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A 19th-century painting that rivals the Mona Lisa

Corot’s “The Repose” was painted in 1860 and reworked later in the decade. The nude model looks out at the viewer with a composed and level gaze, but it’s not a gaze that’s easy to interpret.
Corot’s “The Repose” was painted in 1860 and reworked later in the decade. The nude model looks out at the viewer with a composed and level gaze, but it’s not a gaze that’s easy to interpret. (National Gallery of Art)

The figure paintings of Camille Corot (1796-1875) set before us the enigma of inner life. As convincingly as they conjure it, they reveal it, finally, as impenetrable. The question “Who is this person?” — shorn of the possibility of actually knowing — becomes a new and livelier one: “What can I, a painter, convey of her specific, inimitable presence?”

The answers arrive like lessons in love. They have to do with touch, with tenderness, with giving things their proper weight, with accepting and relishing the sensuousness in things, with knowing when to stand back.

All this, in a nutshell, is what makes Corot’s paintings of women so deeply affecting. With their warm but slightly sooty tones, their arresting geometry and their ravishing colors, these pictures are among the most beautiful and underappreciated of the 19th century. They are the subject of a major fall exhibit at the National Gallery of Art organized by Mary Morton.

The distinction between presuming to nail down psychological character (or worldly status) and merely conjuring — without describing — inner life might seem slight. But isn’t it the very quality we adore in the Mona Lisa? Or Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”? In any case, many things flow from such a distinction. A certain humility, for starters. And a withholding of the (male) habit of projection: making a model prettier, sexier, more vexed and dramatic, or more suave and elegant than she strictly needs to be, or is.

Corot is the least rhetorical, the least bombastic of the great 19th-century painters. That’s what has always been lovable about his landscapes. Despite their ubiquity (in any half-decent collection of European paintings, you are as certain to see a landscape by Corot as a sculpture by Rodin), these beneficent views of the Italian countryside — the optical equivalent of freshly baked baguettes — or of sylvan, feathery Fontainebleau never fail to please.

When Corot attempts a mythological or religious picture — Dante and Virgil, Diana and Actaeon — the results are respectable. But you generally feel embarrassed for him, as when a constitutionally shy person starts spouting strident political views at a dinner party. “You didn’t have to do that,” you want to say. “We admired you already.”

Corot’s paintings of solitary women, which he made mostly in old age and, with only a few exceptions, kept in his studio, are less well known. But Edgar Degas knew their worth: “I believe Corot painted a tree better than any of us,” he admitted, “but still I find him superior in his figures.” Cézanne and Picasso were inspired by them. And a century later, Lucian Freud came under their spell; toward the end of his life, he bought one of the paintings in this show, leaving it to London’s National Gallery when he died.

Corot was not the sort to devote his energies to painting trumpeting masterpieces. But the National Gallery of Art show includes three or four pictures that fall into that category almost nonchalantly, like a forehand volley by Roger Federer. One of them, “Woman With a Pearl,” is a knowing hybrid of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and the portraiture of Raphael, perhaps especially “La Velata,” his portrait of his Roman mistress, Margherita Luti.

The title is inaccurate: She wears no pearl; it’s just a small, shadow-casting leaf attached to the garland she wears. But Corot’s amalgam of generalized harmonies (stable, rounded forms, a la Raphael; carefully balanced colors and tones a la Leonardo) and pungent particulars (the way the fabric of this particular costume folds when worn by this particular woman; the real, guttering feel of the shadow that falls across her cheek and the folds in her neck, and so on) makes it as great as any 19th-century portrait by Ingres or Delacroix.

Just as great (and also from the Louvre) is “The Lady in Blue,” painted the year before Corot died. Inspired in part by a younger generation of painters, including Manet, Monet and Degas, who had fallen in love with contemporary fashions, it shows a standing woman leaning against a cushion propped up on a piece of studio furniture. She faces slightly away, with one bare, jackknifed arm lightly supporting a head that turns to the right. She appears hesitant, pensive, her thoughts — her whole being — caught in transition.

She wears a fashionable dress in a shade of blue tinged with chartreuse, with black trimming. The loveliness of the dress alone is devastating. The skin of her arm catches the light, contrasting with the shadowy hollows of her eyes. It is hard to look away, so perfectly does Corot’s treatment of these two features — arm and face — correspond to the tension between our sensuous, tingling surfaces and our secret, complicating interiority.

Almost all of Corot’s late paintings of women are impressed with the watermark of the model’s presence. He encouraged the women who sat for him to find comfortable poses, to chat and sing and move around the studio. Of one model, he said: “It is precisely her mobility I like. . . . My endeavor is to express life. I need a model who moves.”

He gave them costumes to wear: early on, white blouses and vaguely antique tunics; later, colorful, embroidered blouses from Greece, North Africa or central Europe — all places he had never been. These costumes gave Corot an opportunity to show off his extraordinary feeling for color, and also his touch. His brushwork, when describing fabrics, creates a soft surface turmoil — a bit of dry scumble here, a spreading collapse of the brush into wet paint there — which later becomes a more broad and buttery treatment, closer to Courbet and Manet, similarly lacking in conventional finish, but never coarse or abrupt.

One gallery brings together several Corot nudes. Among these is a third indubitable masterpiece, the National Gallery’s “The Repose,” which he painted in 1860 and reworked later that decade. Perhaps in response to the general atmosphere of anxiety around the question of old men painting naked young women, essayists in the catalogue have gone into overdrive analyzing Corot’s “male gaze” and, in “The Repose,” the model’s bold return of that gaze.

It’s true enough that Corot shows himself willing to “preserve” the model’s “identity.” And she does look out at the viewer with a composed and level gaze. But it’s not a gaze that’s easy to interpret. And in any case, “identity” is not really for “preserving” in Corot’s paintings. You believe in his figures; you don’t necessarily know them.

The poet James Merrill caught their quality and returned to Corot’s models a subjectivity that feels right, in lines reproduced in the catalogue. He imagined these women “musing without comprehension upon . . . the enigma of a nudity or a costume they would never have chosen.” In the end, “The Repose” remains a nude in a long tradition of nudes. Just an especially arresting and lovely one.

One of the curator Morton’s triumphs has been to unite, from Baltimore, Paris and Washington, the three versions of the entrancing tableau known as “Corot’s Studio.” All three show a woman in Italianate costume seated at an easel in the artist’s studio. Stove piping, small paintings and other studio paraphernalia punctuate a tawny background wall. In two versions, an alert dog approaches from the left, front paw raised. Also in two versions (though not the same ones) a mandolin dangles from the woman’s right hand.

In somewhat the same vein as Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting,” the painting has metaphorical meanings, to do with music, sight and studio life. But to Corot’s credit, these meanings collapse under the weight of the scene’s gorgeously particular truth.

When I think of Corot’s women, I think of Nabokov’s description of Chekhov’s books as “sad books for humorous people.” These are slightly sad paintings, yes; but they’re sad in full-bodied, Chekhovian ways. They’re alive to what Nabokov called “the fade-out of human life.” But they flicker with wit, truth and sensuality. Like Chekhov’s stories, they achieve an artistic beauty that surpasses many richer, more sweeping visions by virtue of their unerring sensitivity within a narrower range. And then, as an artist friend of mine said: “He knew how to paint.”

Corot: Women is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Dec. 31. For more, visit