By bequest of the late Mrs. Egil Boeckmann of St. Paul the Institute has received two figure paintings by Camille Corot and two large landscape pastels by Jean-Francois Millet. The four paintings are important works of very highest quality by two of the greatest 19th-century artists. Mrs. Boeckmann's bequest is a major benefaction and a landmark in the history of the museum. The paintings are also exquisitely apt additions to the collections: the Corots make perfect and equal companions, left and right, for the celebrated Springtime of Life,
Mrs. Lindley's bequest of 1949; and the Millets hang as magnificent wings to Millet's oil landscape, Normandy Pasture,
also the bequest of Mrs. Lindley in memory of Mrs. Boeckmann's and Mrs. Lindley's father, James J. Hill.All the paintings I have mentioned were collected by Mr. Hill. Some of my readers will remember the remarkable 1958 exhibition at the Institute, which celebrated the Centenary of the State of Minnesota and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts and which was devoted to the Hill Collection.1
All my readers should be aware of this first and still greatest of Minnesota collections, and should know that Mr. Hill and his descendants have always been among the greatest of the Institute's benefactors. Mr. Hill himself spoke at our 1916 Inaugural Exercises and said, “Set your standard high and live to it,” a motto he had perfectly followed as a collector and, in giving the Institute its first great painting, Courbet's Deer in the Forest,
he became its exemplar as well as benefactor. His collection was already famous in 1895 when the French author, Paul Bourget, wrote ecstatically of the Delacroixs, the Courbets, the Corots, and the other Barbizon painters in this “gallery of a millionaire on the Western frontier.” On his death in 1916 the frontier had passed even beyond the vast range of Mr. Hill's railroads, which had moved the frontier, and had tied the nation and our Twin Cities to another sea. The collection grew upon a frontier and, on the collector's death, was located in very center of a newly mature great nation. On his daughter's death this center, the Twin Cities, has entered its own maturity, and possesses cultural holdings truly extraordinary; cultural holdings based squarely on Mr. Hill's example, and even—as in the present bequest—touchingly, magnificently, and intimately continuing his founding action.Corot once asked what he did when he came to a monument when inspiration failed him. It seldom did, the old artist replied, but when it did, he waited for an angel to come into the room. To me Corot is the most easily approachable of these masters of the last century who are totally familiar to everybody and may now be unseeable because of that. They may even have become totally invisible and unapproachable because some single work of theirs has acquired a green varnish—I mean, of course, has fetched more than a million dollars in auction. Corot is one of the most unassuming and natural artists who ever lived, among the least pretentious, and one of the best. Amiable and warm, he was also severely classical, but not classical through great learning or academic need. Rather Corot was classical as certain weathers, places, seasons, and certain moments of life.Easily approachable, modest and true friends, Corot's pictures are rather pensive, undramatic, but vividly, fully, and elegantly realized. In the Boeckmann Eurydice2
the heroine—or rather a young model in “classical” attire—is seated in a landscape holding her right foot. There is a corner of what appears to be a temple, and there is the title: that is all. The moment chosen is, however, highly dramatic. One knows that the heroine is Eurydice and that she has just received the venom—and her death—from a serpent (which is not shown). There is indeed something frail and mortal about the lovely model, the slight romanticism of “too lovely to live.” But the picture seems really and only about a beautiful girl seated out-of-doors in a frail springtime. She is seen and rendered by the painter with greatest tenderness and most touching freshness.The tender delicacy, freshness, and immaculate elegance of Corot can be even better enjoyed in Mrs. Boeckmann's La Liseuse,3
a true jewel of French painting which once belonged to Corot's biographer. The placement and design are utter simplicity, somehow containing feminine warmth and masculine boldness. The viewer is pointed to the book by the triangle of the sky, attracted to the exquisite head and neck in their rapt silence and loveliness, and then drawn to two focal areas, the hand at the dress and the foot, both implying the possibility of simple, graceful movement. Rich and ravishing color, seen only in the superb blue dress, nails the figure to the eye and to the memory. Corot has done almost nothing, but the “almost nothing” is comparable to the achievement of the greatest chamber music. More perfect paintings of the human figure there are none.Thirty years ago the author of the Angelus
was as despised and rejected by current taste as the curious fluctuations in artistic enthusiasm and the need (as it is called) to slaughter the deposed sacred king could make him. Even the quite obvious truth, that Jean-Francois Millet was one of the most powerful and gifted of the 19th-century painters and one of the most influential, was denied, despite his crucial effect on the Impressionists and his massive influence upon European painting in general. Thirty years ago it was hard to find a Millet in an American museum: his paintings were in storage unless there were deeds of gift which provided he had
to be hung, and even these provisions were not followed by several great institutions. But when, a few years ago, Millet's memory attracted an excellent scholar and a first-rate retrospective exhibition, the situation abruptly changed. The original impact and the great virtues were seen again.One of the Institute's finest and proudest possessions is the Millet oil Normandy Pasture.
