Two paintings once owned by St. Paul railroad baron James J. Hill -- including an important 19th-century French landscape by J.B.C. Corot -- are back in the art gallery of his Summit Avenue mansion after decades away. Last year, Hill descendants gave the Corot and a genre picture by François Bovin to the Minnesota Historical Society, which runs the house as a museum.

After being cleaned, the paintings went on view this week.

"It's a really big deal for us," said Craig Johnson, Hill House site manager. "More than just a railroad industrialist, Hill was also a significant art collector, and this gives us a chance to talk about his collection and to show the Corot in his original art gallery."

Johnson declined to identify the donors, saying they wanted to remain anonymous.

"Corot was one of the premiere landscape painters of the 19th century, a transitional figure between romanticism and Impressionism and incredibly important and influential for landscape painters," said Patrick Noon, painting curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

After making a fortune building railroads, Hill amassed a 300-piece collection of mostly French paintings that was a high point of Minnesota culture in its day. He added a two-story skylit gallery to the family mansion and opened it periodically as a quasi-public museum. Hill died in 1916, and his wife, Mary, in 1921, after which the art was dispersed to family members and the Art Institute, of which Hill was a founder. He once owned 30 paintings by Corot (1796-1875), eight of which are now at the Minneapolis museum. Descendants have continued to give Hill's art to museums including the Institute and the Louvre in Paris, to which his grandson, Jerome, a lifelong Francophile, gave several Corots, Johnson said.

Hill's Corot, "Village of Sèvres," painted between 1865 and 1870, is typical of his late style, with wispy trees and a figure in the foreground and a little village in the hazy-blue distance. It is a big picture, nearly 4 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet tall. The roughly sketched cow at left is unusual and may even have been what caught Hill's eye.

"He was an industrialist who played a big role in urban expansion and progress, but he was looking back to a simpler time and collecting these bucolic images of pastoral landscapes," said Erika Holmquist-Wall, the Institute's assistant painting curator.

The Bovin painting, "Nuns Making Preserves," reinforces those rustic interests. While the Corot represents Hill's taste, the Bovin would have appealed to his wife, Mary, said Johnson. She was "a very devout Catholic who, even though she lived in this grand mansion, loved putting up jams and picking berries at North Oaks," the family's 5,000-acre farm that is now a St. Paul suburb. That painting, outfitted with a replica of its original frame, now hangs in the mansion's breakfast room.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431