‘His greatest contribution was the introduction into 19th century painting of nature’s lyricism: the smell of wet leaves, the mossy rocks in the forest…And snow, he painted snow like nobody else!’
‘Painting’, wrote Courbet in his open letter to prospective students, ‘is essentially a concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, which is made up not by words, but of all physical objects. An abstract object, being invisible and non-existent, does not form part of the domain of painting’ (Published in Courier du dimanche, 25 December 1861).
To Courbet, a painting was made of the paint itself, and only then could it stand for an object in the physical world. Snow in particular, allowed the artist to indulge in his passion for all the tactile qualities of paint itself. Cézanne observed Courbet’s occupation with the fabrication of art, stating that he was ‘a builder, a rude troweller of plaster, a crusher of color’ (P. M. Doran, Conversations avec Cézanne, Paris, 1978, p. 142). The layering of paint on canvas, he explained, paraphrased the process of nature. Courbet welcomed spectators to his studio and those who witnessed the artist at work described his use of unconventional techniques and tools. Courbet began his compositions on a dark layer of color. ‘You’re astonished that my canvas is black!’ he challenged, ‘nature without the sun is black and dark: I do what light does, I light up the prominent points, and the painting is done’ (M. Claudet, Souvenirs: Gustave Courbet, Paris, 1878, p. 9).
Courbet first painted the subject in the cold winter of 1856-1857, but it was only in the 1860s that he engaged more deeply with the theme, exploring snow and its textures in a series of paintings that would ultimately number eighty scenes, observed first in Franche-Comté and later, during the artist’s self-imposed exile in the Swiss Alps. For Courbet, these scenes of nature at its greatest intensity offered matchless scope for his immense ambitions and the snow-swept Franche-Compté landscape quickly became a personal trademark.
Painted in 1873, Le chasseur d’eau is one of the last of the winter scenes he painted in Ornans before his exile to Switzerland. Set along the banks of what is most likely the Loue river, Le chasseur d’eau evokes the crystalline starkness of winter. The snow-covered trees spread their branches like claws and the frozen ground and green ice of the river enhance the frosty atmosphere. Courbet applied paint directly to the surface of the canvas with a palette knife, capturing both the texture and luminosity of snow and ice. According to Hélène Toussaint, ‘the new mode of vision, in which shadows are given the iridescence of bright colors, is one which later fascinated the Impressionists’ (London, Royal Academy of Arts, Gustave Courbet, exh. cat., 1978, p. 175). The forbidding terrain is populated by barren trees and the only human presence is the solitary hunter crouched in the lower left corner of the painting. The diminutive size of the figure, almost obscured by the looming tree in the foreground, emphasizes nature’s complete dominance over man, a central theme in many of Courbet’s landscape paintings.
The winter scenes that Courbet painted in the last years of his life are often stark and desolate in mood. When Courbet painted the present work in 1873, he had been imprisoned for his involvement in the toppling of the Vendôme Column, and he was about to leave France for his exile in Switzerland, aware that he would not return. Le chasseur d’eau can be regarded as representing Courbet’s isolation at the end of his life, and his despair at the prospect of never returning to his beloved Franche-Compté.
This painting previously belonged to Mrs. and Mrs. Harry O. Havemeyer, whose exceptional taste and the advice they received from their good friend Mary Cassatt, resulted in the one of the greatest private collections of Courbets ever assembled.
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, Melting Snow, Fontainbleau, 1880. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.