The National Gallery of Art classes Camille Corot “the great master of landscape painting in the 19th century.” Yet Mary Morton, head of the department of French paintings, chose to mount an exhibit of his lesser-known and rarely seen body of work – 45 images of women executed over his 53-year career. A National Gallery of Art discovery of art also overlooked the big picture.

Unusual look at a 19th-century landscape painter

Compliments to Morton for curating this exhibit and pointing out that Corot pictured women's inner lives rather than as pinups.

Whether painting them in costumed, in the nude or in allegorical setting, he described them in some sort of action - either reading, dreaming or interacting with viewers by looking directly at them. Exhibit material mentions Corot's “sophisticated use of color and deft, delicate touch applied to the female form.”

He did the same thing, of course, in his landscape painting. And if it weren't for this show, you'd never know that he ever pictured women at all. Certainly nature and the land is all he ever talked about in his diary, which his friend and biographer Moreau-Nelaton made known. For example, Corot wrote: “I have noticed that whatever is finished at one sitting is fresher, better drawn and profits from many lucky accidents, when while one retouches, this initial harmonious glow is lost.” And here's the thing.

The same thing can be said of his pictures of women. Front page news stories can also fule the price of art.

Cherchez la femme

One of the National Gallery exhibit examples, Marietta, painted in 1843 is an unintended model for how Corot's views on landscape painting apply to his figure painting. The image is of a reclining nude with her torso turned away and her head facing forward.

So it's not her anatomy that calls for attention. Instead, she looks like she just did a double take, as if interrupted her from a nap and asking why. Her mouth is open to further suggest the intrusion. Because of that turn of her head, you sense that fresh and unretouched air to the painting that Corot talked about.

Fully 20 years after Corot painted Mariette, Edgar Manet pictured a similar turn of the head of a nude woman in his painting The Luncheon on the Grass, as if asking, “What are you looking at?” In other words, these are thinking women – not passive, not simply on display – and these painters want you to know it.

You may wonder, though, if Manet ever got the memo when Corot wrote in 1850: “It is better to be nothing than an echo of other painters.”

Once more with feeling

In a way, this exhibit re-writes art history because it makes plain that Corot was more than a landscape painter. He certainly doesn't sound fixated on skies and trees when he wrote, Reality is one part of art; feeling completes it. If you have really been touched, you will convey to others the sincerity of your emotion.” So, are you touched? I know I am.