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Eric Bayless-Hall

The twilight scene of Corot’s The Gypsies is difficult to see. A fire dies out at a campsite by the lake as the sun sets across the water. The forms of the picture, backlit by the sun, are more or less shadow. Masses of foliage flatten into silhouettes—branches that should come forward or recede appear, depthless, to split only left and right, up and down. Forms, by a common shade, blend into one another, become harder to distinguish—distance itself becomes hard to discern. Two women sit in the grass while a man, speaking to two children, gestures to a point down the shore—to a building, perhaps?—though, how would we know?—perhaps if we could hear what he’s saying of it—but even then we don’t know that we wouldn’t still struggle, faced with this obfuscated landscape, to make out the object of his words and his gesture. What is that building he’s pointing to (if this is in fact where he’s pointing) and where, in relation to these campers, is it? He and his young interlocutors, standing by the lake, may very well be struggling as much as I am, standing in front of the painting, to see in a moment of transition from day to night, when the objects of the world—and the world itself—toe the line between being visible and invisible—seen and unseen—known and unknown—as the delineating light of day passes into the formless black of night.

Some forms, so obscured, defy my identifying them at all. Yet, in the scene set by the painting, I can’t but see the things that are depicted. Painted forms recall forms I’ve seen before. I recognize the trees, clouds and people each immediately as ones of their types. The same way I see a tree as a tree in nature do I see a tree as a tree in the painting. These objects fill and form my sense of this space, and my sense of the painting, as I apprehend what each object is and how it’s situated relative to the other objects in the painting. And so immediate does this recognition seem in some instances—so instinctively am I moved to deem this or that ‘a tree’—that my attention wouldn’t be brought to this process were it not for the painting’s less clear forms. The fire, for instance, and the log beside it:—these words serve, I think, to point a reader to the forms I’m thinking of, though they make inadequate sense of them. So unique, so unlike any log or fire I’ve seen, are these, obscured by dusk’s shadow, blending them into the forms behind them, rendering their dimensions indefinable, that even if I arrive at the designations ‘fire’ and ‘log’, I pause before doing so, or I do so with reservations. And by the struggle to put a name to the thing, let me be clear, I mean not merely the struggle to articulate what I see, but the very struggle of seeing it, of cognizing it as a definite thing. The familiar qualities I find in the form call to mind a log, which designation, when applied to the form, feels only partially right—makes only partial sense of what I think I see—and until I can make sense of it among the rest of what is here, I feel I haven’t really seen it. These darkened forms prompt one to squint, to search in them for some intimation, and in one’s mind for some recollection, which might, in meeting, allow his eyes to adjust and see each as something. And however unsatisfactory our identification may feel, the log we at least manage to identify at all, which is more than can be said of the painting’s most obscured moments: the forms in the area of dirt and brush in the lower left-hand of the picture, which at once suggest a grassy space that recedes into the dark and reveals, far from depth, the movement of the painter’s brown brush strokes about the surface of the canvas—or the moment to the right of the birch tree, where leaf and cloud, separated by kilometers of space, seem to bleed into one another as though they were actually as near one another as the paint that depicts them;—these moments demand more of one’s mind than the mere recognition of trees does. In searching for what these forms might be, a mind, frustrated by twilight’s obscuring effect, is left to treat them particularly, as original cognitions of things heretofore unnamed and unknown.—It may suffice to call the trees ‘trees’. The log, being more peculiar, asks to be called, not merely ‘log’, but ‘this log’. And forms and spaces wholly obscured by shadow such as I’ve just described, to which no name can be put, must be called simply ‘this’.

