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The 20th century German theologian Karl Barth once said that woman "is in her whole existence an appeal to the kindness of man." Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) saw in women something more—a side of them undefined by the male gaze—and captured this in his portraits of women that can be seen in the National Gallery's exhibit "Corot: Women," open until Dec. 31. Perhaps this is because his stalwart mother provided the primary source of income for his family with a substantial dowry and her successful milliner shops in Paris. From his early years, he recognized that some women could seize a sense of independence that many were denied. His portraits of women convey dignity and strength, not a Barthian fantasy of seduction or feudal delicacy.
Corot is famous for his landscapes, which glow with silvery colors, and for a neoclassical style that flirted with loose brush impressionism. But his portraits deliver such manifold emotions that it makes one wish they did not make up such a small portion of his oeuvre. Some single artist shows of portraits could be rushed through for sheer repetition of subject matter. Corot's models, however, are each unique and enchanting. Not one can be ignored.
Specialists - Pieces - Endeavor - Life - Model
"I am not one of your specialists in little pieces," he said. "My endeavor is to express life. I need a model who moves." Corot is less of a star of the show than the mysterious women he painted. Women do tend to be more complex subjects in a portrait compared with men, at least from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Men are shown in unvarying "strong" postures—they must reflect conventional masculinity, solidity, power, and not much more. But for women, their restricted selection of life choices and the burden of creation resting on their shoulders resulted in a wider range of emotions...
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