If you plan on visiting the National Gallery this summer, you won’t want to miss the sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes currently on view in “Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton.” The paintings in this display reconstruct the interactions between three of Europe’s foremost artists of the nineteenth century: France’s Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Italy’s Giovanni Costa (1826-1903), and Britain’s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). “Artistic Exchanges” insightfully draws attention to the admiration these men had for each other’s work, as well as their shared appreciation of the natural world.
Eager to establish a landscape tradition in his native country, the Roman-born Costa sought inspiration from foreign artists such as Corot, who was keenly interested in painting the poetic effects of light and atmosphere. Corot’s Avignon from the West (1836), for example, unites land and sky with one another through a harmonious pattern of sunshine and shadows. The interplay of light and form became a salient feature in Costa’s own compositions, such as Bocca d’Arno (c. 1895), a sweeping riverscape bathed in subdued blue-grey tones. The panoramic views of Italian countryside favored by Costa made a subsequent impact upon Frederic Leighton, a fellow admirer of Corot. Throughout his life, Leighton regularly traveled to Italy for painting excursions, on which trips he was occasionally accompanied by Costa after the two met in 1853.
The intimate exhibition space encourages viewers to draw comparisons between the landscapes by all three featured artists. Leighton’s An Outcrop in the Roman Campagna (c. 1866), for example, employs the broad, lateral format favored in Costa’s paintings. Meanwhile, the loose application of pigment in this landscape resembles Corot’s mode of handling in The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct (c. 1826). The two artists’ treatment of light is also similar, so much so that a different painting by Leighton—The Villa Malta, Rome (1860s)—was originally attributed to Corot. One of the most striking similarities of design appears between Costa’s A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81) and Corot’s The Leaning Tree Trunk (c. 1860-65), both of which the motif of sinuous branches backlit against a vaporous sky.
At the same time, the display also highlights the stylistic characteristics that made each artist’s approach to landscape painting unique, such as Costa’s delicate brushstrokes, Leighton’s solid forms, and Corot’s soft-focus delineation. Corot’s large series The Four Times of Day, which hangs in the adjacent gallery, is a fitting compliment to “Artistic Exchanges,” particularly because it was Leighton who originally purchased this work from the artist in 1865.
Overall, these landscapes construct a compelling visual argument that emphasizes how these three artists influenced one another over the course of their careers. It also underlines the international nature of landscape painting during the nineteenth century.
Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Artistic Exchanges is in Room 42 of the National Gallery from 7 May – 3 September 2014 .