Art Thoughts, Week 21 -- Corot & Melancholy

(Since I'm so behind anyway, here's another mini-essay for the Independence Day vacation):
Melancholic Italian Woman (Rome), Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, (French 1796—1875), 1826—1827, oil on canvas, BF 964.

Normally, I’d never start my thoughts on a painting or other work of art with a subject suggested by the artist themselves. It would come off as patronizing, and perhaps like short-changing myself and the reader before even handing over my product. But the inclusion of “melancholic” in the title of this piece, the more I thought it over and considered the painting, seemed so necessary and intrinsic, that to ignore it would seem to not only miss the whole point of why Corot painted it in the first place, but also how he laid down his decisions in paint, all along the way.

I tend to prefer – and think to be more accurate – the ancient definition of “melancholia” which acknowledged not only emotional and psychological components of the condition (the modern definition stops here) but physical and physiological manifestations as well. And as Dr. William Glasser makes amply clear in his brilliant psychological manifesto, Choice Theory, all we can do for our whole lives is behave (in the sense of pure action, not morals) and furthermore, all behavior is by nature “total behavior” – the physical response cannot be divorced from the feeling or emotional seed, and vice-versa. And of course, it makes sense, right? How else would Corot have picked up on this Italian woman’s emotional state, except through its physical manifestation? And Corot chose, more specifically as an artist, to portray his response in expressive color.

Corot’s coloring, in my limited experience with his work here at the Foundation and even more limitedly elsewhere, tends to have two distinguishing characteristics: it is usually both dark and complex. That is, his colors are hard to “read”. (In contrast, Matisse’s colors, which use much white and “purer” colors, are easier to pull apart into individual hues). But Corot’s colors are more layered – the adjectives don’t come as readily to describe them. And in this painting in particular, each major color has some of each of the others mixed in. For example, the ruddy chestnut brown of her skirt has some of the rusty lacquer-red of the furniture mixed in; the dark camel where she’s seated has some of the warm, sage grey of the wall mixed in…and so on. So, much like the mixed, conflicted emotions of melancholy, the colors seem, though absolutely accurate, conflicted as well.

Composition also accentuates the melancholy seen on the woman’s face and body. She is essentially painted into a corner. Complex emotions, of which melancholy is the most insidious, tend to back the sufferer into a helpless place, where all feels terribly final, and because of its encompassing nature, inevitable. Thus resigned inaction is a usual part of melancholia (note her sadly folded hands).

Could Corot have misread the woman? Was she perhaps simply tired and resting? In a way, it’s immaterial. Many of us have known spikes of melancholy – a few hours or a day – where all felt futile and pheromones ebbed. And more importantly, whether or not this woman was melancholic by nature, the subject at hand genuinely was, and that is what Corot painted – with more than a handful of seasoned empathy and compassion.

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