Regarding the above observations, I waver between thinking them true of forms in this painting alone and them being the case for all forms in general, in nature and in this painting. Looking at the fire, or struggling to, I wonder what’s preventing me from seeing it clearly—what might allow me to see it clearly—and what that might mean—what, in other words, seeing clearly consists in. Thinking on the clearest forms I regularly recognize—forms I see and am never called to question—lamp posts, cups, sports caps, &c—even they must have been at some point unknown to me. There must have been a first fire in my life—undoubtedly the source of confusion. I imagine seeing fire for the first time, with no notion of what it was—how odd it must have seemed; but this must have been the case at some point—and what’s more, even after learning or discovering the notion of fire, every next fire must, even for an incalculably short instant, be an unknown assortment of contrasting color my eyes are met with, requiring a mental action to cognize it—or recognize it—as fire. When first faced with the painting, I couldn’t have known what I was going to see: despite how immediate it seemed, there must have been a moment when my eyes took in the muted brown and green silhouette it saw, before my mind found the apt term to make sense of it and called it ‘tree’. And though they make me think longer about how to understand them—long enough for me to question what it means to understand them—the same is true of the fire, log and every form I see or am still trying to see. Every form must require some degree of the same struggle, of sorting what I see by what I know. Every tree or cloud, before it is identified as such, is a new phenomenon presented to my eyes; the difference between these and things I have no name for being only how much effort is required and whether I, in the end, light on a more or less convincing understanding of what it is I am looking at. The painted trees and the painted log and the forms for which I have no name, though each gives me different degrees of pause, are equally the products of my mind reacting to what the world presents it with—and those products, in like degree with how hard they are to grasp mentally, I find more or less peculiar. The log, nearly as tall as the sitting women and at moments indistinguishable from the dirt behind it, strikes me as odd, odder than the clouds or trees, and so I spend more effort trying to see it—and so I come to know it as a more peculiar thing.

But returning to those forms which at first appeared so clearly as trees, clouds, &c, they’ve, in the course of these thoughts, grown peculiar. Looking at them again, with the above thoughts in mind, each tree, and each aspect of it, appears more particular, more difficult to class, more ‘this tree’ than merely ‘a tree’. Never before have I seen a mass of trees at once so flat and so deep; which at once appears as many trees intertwined and as an indivisible tree-form; the odd angles of whose branches seem nearly, though not quite, impossible—can a tree do that?—so far does this stretch my notion of a tree, that the term begins to fall short of identifying this form at all. Considering them more closely, Corot’s forms—at first seemingly typical depictions—reveal themselves to be peculiar and unique objects, calling for more thoughtful consideration. As I think longer about how I am to understand a form, as I search more closely in its various aspects for clues and reflect on the variety of my previous experiences which, given these aspects, might make sense of it—in short, as it is more difficult for me to cognize—in just that degree do I come to see it individually, as something demanding to be treated, not as one of a type, but as an object with a nature unto itself. And this seems as true of individual forms as of the painting in general. The longer we look, the more the painting which was at first so explicable—a twilight scene containing trees, people, a fire—becomes particular—this twilight containing these trees, these people, this fire—and eventually, as we see the unique relations between these forms which compose the painting as a whole, we have only to call it simply this:—something unique and without precedent in our experience, which language cannot classify, but only aim to approach or suggest.

While here, looking closely in hopes of seeing these forms, I find only material evidence of obfuscation—fewer contour lines between forms than at first glance I saw. At every meeting-point of two forms, where I expect one to be set off from another, I find, up close, not only an absence of boundary lines, but often an interformal stroke of paint, belonging as much to one as to the other form. Where does the water end, for instance, and land begin? Where does ground stop and tree start? When do the leaves become sky? clouds?—Each form is at first sight almost immediately seen, distinct from its neighbor, but on closer inspection one doubts whether they are distinct at all. The heads of the sitting women are set off from the sky behind them, yet their torsos are outgrowths of the grass, which flows into the foot of a tree, which branches and flowers into leaves that mix with the clouds, whose strokes can’t be distinguished from neither branch, leaf, nor sky—indeed, underpainted impastos run beneath all four;—though they appear at one moment distinct, woman and sky, by a nexus of entwined material they are connected, and it is difficult—nay, impossible—to put one’s finger on where each ends. The only forms of the painting that are bounded by themselves, consisting of self-contained strokes of paint, are blades of grass and the flame of the dying campfire—both of which, though materially distinct from neighboring forms, we know to be continuous with, in one case, the soil, and in the other, the embers and wood of the fire. While one might put his finger on where the material ends, he will not have pointed to the end of the grass nor the flame, for the forms, it seems, are not merely the paint that depicts them, but this plus the notion of grass and flame, which run into and imply the ground and ember beneath them. All of the painting’s forms, in their relation to one another and to the world they fill, are analogous to a tree’s relation to its branches: at its trunk it is one mass, and at its outer reaches its arms are many—and where, in tracing the upward and outward growth of a tree, could we say a branch becomes separate from another? That one branch stops or splits and another begins? We might point to branches that, further out, grow distinct from one another, but we can’t locate the moment when they separate;—though they appear at its crown to be various individual leaves and branches, they are, at bottom, one tree. And Corot has painted them thusly, with a stroke at each axil following a stem’s division into each new branch, materially connecting the two. And this, I repeat, is how he’s painted all of his forms:—every form runs into every other, in its material and/or our notion of what that material depicts.

