Chartres cathedral

History

Subject and Iconography

Scientific examination and restoration work

Louvre museum,Paris. RF 1614.
étienne Moreau-Nélaton Donation, 1906
Oil on Canvas, 64 x 51,5 cm

History

Corot sold this picture to Alfred Robaut in 1872, the latter included it in the Dutilleux sale, Paris, 1874, no. 22 (1,360 francs), Lolley-Bauginaux sale, Paris, June 1, 1887, no. 14 (1,450 francs, Brame), Étienne Moreau-Nélaton, at least from the time of the Paris exhibition in 1900, Moreau-Nélaton donated it in 1906 to the Louvre— the painting was hung in the Museum of Decorative Art 1907. Entered the Louvre in 1934.

Subject and Iconography

"He was not tempted, as Delacroix was, to contemplate liberty brandishing the tricolour in the midst of the tumultuous confusion of the street barricades. His tranquillity was disturbed by the sound of bullets whistling by. He packed his bags and took the opportunity to start out on a tour of France. Although he himself came from the sphere of classicism, he, like the Romantics, was an enthusiastic admirer of the masterpieces of Gothic architecture; this taste led him to Chartres to stand before the towers and doorway of the its Cathedral". Such is the legend recounted to us since the time of •Alfred Robaut•, and picked up by the writers who followed, presenting Corot as fleeing the revolutionary disturbances which set aflame the month of July 1830, during the famous "July Revolution".

"About the only thing which is in fact clear is that it was not to paint the Cathedral that Corot went to Chartres; it was to get way from Paris. It was because he had sought sanctuary at Nogent-le-Phaye (at the home of the uncle of Théodore Scribe) that he found himself standing before the Cathedral one day". These remarks from Gilbert Brunet, in 1977, put those of Moreau-Nélaton in perspective and throw new light on the reasons for the artist's departure from Paris. In fact, that departure must have been less sudden than is usually suggested, since Corot's journey is similar to those he made in other years to Normandy and Northern France, this time in the company of his friend the architect Poirot.

It thus appears to be quite clear today that Corot only painted Chartres Cathedral because he passed by one day while out walking and not because he was encouraged to do so by some creative inspiration born in the tumult of the July Revolution. However, Corot's aesthetic approach, as evidenced in this picture, is as always highly personal.

Romanticism had been fashionable since the Empire, and Corot, although relatively uninterested in the aesthetic concerns of his colleagues, must have felt or undergone some influence from this pervasive aspect of the Zeitgeist. Such an assumption becomes even more credible when one remembers Corot's liking for Opera in which the plot is often set in the Middle Ages and whose sets, based on medieval architecture, were painted by his colleagues, and sometimes by his friends, such as Edouard Bertin, Cicéri, Jules Dieterle and Johannot.

The framing and perspective are very daring. The knoll occupies almost the whole centre of the picture and competes for attention with the Cathedral, like the three small trees, which echo the towers of the building itself. The foreground is perfectly empty, a technique used by Corot since his stay in Italy.

Some commentators have spoken of the artist's naïveté in this work, referring to what they see as his excessive fidelity to reality and a preoccupation with exact detail. To take such a view is to forget the tenets of the classical training which Corot received and applied throughout his career, tenets amply illustrated by the famous advice which Michallon offered to the young Corot: "paint nature with simplicity"; the "naïvement" used in the original French is to be understood in this context as straightforward fidelity to reality.

A drawing now in the Louvre Museum (Graphic Arts Department, RF23335) shows the architecture of the Cathedral in great detail and is very imprecise in all other respects. This could be a plein air sketch done to prepare the painting, for execution in the studio. The type of support (canvas), its size (62 x 50 cm) factors more compatible with studio work and the character of the picture, more graphic than pictorial, serve to strengthen this hypothesis. Corot did not in fact begin to work with canvas en plein air in France until after his second trip to Italy. It is therefore quite probable that he worked on the canvas in a makeshift studio using the drawing done on the spot as a basis, perhaps finishing it off later in Paris or Chartres. The fact remains that he considered this piece to be nothing more than a study; he never exhibited it in his lifetime.

The picture was retouched in November 1871 after he had come across it once again quite by chance. The painted edges had been folded over on to the stretcher. Corot, after enlarging and lining it, added the small figure sitting on the large stone to the left and a shadow in the foreground. "As it was, the painting was highly unfortunate. When he saw it, the Master said to me: "But it's just like a photographic postcard. It's no more than a picture of the towers without the atmosphere of Chartres. We cannot leave it in that state". It is highly likely that it was then that he added the figures, one sitting, and the other leaning on the pile of building stone. This contradicts somewhat Robaut's description of how things happened, but no other retouching than those described can be detected here.

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