Gustave Courbet

February 27–May 18, 2008


Landscape plays a central role in Courbet's imagery. From the outset, he identified himself with the topography of his native Ornans, its limestone cliffs looming over his image in his 1844 Self-Portrait with Black Dog. During the next twenty years, Courbet developed a repertoire of landscape motifs rooted in his native Franche-Comté. As he famously proclaimed, "To paint a landscape, you have to know it. I know my country, I paint it."

At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, Courbet garnered his first public success as a landscape painter with his Stream of the Puits-Noir, Valley of the Loue. Over the next decade he painted repetitions and variations of this site. Similarly, the source of the Loue River, a geological curiosity not far from his birthplace, inspired a group of canvases in 1864. In these works Courbet's unique vision of landscape emerges, evidenced by his predilection for tightly framed compositions, some of which verge on abstraction, and his handling of paint. His use of a palette knife to build up the surface of his canvases, the materiality of which evokes the varied textures of the landscape itself, elicited the admiration of Cézanne, who called him "a builder. ... He built like a Roman mason."

Visiting the south of France in 1854, Courbet produced a group of luminous, seemingly infinite views of the Mediterranean Sea. He did not immerse himself fully in painting "landscapes of the sea," as he preferred to call his seascapes, until subsequent trips between 1859 and 1869 to the Normandy coast, where he encountered Monet and Whistler in 1865. Courbet's dramatic wave paintings have captivated artists from Cézanne to Miró, who responded to their visceral quality. Miró recalled his experience: "One feels physically drawn to it, as by an undertow. It is fatal."