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Frame by Frame

A portrait of simple loveliness pierced by hidden depths

SHELBURNE, Vt. — A combination of confident presence and haunted vulnerability makes this painting by Camille Corot (1796-1875) one of the most lyrical examples of 19th-century art in America. It hangs — amid splendid company, including three Manets and a Monet — in the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building at Vermont’s Shelburne Museum.

Corot is known as one of the greatest and most sensitive landscape painters of his time. He spent many years in Italy, where he was one of the first to take up plein air painting. His approach to light, his taste for ordinary, quotidian scenes, and his handling of paint all greatly affected the Impressionists, who came into their own soon after his death.

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Corot himself never trafficked in the high-keyed, broken colors of the Impressionists — he was a master of tawny browns and cool, smoky greens. His Italian landscapes, in particular, have a honeyed quality that, once encountered for the first time, is unmistakable thereafter, and always beneficent.

But Corot also painted figures, and his series of imposing but ineffably tender portraits of women, often dressed in peasant costumes, constitutes as great a contribution to French painting as his beloved landscapes.

One of the qualities that make the best of them (and “The Greek Girl” is among the very best) so appealing is Corot’s way with shadows. You notice this deft shadow-play all through his Italian landscapes, too, carving out palpable space and volume in pictures that would otherwise appear sun-bleached and flat.

Here, notice the way the girl’s gentle face is made all the more luminous by the dark shadows that encircle her eyes, touching also her nose, lips, and chin. Her fingers, below, are lost in darkness. But emphatic modeling in light and dark is absent from most of her costume. Only her collar and sleeve get two more sharp slivers of shadow.

Everything else about the painting is so close-toned and harmonious that these points of darkness catch you off-guard. They have, I can’t help feeling, an emotional correlative: something like the effect of simple loveliness intermittently pierced by the hidden depths that may churn up strife or lead on to love — or both.

Despite the title and the traditional folk costume, the model was not, in fact, Greek. Her name was Emma Dobigny, and she was a young French woman who posed not only for Corot but also for the younger Edgar Degas. Corot (and he was hardly alone in this in the annals of French painting), relished having his models play dress-ups. But his heart was only half in the game. He was interested in painting, in emotion and presence — not in anthropology.

Corot’s greatest quality as a painter was his touch, which was incredibly light and uninsistent. He knew, like Velazquez before him and Matisse after him, how to let his paintings breathe, how to avoid letting his surfaces get clotted and overworked, when to hold off.

This ability, which hits you as a kind of laconic modesty, very much affects the human presence Corot conjures in “The Greek Girl” and in his other great figure paintings. The result is a disarming combination of stateliness and frayed delicacy, so cherishable because it somehow promises the possibility of dignity within love.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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