This is now joined by two landscapes in pastel,4
expressing two characteristic French rustic scenes. Millet's familiar method is most obvious in the Eglise de Chailly
with the characteristic strong, rough drawing that establishes simple, bold, and expressive patterns and forms. Once seen, Millet's manner of drawing—less bold but not unlike Daumier's in actual character—can not be forgotten. Heavy, earthy, organic, it is a very sophisticated artist's peasant idiom. So neatly is Millet's drawing calculated to describe the rich but frugal French countryside (if perhaps exaggerating its heavy Northern stubbiness and earthiness), that it may now be impossible to see the actual scenes he adopted without seeing also the exact style he gave them. His sympathy with the land Millet expresses through a shrewd, superficially simple, and richly expressive formula, as if this permitted him to be warm in his account and orderly in his affections. (His rare portraits show an artist sometimes opulent but distant, sometimes understated, even vague, but very strong and rather shy.)The Eglise de Chailly
is a typical and very fine Millet, and a set-piece for his intense richness and his potent logic of selectivity. It is the kind of Millet that Van Gogh especially enjoyed and obviously used. His Landscape and Mill
is more informally observed and spontaneously invented. Pictorially its invention is at once of the greatest elegance and the greatest strength, as sophisticated in structure as any classical artist could want. A delicious microcosm of rustic industry is shown: a farm house with its chickens, geese, and laundry, which is also a mill, which supports and can repose its beast of burden, and lies under a hill of soft stone, which itself is active and profitable as a quarry. Notice how high the farm is set in the picture, and how it is honored thus; how the hill (with its working men minutely echoing the small laundress) echoes and gives meaning not only to the house, but also the entire farm. The flat sides of the farm building, the flat quarry-side, the screens of scraggly and thick trees are given vast depth and intensity by the large fields of the foreground, but are made absolutely intimate and real by such details as the laden mules rounding the corner of the house. The lively observation of such details serves obvious structural purposes, and does so freshly and delicately. But also they present a scene as vivid and complete as those Renaissance landscapes of the 15th and early 16th centuries where, in pictorial accounts of the seasons and in backgrounds of sacred histories, artists of modern Europe for the first time recorded their detailed and pure delight in nature. There seems to be as much gusto, as much humble delight, and as much sense of the completeness of things in his pastel. I do not know if Millet had any similar intent, or if he could have found this observation and this praise acceptable. But I do believe that there could be no higher praise, and that it is accurate and delivered.Endnotes
Referenced Works of Art
- The catalogue of the exhibition is the April through June, 1958, issue of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, Vol. XLVII, No. 2. The Boeckmann Corots both were exhibited (see page 26), and both are illustrated on pages 20 and 21.
- 67.31.1. Oil on canvas 23 3/4” x 18”, Robaut no. 1554; 1868. Ex Coll.: C. Dutilleux; A. Robaut; M. Sedelmeyer (1890); J. J. Hill. Vente C. Dutilleux, March 26, 1874 (No. 27); Exposition Ecole des Beaux Arts, 1875 (No. 102); Exposition Durand Ruel, 1878 (No. 101).
- 67.31.2. Oil on canvas, 29 5/8” x 16 1/2”; Robaut no. 1999; 1868-1870. Ex Coll.: Corot; M. Brame; Compte Doria; Henri Vever; Durand Ruel; J. J. Hill. Exposition Centeniale, 1889 (No. 172); Exposition Centenaire, 1895 (No. 130); Vente Vever, Feb., 1897 (No. 20).
- 67.31.3 and 67.31.4. Pastels on paper, 28” x 34 1/4” (Landscape and Hill) and 28 1/2” x 33 1/2” (Eglise de Chailly). Ex Coll.: Emile Gavet. Chailly is mentioned in Millet's letters from 1862 through 1864.
- Camille Corot. French (1796-1875). Eurydice. Oil on canvas, 23 3/4” x 18”. Bequest of Mrs. Egil Boeckmann, 67.31.1
- Camille Corot. La Liseuse. Oil on canvas, 29 5/8” x 16 1/2”. Bequest of Mrs. Egil Boeckmann, 67.31.2
- Jean-Francois Millet. French (1814-1874). Eglise de Chailly. Pastel on paper, 28 1/2” x 33 1/2”. Bequest of Mrs. Egil Boeckmann, 67.31.4.
- Jean Francois Millet. Landscape and Mill. Pastel on paper, 28” x 34 1/4”. Bequest of Mrs. Egil Boeckmann, 67.31.3.