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Paul Cornoyer, Poet without Words

CornoyerRainy Day
A Rainy Day in New York City, 1905

Born in St. Louis, Missouri on August 15, 1864, Paul Cornoyer was an American Impressionist painter. He studied under a scholarship at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jules Lefebvre and Benjamin Constant before eventually settling in New York years later, where his strong French influences would surface to bring about his own vivid style. Cornoyer had the uncanny ability to meld mood and color together in a way that made his architectural settings seem to speak aloud. In this post I'd like to talk about a few of his works.

In A Rainy Day in New York City above, Cornoyer uses reflections and strong darks to balance warm and cool colors under an overcast sky that, despite being grey, actually has many subtle colors. The use of one-point perspective also leads our eye toward very cool distant buildings and an empty sky that brings our eye back to the architecture and pedestrians. Note the use of variance in edges, how the foreground tree is sharp while the distant green trees are fuzzy, how the left of the composition is also fuzzy. We are pulled into this charming street scene of the early 1900's as if it were yesterday, and Cornoyer manages to let the mood itself become the focal point. There are color the buildings, the trees, the sidewalks, even the figures, but the overall feeling is about presence. Painters today have much to learn from studying this work.

Madison Square After the Rain Paul Cornoyer
Madison Square After the Rain, ca.1910

Almost psychedelic in tone, here Cornoyer takes liberties with color in this quiet streetscape to heighten the mood. Look at the wonderful contrast between those branches twisting upward against the stern lines of New York's architecture behind them. Despite the obvious warm yellow-orange palette this painting has a murky tone. Yet it intrigues. Cornoyer is telling us how precious light is, how it bathes our world, and how we cannot live without it, even after a rainstorm.

Winter twilight along Central Park, 1905

Cornoyer is a master of color temperature, and this is the real essence of how he conveys mood. Look at the cool yellows and blues on the snowy sidewalk, which continue into the sky in the background. A shaft of sunlight strikes a figure walking along to interrupt the cool visual monochrome tones. The feeling of being outside on this winter afternoon was the goal of this painting, and it does so without showing any faces shivering or pets frolicking in the snow. Cornoyer once again contrasts architecture with nature, but this is all about presence. It invites us to see our breath and put our hands in our pockets, to walk along that path...without spectacle or focal points. Nature itself is enough.

Dewey's Arch, 1901

More of an oil sketch than a painting, it still conveys color, mood and movement of the society in this era. Despite the lack of details this painting works because of how Cornoyer uses edges, keeping sharper lines in the foreground figures and in the horse-drawn carriages yet keeps the distant architecture soft. That sky has an incredibly subtle range of cool and warm tones that must have been very difficult to mix. And by staggering the arrangement of the figures and carriages from left to right in perspective Cornoyer creates a physical sense of space with the spontaneity of a photograph.

Late Afternoon Washington Square, 1908

Beautiful colors here. This is the only painting I can think of that uses such a warm greyish-yellow shadow in the foreground. The distant blue buildings in atmospheric perspective are what help to make the vivid colors of the trees stand out, bookended by the apartments on either side of the composition. Again, his mastery of the sky color reveals an artist who studied not only foliage and earth, but knew that without an understanding of how clouds and light work there is no landscape or cityscape. Nature requires us to know it all.

Studio at East Gloucester

Cornoyer invites us not only to see the outward appearance of this unassuming house, but he wants us to know it. Look at the character conveyed here, the house has as much personality as a person. It feels like we have seen this house before, and yet it is very unique at the same time. I love the contrast of the sun striking the upper half of the house while underneath the foliage the lower half is in a warm shadow with a gentle yellow glow. Art is a visual language and it is more than apparent here: Cornoyer was absolutely fluent.

Paul Cornoyer - The Plaza After Rain
Plaza After the Rain, ca. 1910

A beautiful piece that is reminiscent of A Rainy Day in New York City above, but darker. The sky is glowing behind the stark silhouette of the trees, and although there are some figures and movement they are subsumed by the mood and the shadows of this composition. Notice how the distant buildings are warm-colored, going against the atmospheric rule of cooler for more distant objects. There is an astonishing array of warm and cool colors in the reflections in the streets. It is quite doubtful that any artist has captured New York this way before or since Cornoyer.

Paul-cornoyer spring day
A Spring Day, New York, 1905

I like this painting because of its sheer simplicity. The foreground shadow is a dark warm grey with yellow-green tones. And the foreground is empty. Everything is happening in the background, which is nothing much than some movement and trees against some distant buildings. Cornoyer has captured something far more important than brushstrokes or the suggestion of details: he has created mood by using light to suggest optimism. Hope. Anticipation.Springtime is about new beginnings, and this is exactly what he has conveyed here. Nothing is quite happening yet, but it will. The sunlight is literally around the corner. Impressionism isn't just about squinting your eyes and painting. It's about poetry, and saying what you truly feel. Cornoyer is a true poet.


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