A real picture from the fictional Corinne’s gallery

Contributor: Catriona Seth

Location: Private Collection

Description: The heroine of Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807) is a poet and improviser who displays great sensitivity to the arts. She takes the Scottish aristocrat who falls in love with her, Oswald, Lord Nelvil, around the monuments of Rome. She also shows him her own paintings and statues in her villa at Tivoli. Her collection was probably imagined on the basis of Angelica Kauffmann’s, which the novelist had seen. Among the paintings in the fictional character’s gallery is a landscape which she presents thus:

‘je n’aime pas beaucoup les scènes champêtres, qui sont fades en peinture comme des idylles, quand elles ne font aucune allusion à la fable ou à l’histoire. Ce qui vaut le mieux, ce me semble, en ce genre, c’est la manière de Salvator Rosa, qui représente, comme vous le voyez dans ce tableau, un rocher, des torrents et des arbres, sans un seul être vivant, sans que seulement le vol d’un oiseau rappelle l’idée de la vie. L’absence de l’homme au milieu de la nature excite des réflexions profondes. Que serait cette terre ainsi délaissée? Œuvre sans but, et cependant œuvre encore si belle, dont la mystérieuse impression ne s’adresserait qu’à la divinité.’ (1)

Corinne’s artworks play a role in her story and allow her to discuss ideas which matter to her. She uses this painting to evoke forms of transcendence, which tap into a frequently shared Romantic anguish about mankind’s place on earth: in literary works, the scenes we behold often mirror feelings—and we have an indication of the character’s deep melancholy and inner solitude to come with this vision of an uninhabited rural landscape. The seventeenth-century vista hangs on her walls with pictures by contemporaries and allows us to gain an insight into what an artistically-minded young woman might be expected to appreciate at the start of the nineteenth century. It is an Italian painting chosen by an Italo-British character imagined by a francophone writer born in Paris to Swiss parents and married to a Swedish diplomat. It demonstrates the pan-European circulation of objects and individuals.

Corinne was Staël’s second novel. It was a huge success and was soon translated into several languages. The main character, who lives alone in Rome at the opening, with no family, and uses a pseudonym to hide her true identity, gives public performances of her improvisations and was seen as a model by many women writers. Staël set Corinne and Oswald’s doomed love-story in the foreground but also considers the way in which the arts and culture could serve to underline common concerns and therefore to achieve political unity in Italy, which at the time was made up of a series of small States. The Risorgimento, the movement which led to Italian independence, recognised its debt to Staël as the first major European writer to have given an impetus to the idea that language and culture could lead to the resurgence of a great nation.

The painting’s exceptionality nowadays is not its attribution—it is no longer considered to be a Salvator Rosa—but its provenance. A nineteenth-century label on the back of the canvas reads: ‘Ce paysage de Salvator Rosa est celui dont Mme de Stael parle dans Corinne L. VIII Ch. IV. Il a appartenu à Mr Auguste Pasquier qui avait été grand ami de Mme Récamier et de Mme de Stael.’ (2)

Paradoxically, it is this hidden addendum (when the picture, as it should, hangs on a wall, the label is invisible) which infuses new interest into the scene and gives it an association with individuals and characters—the personal touch which Corinne so loved. By the place it occupies in an important work of the romantic period, as evidenced by the nineteenth-century owner’s note, this much earlier landscape has acquired a new layer of meaning.

 Date:  painting mid 17th c.—label mid 19th c.

Creator: Formerly attributed to Salvator Rosa (1615-1673)

Subject: Germaine de Staël (1766-1817); Salvator Rosa (1615-1673)

Media rights: unknown

Object type: Painting

Format: Oil on canvas

Language: French (for the label)

Publisher:  Private Collection

Location: Private Collection

Digital collection record: not available

Catalogue number: not available


  1. I do not like rural scenes that bear no allusion to fable or history; they are insipid as the idols of our poets. I prefer Salvator Rosa’s style here, which gives you rocks, torrents, and trees, with not even the wing of a bird visible to remind you of life! The absence of man, in the midst of nature, excites profound reflections. What is this deserted scene, so vainly beautiful, whose mysterious charm address but the eye of their Creator?
  2. This landscape by Salvator Rosa is the one of which Mme de Staël speaks in Corinne, book VIII, ch. IV. It belonged to Mr Auguste Pasquier who was a great friend of Mme Récamier and Mme de Staël.