—I’ve surpassed the limit of what can be assumed under the general meaning of the word ‘form’. Our understanding of the painting is calling for a redefinition of the term in light of what we’re seeing.

Distinct things—people, water, plants, sky—we see, are painted so as to be continuous with one another, while flame, which we know to be continuous with its kindling, is painted distinct from it. We see them all distinctly, while knowing their continuity—and continuously while knowing their distinction. These forms—the flame, people, &c—are neither the visible objects nor our notions of them alone, but percepts composite of paint and what that paint recalls—of visible material and one’s notion of it—of what appears, that is, and how we make sense of it. Muddled and intersecting strokes of manifold shades of muted greens, browns and greys and two dots of saturated crimson and yellow are at once a unique phenomenon presented to my eyes, unlike all else, and a thing like enough to things I’ve seen before to recall a fire going out; and this notion of the form suggests a relation between it and other forms in the painting—its embers releasing their last flame as the sun does the last of its light over the horizon—just as the paint that composes the campfire’s kindling, indistinct from that of the dirt behind it, suggests, in a different direction, continuity between these forms. A form, for Corot, is an object seen as such; and seeing, it seems, is comprised of both observation and inference: of one’s reception of sense data from without, and the relations made among that data generated from within one’s mind. Observing alone would see no relations—inferring alone would see no reality—the one would see real but discontinuous parts, the other an interconnected whole grounded in nothing particular. But seeing—really seeing—is a reciprocal process of both, for Corot: of a mind’s taking in the information of the world and playing with the possible ways of organizing it, testing the relations one infers against the data one observes, until he hits on the proper organization—the organization most true to the data perceived and most coherent to the mind perceiving it—a more or less tentative understanding, subject to revision should one’s eyes receive more information or one’s mind produce more convincing relations. The product of this play is a form held in a mind. A form—for this painting, but perhaps also beyond it—is thus at once the particular appearance presented to an eye by the material of the world and the general notion a mind has of it, which can be thought on separately from that instance and utilized in his coming to understand other forms. It is at one and the same time its material and our notion of it, this form—an individual thing with a nature of its own and something which is only a piece in a larger system of interrelated forms. A stroke of pale green—a unique instance of paint, a color which has never before and will never again take this shape—is also, to my mind, an individual blade of grass; and this notion of it as a blade of grass also relates it to similar forms, and suggests the more general notion of grass, which is vitally tied to the ground, and via the ground to all that grows out of it and walks on top of it, to give rise to the still more general notion of land—whose plants and creatures are sustained from beyond by rainfall and the sun’s light, and in this relation points to a grand system of which it is only a part—to a widest notion, that encompasses all of these relations, in which all distinct and individual forms are unified.—This widest notion is best summed up in the term nature.

