Musee d’Art et d’Histoire Acquires Corot Painting

At Sotheby’s in London, in the sale of 19th Century European Paintings, one of the finest figure paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot ever to have appeared on the market was purchased by the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva for £1,609,250 / CHF 2,740,717, exceeding its pre-sale high estimate of £1.2 million.

Jeune femme à la fontaine enjoyed an exceptional early provenance before it was requisitioned during WW2, and was recently restituted to the heirs of its erstwhile owners. Paul Lang, Chief Curator of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva , said: “We are absolutely thrilled that the museum has been successful in obtaining this beautiful painting by Corot. Corot is central to our collection and it now completes the museum’s permanent retrospective of the artist. The State of Geneva first purchased two pictures by Corot in 1859, and this collection grew to fourteen works in the intervening years, encompassing a nude, a portrait, and landscapes painted in Italy , Switzerland and Ville-d’Avray. What was missing was one of the artist’s ‘figures de fantaisie’. Over the last ten years the museum has been keen to acquire such a picture. Today, with the addition of this fifteenth work to the collection, we now have a total overview of Corot’s work, as we prepare for an exhibition of Corot in Switzerland, opening in September 2010.”

“Jeune femme à la fontaine” ranks among Corot’s great figural paintings. At once imagined and real, rooted in Classical tradition and the Dutch Golden Age yet supremely modern in conception, the painting numbers among Corot’s works that put him at the very cusp of modernism and which would make him an inspiration to later generations.

The painting is an outstanding example of the classical spirit and poetry with which Corot imbued his finest figure paintings of the 1860s. The pose and modelling of the figure evoke the iconic female figures of the Renaissance. Corot tempers her monumentality with a pensive intimacy drawn from the Dutch seventeenth-century masters. Yet her enigmatic expression is that of a very real woman, not an idealised ‘type’, and her elusive gaze lends her a psychological complexity.

Much like Manet’s “Olympia”, painted in 1863 at about the same time as “Jeune femme à la fontaine”, the viewer is held captive by the powerful tension between the familiar and the new, between the painting’s timelessness and its immediacy. Corot’s figural works reverberate in the paintings of the Impressionists and beyond, the girls’ haunting miens finding expression in the figurative and abstract work of Picasso who became interested in Corot in the 1910s, making a free copy of one of his figure portraits.

One of Corot’s greatest achievements in his figural works is his ability to reveal eternal truths through the fusion of reality and memory. Corot explored the theme of the girl by the well in a number of canvases after 1855, but the present work, along with La Rêveuse à la fontaine, formerly in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and another work of the same title sold in these rooms in 2003, are arguably the most resolved, and the culmination of his developing thoughts on the subject. Alfred Robaut in his catalogue raisonné presents them together as a triumvirate, illustrating them side by side with the present work flanked by the other two.

It was his trips to Italy in 1825-28, 1834 and 1843 that inspired Corot’s distinctive Italian peasant girls. Corot enthused that: ‘In them, I saw the beauty of life. This beauty is in every creature, it is everything which breathes and which is impregnated with light’ (quoted in Marlborough Gallery, Corot, London, 1963, p. 9). While the present work was painted after these sojourns, it was certainly painted from Corot’s images and his idealised memories of the Italian women he encountered in his travels.

The simple, stage-like backdrops and recurring decorative elements such as urns exhibited in works such as Jeune femme à la fontaine reflect Corot’s lifelong passion for the ballet and opera. Even the young woman’s traditional peasant dress is more costume-like than based on first-hand observation Corot would sometimes borrow opera costumes in which to adorn his models, and this combination of yellow skirt, green corset, white chemise and red hair ribbon is used in at least two other compositions. In Corot’s studio, these peasant women became his modern-day Venuses and Dianas, or even became symbols of an intangible idea, set against a capriccio backdrop.

During the 1860s and 1870s Corot devoted more time to figural works than ever before. However, for the most part, these paintings seem not to have been intended for public exhibition; he exhibited only four during his lifetime. Instead, he found a ready market for them among discerning friends collectors, who recognized their true sophistication. Corot’s achievements as a figure painter were acknowledged by his contemporaries. One of the greatest lights of the Impressionist movement, Edgar Degas, even stated when pressed to agree about Corot’s skills in drawing a tree: ‘Yes, indeed… and I find his figures yet superior’ (quoted in Alfred Robaut, L’Oeuvre de Corot, Paris, 1905, p. 254).

The first owner of Jeune femme à la fontaine, Charles Alluaud (1861-1949), was scion of the family that had directed the porcelain factory in Limoges since the eighteenth century. Charles became a renowned entomologist, studying insects in France and travelled extensively in Africa and elsewhere between 1887 and 1930. During his childhood, he and his brother Eugène had received painting instruction from Corot ,and it is likely that Alluaud acquired the present work because of his early association with the artist.

Eduard Ludwig Behrens, the next documented owner of Jeune femme à la fontaine (1824-95), was one of the early directors of the private banking firm of Levy Behrens &Söhne in Hamburg. Eduard bequeathed his large and important art collection to his son Eduard Ludwig Behrens junior who left it, in turn, to his son, Georg. The Behrens porcelain collection had gone to Eduard Ludwig junior’s brother, Theodor (1857-1921), Georg’s uncle.

In 1925, Georg loaned the Behrens paintings collection to the city of Hamburg for a period of ten years. On the expiry of this agreement, Georg attempted to send the collection to the safety of Switzerland, but was informed on 1 April 1935 by the Nazi authorities that the present work and a number of other key works from the Behrens collection had been included on the Verzeichnis der national wertvollen Kunstwerke (list of works considered to be of national significance) and that it therefore could not leave Germany without permission.

In May 1938, the Behrens banking firm was Aryanised and the following November Georg was placed under arrest in Hamburg and then sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was interned until the end of December. He emigrated to Belgium in April 1939. In order to obtain his exit visa he had to pawn all his possessions to the State. From Belgium he moved to France where, following the outbreak of the Second World War, he was held in a camp in the south of France before obtaining a visa to Cuba in the autumn of 1940. After the war, Georg Eduard Behrens returned to Hamburg and died in that city in 1956, never having recovered the Corot.

Image: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875), “Jeune Femme a la Fontaine”. Oil on canvas. 65 by 42cm., 25½ by 16½ in. Estimate: 800,000 – 1,200,000 GBP. Sold for: £1,609,250. Photo: Sotheby’s

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