Two questions came to mind as I wandered through Corot Women at the National Gallery of Art: how many variations are there on the word “melancholy,” and is it acceptable to judge a work of art on the attractiveness of the model depicted? Of the 44 paintings in the show, spanning the half-century 1826-1874, more than 30 are of a woman looking melancholy – or pensive, wistful, thoughtful, doleful, concerned, or a shade thereof. (The remainder mainly have their face obscured, although there is one sort of smiling and one man.) With such similarity of pose and expression, I tended to differentiate the works by how good-looking the melancholy face was. Maybe this is crass, but isn’t this part of how we judge all art? We want the movie star to be pretty; we imagine the heroine of the novel to be enticing-looking. And don’t the Botticellis, Rubenses and Gainsboroughs that we love feature beautiful women? What’s the world’s most famous painting? Ah, yes, the Mona Lisa. (The only ugly women in the art history canon are Spanish royals by Velazquez and Goya, and their choices were political, not esthetic.)
Using this criterion, it’s easy to see why I prefer the thoughtful Bohemian Woman at the Fountain (catalogue 13) to the dour and less attractive Italian Woman at the Fountain (12). I could go on to say that the background of 13 is lighter, airier and the Corot trees softer, more characteristic and the other elements – two men and some houses – more interesting, and the woman’s hands more delicate, but it all comes back to her appealing face.
In the gallery of nudes, The Repose (22) runs away with the prize. Her face, if not classically beautiful, is pleasantly interesting. The catalogue points out that the model is a recognizable person, which makes her confrontational stare somewhat revolutionary. In comparison, the other nudes have faces that are far less attractive (21,23, 24), turned away (25), or partially obscured in shadow (24, 26). As well, a comparison with 24 shows just how lovely The Repose is: in 24, the background trees are muddled, the face is lost in shadow and background and the head is held awkwardly, inexplicably up by the right arm. (This work – Reclining Nymph, from Geneva – shares many of the problems that led me to opine that Mia’s similar painting by Corot must be a forgery.)
The highlight of the exhibition and the ultimate basis for Corot’s reputation as a painter of women is the gallery of half-length portraits of women in costume with plain background. I say “portraits,” although they are not intended to represent an identified person, because their format is traceable directly back to Renaissance portraits of beautiful women. Maybe it is better to call them character studies, or just paintings of Woman. There’s Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rubens’s The Straw Hat, even Goya’s Milkmaid of Bordeaux, just to name some obvious favorites that precede Woman with a Pearl of 1868-70 (25). She is most famous, perhaps because she’s in Louvre, perhaps because of her “pearl,” perhaps because of her Mona Lisa pose, and she is worthy of the catalogue cover she receives. The hint of décolletage doesn’t hurt. But by my test, she’s not Corot’s best. Her expression is more blank than melancholy. Rather than evincing some introspection, she seems to be looking at the artist slightly bored. The Young Greek Woman (29) is cuter; Sybille from the Met (34) recalls a Rembrandt; Mademoiselle de Foudras (30) has a coy, curious expression; and Interrupted Reading from Chicago (33) is probably my favorite, with her pensive look and classically formal composition.
The fourth gallery is a sort of coda, with women in the pictures but not so much the subject. The paintings are fine, especially Corot’s Studio from the National Gallery (40) and the Lady in Blue from the Louvre (44), but there is as much interest in the dresses and the backgrounds showing Corot canvases as in the women’s expressions. And what is it with the mandolin that Corot uses as a prop over and over?
There are other individual works that I want to remember on their own: Young Woman in a Pink Skirt (4) with her sultry big eyes and loose-fitting blouse; Melancholy (7) for Corot’s mastery of brown; Wounded Eurydice (8) and Springtime of Life (18), familiar from my years in Minneapolis, both, interestingly, with the model’s eyes averted, similar to the Met’s Woman Reading (37). And if I had to choose my least favorite, it would be Woman with a Large Toque and a Mandolin (9), not because she’s unattractive but because she looks like an artificial Italian late Renaissance work, not Corot.