Impressionism wasn't born in a vacuum. It didn't light up like an electric bulb over the heads of Monet and his colleagues one summer afternoon.
Instead, over a considerable period there were many people who set the stage for movement impressionism, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875).
As a companion to its current "Monet" exhibit, the Baltimore Museum of Art has mounted a highly rewarding small show of "Corot: Prelude to Impressionism," which leaves a few impressions of its own.
First impression: To look at these Corots is to know that impressionism came from something, but that's not to say Corot was an impressionist. In the painting "The Crown of Flowers" (1865-1870), for instance, the trees behind the central figure are simply a blur of grayish green. In Monet's "Poplars" (1875) the trees are stabs of multicolored paint -- green, black, white, blue. Though the two artists' trees are not alike, they're related in that neither tries to paint exactly what's there, leaf by leaf.
One can see, too, a lot of similarities between Corot's "Flasselles (Thatched Cottages Viewed Through Trees Along a Road)" (1864) and the three 1870s snow scenes in the Monet show: subject matter, composition, figures that are little more than blobs of paint.
The show is almost entirely composed of later works, from the late 1850s to the 1870s. Nevertheless, the chronological
succession of paintings here, from the earlier undated "Environs of Ville d'Avray" (perhaps 1850s) to "Shepherds of Arcadia" (1872) offer an opportunity to see Corot's scenes becoming more atmospheric, his objects less specifically delineated. "The Artist's Studio" (1865-1870) may look to our eyes like a finished painting; but when compared with the National Gallery's earlier Corot painting of the same subject (1855-1860) it is far less finished and more spontaneous. And "The Bridge" (no date) is a sketch which catches a fleeting impression of its subject.
The show reveals Corot as a prelude to impressionism in a number of ways, though its accompanying text makes little attempt to explain the matter.
Second impression: Aside from its six paintings and single drawing, the show contains a highly interesting group of 17 prints including etchings, lithographs and cliches verres -- the last a 19th century experimental method combining techniques of printmaking and photography. Some of the prints are shown in more than one state (or stage of development).
Third impression: the Lucas collection shows its importance. This is an in-house show, but one can't say "from the museum's collections"; most of it comes from the great Lucas collection of some 20,000 works of 19th century art on extended loan to the museum (since 1933) from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. The institute has been considering whether or not to sell all or part of the collection, and this show serves as an excellent example of what Lucas means to the BMA and to the community.
The Corot show continues through Jan. 19 at the BMA, on Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets. Call 396-7100.