French artist Gustave Courbet embraced realism and painting ‘real’ people

By Elizabeth Johns, Ph.D.
& Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

In celebration of Gustave Courbet’s birthday (June 10), we hope you enjoy this painting from the collection. If you visit the museum,
this work is on view in the Singer Gallery.

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819‒1877)
Landscape, 1873‒75
Oil on canvas
18″h x 21.375″
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Anna & William Singer, A0003,31.0030

Landscape is typical of Gustave Courbet’s woodland scenes that depict the Puits-Noir (black spring) of the River Brème near his hometown of Ornans, France (located in the Franche-Comté region), for the viewer looks out from a dark forest, dominated by evergreens, toward light coming from beyond the foliage on the left. The sunlight illuminates the cliffs and river channel which has eroded the rock over time. Courbet transports the viewer to this secluded spot, which entices us with its cool shade, refreshing water, and peaceful atmosphere. An enthusiast of nature who enjoyed hiking, hunting, fishing, and painting en plein air (outdoors), the painter created numerous landscapes of the Puits-Noir and its environs (which he greatly admired) over the course of his career.

Celebrated as a Realist who insisted on painting ordinary people in the midst of daily life, Courbet rejected the idealism that initially characterized his early work. Claiming to be self-taught, he violated traditional rules of drawing, composition, and paint application. Courbet’s deep colors, overlaid with flicks of a brush to suggest light, lend his paintings tactility and intensity. Often abrasive in his relations with others, he antagonized critics with his assertions that artists should paint the here and now. As he famously stated, “the art of painting can only consist of the representation of objects which are visible and tangible for the artist.”

Eventually, however, Courbet’s convictions won him a solid place in the history of art. His methods and ideals became a lightning rod for modernists such as the Impressionists, who turned away from allegory, myth, and narrative to paint the world around them. A socialist, Courbet was also active in French political developments. He was imprisoned for six months in 1871 for his involvement in the Paris Commune and lived in exile in Switzerland from 1873 until his death in 1877.

In the 1920s, the Singers purchased Courbet’s painting from their Amsterdam-based dealer, Joop Siedenburg (1875–1961). Landscape was part of William & Anna Singer’s founding gift of 100 artworks, which they donated when the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1931.

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. David O’McCain, III