Turner to Monet
Although a genius, Courbet was certainly a magnet for trouble. No other artist in nineteenth-century France so often found himself surrounded by controversy, apart from Edouard Manet – although Manet extricated himself, while Courbet seemed constantly enmeshed in scandal and uproar. But he was also firmly connected to the best artists working in the middle decades of the century, from Corot to Whistler, and Cézanne to Monet – he was even the witness at Monet’s wedding in 1870. Courbet remains the most radical painter of his time, while his work marks the rupture from Romanticism via Realism that produced modern art.
A deep attachment to his native region inspired Courbet throughout his life, and is demonstrated in his art. He knew the farms near Ornans, the town and its people, and gloried in the rugged beauty of the Jura mountains in his eastern province of Franche-Comté. The rivers of the Jura, the Loue and the Lison, their limestone cliffs, grottoes, waterfalls and vegetation, provided a never-ending subject for the artist.
In Paris, Courbet played the coarse peasant new to the city, but there was a serious purpose in his stout defence of regions against the centre. Throughout the century the French state tried to centralise all power to the capital and government institutions, artistically as well as politically, and Courbet was a rebel by conviction.
Most of his landscapes of the 1860s – made after the scandals of the Salon and before the catastrophic defeat of the Paris Commune, his imprisonment, and self-exile – concentrate on a limited, almost claustrophobic vocabulary of motifs. As well as enclosed forest scenes with deer and views of hunting, there are Courbet’s Source paintings. Stone, water and darkness are enlivened by rushing currents, decorated with green moss, spring growth or autumn foliage. Apart from over-determined, psychoanalytic readings (grotto = wish for a return to the womb), the Jura works display broad and vigorous handling as well as local particularity based on plein-air observation.
In Source of the Lison, as in his other Jura landscapes, Courbet cuts off the sky or any conventional vista, and medium or long views. We are forced close to the rocky cliffs and mysterious cave, confronted with cold, green–brown water pouring from its geological origin, the rising of the river. Paint is mainly brown, with white, bright green and orange highlights. It is applied thickly, pushed around with palette knife and spatula, to accentuate the materiality of the subject. The canvas is vertical, and Courbet accentuates the height of the cliffs by forcing movement down the cliff-face and over the splashing waterfall. Cézanne’s cubes, spheres and pyramids owe some of their genesis to Courbet’s admiring yet brusque painterly treatment of his native landscape.