The source and sight and notion of all that is seen and known, this is nature to Corot. It is the idea arrived at from inferring a unifying and necessary relation between all things. It is the whole which encompasses as parts every form and every relation we perceive, which parts nevertheless appear to us as individual wholes themselves. Distinction among the parts of what is ultimately one whole.—Such is the world Corot sets to depict, in which distinct things suggest systems beyond them—systems known by inferring relations between particular instances. Clouds are not the lake; water is not land; land is not man—each we can look to or think about in itself, so they are painted so as to appear recognizably distinct, as clouds, water, land, &c—yet clouds and lake alike are water, and rainfall primes the soil, which gives rise to plants, which sustain man, and harbors the roots of trees, from whose wood man makes fire, buildings and stretcher bars—each, when we think about it, is a piece in a complex system of relations, whose existence can’t be isolated from the existence and influence of other things, so they are painted to emphasize their continuity, with common paint interfusing distinct forms. All are separate—all are linked. All, to Corot, in their simultaneous distinction and interrelation, comprise one whole, one painting, one notion of nature, which is known by inference from the visible particulars of the world.

As the sun sets in The Gypsies, we are presented with this fact: were it not for the sun, we’d see—and thus, know—none of this. The sun’s delineating light gives visible form to the objects of the world, objects which it at the same time breathes life into. Nature, the entire interrelated system of things, of which the sun is a part, is knowable only on account of being revealed; that is, only on account of the sun, which allows one to see nature’s products—to infer nature’s existence—at all.

The painter painting nature is the sun in a sense. His colors render a painted world as the sun does the world over. Though he also acts as nature in general, the producer of the world’s forms—he brings into existence distinct but interrelated forms which suggest a single, unified whole. Nature, as we see Corot to see it, is the producer of forms and their necessary interrelation; and the sun, shining on these forms, reveals nature’s products to man, so he may see and know them. Corot imitates nature and nature’s revelation by the sun; his paint at once brings into existence and makes visible the objects of the painting; he represents forms known in nature and generates forms never before seen. He casts light on nature, first, by rendering her forms as they appear, and further, by revealing her unity and making visible the fact that it must be inferred.

A problem faces the painter with such a conception of his art and his subject. If nature is at once the inferred creator of forms and the visible qualities of these forms, and these, moreover, as they appear to humans, to imitate nature perfectly is to instill in every moment of the painting a newly created form without precedent and a visually mimetic effect—a depiction of something natural—which, in their combination, display how it is we see. To make a painting in which every natural form is new and every new form is natural—in which what can be named and recognized as something is seen to be also unique and unlike anything, while what cannot be named or assimilated to our previous experience is yet explicable in natural terms—such that seeing is seen as such: this is Corot’s undertaking. He must not only paint every recognizable thing individually, but he must do so in a manner that embodies the way in which we see—prompts us to look at and think about looking and thinking. He needs a natural phenomenon that makes seeing problematic—in which seeing is seen to be inferential.

I should revise. Implied in my initial characterization of the painting was a causal relation: that because his scene is dusk, the painter has obscured the forms he paints. Dusk, it seemed, set a problem, from which the obfuscation of forms followed as a solution. The case seems now to be the very opposite. The painter’s purpose being to imitate nature, nature being at once the generator of forms and the perceived qualities of those forms, he faces a problem, namely, how to depict nature’s visual likeness—that is, natural things we’ve seen—while allowing for his generation of new forms—things we’ve never seen, let alone named—in a manner which depicts also what seeing consists in. A problem to which, in The Gypsies, his solution is dusk.

At dusk, as the sun’s delineating light recedes, and day’s contrast fades into night’s consummate darkness; here, among the half-lit objects of nature, inference plays as large a role in seeing as passively observing does. The sun at noon, lighting the world head-on with sharp shadows, contour and color, prompts us to cognize depth and objects in space without need for thinking; and, setting—as its light casts longer shadows, lands on fewer and fewer corners—it flattens distance into an obfuscated shade, whose dimmed color and intimation of contour yet suggest depth unseen—a space inferential and largely unknowable through sight. A viewing bystander, left with a more or less familiar manifold of forms and a memory of day’s clear image, sorts what he sees by what he remembers: some things, a lake or a tree, announce themselves at once as ones of their types, while others he struggles to make simple sense of.—This phenomenon, the obfuscation of dusk, prompts a viewer, in attempting to discover what he’s seeing, to think of seeing—of the necessary element of thinking in seeing—and to acknowledge thereby that it is as much a matter of receiving what appears to one’s eyes as the product of relating that information to what else one has seen and thought. On that account, dusk is fit to the painter’s purpose, allowing Corot, in depicting a naturally obscured scene, to depict perception itself, and to generate never-before-seen forms identical with a mimetic explanation of the scene and everything in it.

