proudly put on show at the Salon of 1834. It’s a hybrid ‘historic landscape’, lifted beyond the bog-standard landscape by the figure in the foreground. Now for me, this picture was an obvious pick, since the reading woman tied nicely to the ‘book-reading opens up new worlds’ thing. But Corot’s contemporaries would have taken one look at the loose-haired, peasant-dressed, wilderness-bound woman and spotted Mary Magdalene. The tiny deer springing in the distance completes the classic attributes of the saint.

This forest is far more than a formulaic academic image: Corot is more of a mover and shaker than that. Though this was done in-studio, Corot had started the painting en plein-air (outdoors) push, and based this on sketches and studies done outside. Corot’s radical move beyond the studio, spurred by the need to make accurate the appearance of the natural world, had him develop a freer, more natural style within he classical French tradition.

Here there’s a sensitive treatment of light: see it shining through the canopies of leaves and over the sunken river bed. He tends to use a limited range of colors, aiming to achieve form and depth through subtle tonal relationships of light and dark. His creamy, dreamy surface texture comes through with his use of small and quick brushstrokes. In many ways this man anticipated Impressionist landscapes and, though he declined to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition, what he did on his canvases caught the imaginations of pupils and followers including Pissarro, Morisot, Renoir, Monet, and Sisley. I suppose like a good book, Corot cleaved open a whole new world of possibilities for them.

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