Gustave Courbet was above all a landscape painter, who found the majority of his inspiration in the Franche-Comté region near Ornans, the village of his birth. His entire perspective on this genre of painting was inextricably linked to the French concept of the terroir, a term which links the ideas of home and land, and evokes a sense of place and of belonging. ‘To paint a landscape, you have to know it. I know my country, I paint it’, Courbet announced bluntly. Whereas traditional landscape painters sought out the picturesque and new vistas, Courbet took an opposite tack, purposefully rejecting convention in order to explore new facets of the areas that he knew best, whether Ornans, the Normandy coastline or the Saintoinge region of western France.
Courbet sought to convey the materiality and density of landscape, concentrating for example on the specific characteristics of individual rock formations or trees, rather than on a mountain range or a forest. As Laurence des Cars writes: ‘his entire approach as a landscape painter aimed to make the reality of a site his own through a feeling of closeness to the subject; it is without equivalent in French painting of the time. In this revolution of the gaze, the technical principles that underlie composition, the use of color and the density of paint were turned upside down in order to convey the structure and essence of his subjects, beyond their appearance’ (exh. cat., Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, p. 227).
The present painting is closer to classical landscape painting than many other works in the genre by the artist: the horizon line splits the canvas in two; the format is panoramic; while the winding road and the use of clearly tiered grounds imbue the painting with a great sense of spatial depth. The nominal importance given a village subject is also at first unusual given that Courbet never displayed a keen interest in architecture. However, a more careful reading of the canvas shows that the houses appear almost as echoes of the surrounding landscape, hunkered down low to the valley floor, as integral and rooted to their surroundings as the rock faces in the distance. Meanwhile, the palette of subtly modulated greens and browns further pull together these difference motifs into a unified whole. The composition has a down-to-earth feel which harks back clearly to the 17th century Dutch landscapes by artists such as Salomon Ruysdael and Meindert Hobbema.
The art critic Zacharie Astruc, a strong defender of the work of Courbet, saw in such landscapes a new hope for French landscape painting, noting after a visit to the artist’s studio in 1859 that ‘these landscapes of Franche-Comté are remarkable for their truthful and forceful character, which is enchanting. Part of the power referred to by Astruc derives from the artist’s ability to extract a sense of grandeur from an apparently modest theme painted in restricted colors, which is similar to his Dutch forbears. However, Courbet gives his painting a much more powerful charge, achieved in part by the application of paint with a palette knife, which gives his landscapes a sense of mass and form hitherto unseen in landscape painting, and partly by the complete rejection of narration or anecdote: despite the village setting, the composition is left purposefully devoid of people to better anchor it geographically and the stress the fusion of the natural and human worlds.
This particular work by Courbet boasts an interesting and complete provenance. One of the first owners of the painting was the noted journalist and critic Théodore Duret. Théodore Duret, Comte de Brie (1838-1927) was regarded as the first art historian of Impressionism and coined the term avant garde for art in his publication Critique d’avant Garde, (Paris, 1885). Born to wealth and privilege, his encounter with works of his countrymen Gustave Courbet and Camille Corot in the collection of his cousin, Etienne Baudry, in 1862 brought the young man to his serious interest in art.
It was Duret’s meeting of Edouard Manet in 1865 which was crucial to his subsequent understanding of Impressionism. Duret wrote Peintures francais in 1867, which was his initial foray into art criticism, and it was not altogether complimentary of the movement, terming the art ‘too rapid and hasty’. As the friendship between Duret and Manet grew (Manet painted his portrait of Duret in 1867) (fig. 1), Duret came to appreciate Impressionism more and he became a more outspoken proponent of the movement. Duret began writing Salon reviews in 1870, when he championed the art of Manet along with that of Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas. Duret, like Courbet, joined the Commune in 1871 and after its fall, fled to London. Following an extended tour to Asia, he returned to Europe in 1872 and focused his energies on art and literature. He soon became an intimate of all the Impressionist artists, purchasing their art himself and encouraging other collectors to buy, most notably Louisine Havemeyer.
After the decline of his business fortunes, Duret sold most of his personal collection on March 19, 1894 in Paris at Galerie Georges Petit. In 1918, Duret published a book devoted exclusively to the work of Gustave Courbet.
We are grateful to Sarah Faunce for confirming the authenticity of this lot.
(fig. 1) Edouard Manet, Théodore Duret / Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée du Petit-Palais, France / Giraudon / Bridgeman Images