The Letter
“The Letter” (Date: ca. 1865)

“The Letter” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot is a portrait of a seated woman holding a letter.  Darkness and gloom shroud the scene, leaving only the figure illumined.  The woman is seated in a dark chair which hints that it might be green.  With her downcast eyes, slumped figure, and listless hands, the figure looks like “Melancholy” in human form.  Her face is softly shadowed, her expression more resigned and emotionless than sad.  Though her dark coils of hair are neatly arranged and tied with a red ribbon, her dress is slipping off her white, drooping shoulders, as if she is too distracted to notice or care.  As the dark chair and shadowed background focus attention on the woman, so the downward curving lines of the woman, from the arched eyebrows to the wrinkles of the dress to the curved fingertips, draw one’s eyes to the white letter which her hand clasps in her lap.

The entire painting is full of mystery and questions.  “What news did the letter bring to affect her so?” Corot makes his observer ask.  Even the indistinct background leaves one guessing.  Is that a room behind the woman?  If so, what is in it?

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (lived from 1796 to 1875)

Corot uses bland colors for most of the portrait.  The room and background are dark, and the woman and her dress are primarily a pale off-white.  Only the red hair ribbon, green bodice, and white letter stand out.

In his painting “The Letter,” Camille Corot masterfully demonstrates how to focus a painting on one object in it.  Though the concentration of a portrait is usually on a person, the lighting, lines, and title of this work direct one’s attention to a small, white object in the person’s hand.  Having accomplished this, Corot has created a story with his painting.  “The Letter” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot is a very intriguing and well-painted portrait, and its air of melancholy and mystery makes it unique and memorable.

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