The rest of the painting follows from Corot’s conception of nature, human perception, and the theme of dusk as a way of depicting both.

Nature is one form observed as many, and many forms inferred to be one. To depict this, distinctions between forms must be shown to be of our making. As leaf to branch to tree to landscape—as, if I may, clause to sentence to paragraph to essay—so brush stroke to figure to space to painting: they may all be seen individually, but to show that each is a part in relation to a greater form, emphasis falls not on the simple, the stroke, but on the whole, the painting, such that strokes are not self-contained forms, but run into and imply one another and something larger than each taken individually, something which they, in their interrelation, constitute. Groupings of forms, too, must be shown to be, in part, of our making: thus, every form of the painting, while recognizable, pushes the boundary of the general notion of that form to its extremity—such that trees grow parallel to the ground, felled stumps are as tall as sitting women—nearing, but refraining from becoming, impossibilities, left to be understood as peculiarities, which is to say, left as strikingly unique instances of recognizable forms.

Every cognized form is its particular material and our more general notion of it. Every painted form, it follows, is equally emphatically paint and depiction—what it’s made of and what it represents—and the space of the picture is as deep as that which separates Earth and sun and as shallow as that which separates canvas and ground. So the obscurity of the left-hand of the picture, depicted by brush strokes of a narrow palette that show their direction and reveal the ground beneath them, brings one’s eye to the surface of the painting, but suggests, by its darkness, depicted depth obscured by shadow. Trees fill the landscape, though their branches are never painted to be receding or coming forward, but always splitting to the left or right, upward or downward; they are as flat as the canvas they are painted on, while being principal figures in the depicted scene which establish our sense of where objects sit in relation to one another. The kilometers that separate the far shore from the heads of the sitting women, and the millimeters that separate the paint which composes each, come to a head at the right of the picture, at the building behind the birch tree, where all that depictive distance must be foreshortened into centimeters of canvas. And just where we expect this resolution of space, we lose all detail of distance.

The in-between nature of dusk is fit to depict the two-aspect nature of seeing. It is a sight in need of constant revision—closer looking, better guessing—never fully known, in part because the moment passes and night eventually comes. The campers’ fire is the man-made analogy to the sun: nature’s materials put to man’s end, and given a new, man-made meaning thereby. Corot’s painting is the man-made analogy to nature: a unified whole—as nature is—which generates new forms—as nature does—by depicting natural forms and phenomena as they are shown by the sun, nature’s revealer, and perceived by man, nature’s creature. In depicting a momentary scene such as twilight, which in the painting never passes, he paints the idea of a developing perception—a changing scene—an in-between—a form one never fully knows, but which occasions a mind’s continual play about the thing in front of it. And if we infer Corot’s hand and mind to be behind every stroke and relation, our experience of the painting is at once our work and his—a continual coming-to-see and a continual being-shown. The painting stands, to a viewer, as the painter’s dusky missive, containing the nature of things as seen by Corot, ready to be shown to any who are willing to see—and continue struggling to see.

The man, speaking to younger company, points to the building down the shore—How far away is that building? Where, in fact, is it? Its spatial relation to the depicted scene is obscured by the beach’s indistinct foreshortening and it’s set off from the rest of the canvas by the birch tree, which, by its trunk and its shadow, draws a vignette around this edge of the picture—though none of them look at it. What is it that he is pointing to? The substance of his gesture is in his words as much as the thing he gestures to. Seeing is not merely looking, but this and an idea of what one is looking at—and bringing someone else to see is not a matter of merely pointing, but of pointing while articulating what exactly it is one is pointing to. He points to an idea—a form—as much the product of the structure down the shore as of his notion of it, which he might communicate by making appropriate gestures and descriptions and bringing his companions to look for themselves.