Best-known if not infamous for his erotic nudes during the 1860s, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) in fact painted far more interesting works over the decade, although reading and explaining them may be more difficult. While our attention may be focussed on those popular displays of desirable flesh, Courbet’s certainly wasn’t. In 1862, he painted together with Camille Corot, at the time the leading landscape painter in France, from whom he learned how to limit his tonal ranges.
One salient and mysterious if not mystical theme in his landscape painting from this period is his quest for the “sources” of rivers. His views ascend to the headwaters, eventually ending in the “source”, a cave from which stygian waters emerge into the world, as in The Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne (c 1864). Even then, this was a noted place for tourists to visit near to his home town of Ornans.
These paintings of caverns also offer him the opportunity of making them as rough as their rocks, and exploring mark-making, often using a palette knife.
The Grotto of the Loue (1864) had very personal meaning for Courbet, as it is from here that the river runs down through his native town of Ornans. These paintings, coupled with two that I showed in the previous article, both titled in English The Source, from 1862 and 1868, lend themselves to Freudian interpretation, in which the artist might be seeking to return to his mother’s womb.
Slightly later, Courbet showed how he could make a ‘leaning’ sky amplify the impression given by windswept branches, to form The Gust of Wind (c 1865).
The other major theme which he developed during this period was the sea and its coast. The Fishing Boat from 1865 shows a small boat hauled up amid rocks as a windswept sea behind rushes in but stops short. There’s a marvellous light in his contrasting sky too, as the heavy clouds blow away into its distance.
His preference developed for desolate views, as in his Cliffs on the Sea Coast: Small Beach, Sunrise from the same year.
During the later years of this decade, his quest for the source seems to have subsided. The Weir at the Mill from 1866 appears to be another river view in the countryside near Ornans, in which Courbet has studied the different forms of water surfaces, rock, and trees.
His coastal paintings came to concentrate more on the waves breaking on the beach, as in his Autumn Sea from 1867, where two sailing boats are the only forms to punctuate its horizon.
The Sea, painted after 1865, is another of these views which are full of the serried ranks of waves and the immense power of the clouds.
Among the other themes which he painted during this decade is the Effect of Snow (1866-8), one of a series. Others show wild animals and hunting in the snow, and continue from his earlier paintings of hunting scenes. Here his very loose brushwork captures the texture of the snow on a country road near Ornans.
By 1869, Gustave Courbet was a thoroughly experimental painter, moving forward at the same time, but quite separately from, the Impressionists. Then came the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and disaster.