Gustave Courbet

February 27–May 18, 2008

New Visions: Courbet and Photography

Courbet's coming of age as a realist painter coincided with the emergence of photography. Like other artists at the time, he kept a collection of photographs of female nudes in his studio that served as studies for his paintings. His detractors—reacting against what they perceived as the excessive realism of his style—likened his early paintings to the contemporary daguerreotype, which captured its subject in extreme detail.

Since many of the first-generation photographers were trained as painters, it is not surprising that a shared aesthetic between painting and photography emerged about 1850, especially in landscape imagery. In the late 1840s photographers, notably Gustave Le Gray, were drawn to the forest of Fontainebleau, following in the footsteps of the Barbizon School artists and photographing many of the same sites that these artists had painted. Courbet accompanied the Barbizon painter Camille Corot on painting excursions in the region. His Fringe of the Forest is not unlike the compositions of Le Gray's contemporaneous photographs of Fontainebleau or Henri Le Secq's images of the forest of Montmirail. Such similarities were not lost on contemporary viewers; a critic wrote of a photograph by Le Secq: "There is air, truth, and life in this print, which on canvas would become a charming landscape."

In the realm of seascape, Le Gray's photographs of the Mediterranean, which depict sea and sky as seemingly infinite expanses, particularly resonate in relation to Courbet's compositions. There is little doubt that Courbet knew of Le Gray's photographs, which were widely exhibited in Paris and abroad in the late 1850s, as certain paintings directly invoke Le Gray's precedent, especially his series of photographs of the Mediterranean Sea at Sète. Courbet's assimilation of photography, to the degree that it can be known, was entirely in keeping with his practice of borrowing from a range of sources, from Old Master painting to popular imagery.