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Gustave Courbet
His overlooked landscapes of hunters and game.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) was a lanky, handsome man with big, brown eyes and an “Assyrian” beard whose contrary nature took rejection by the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts’ annual Salon as a badge of honor. Full of humor, the life of the party, and a great storyteller, Courbet was also sallow, sensitive, and deeply introspective. His cocky attitude included verbal abuse, yet he hated the sarcastic repartee of Paris intellectuals.

Although critics liked to characterize Courbet as a country provincial, he was born into a family of wine growers and landed farmers in the Doubs départment of the Jura Mountains-covered Franche-Comté region of France, in the town of Ornans. Often the setting of his small to panoramic landscapes, it’s a countryside of steep chalk cliffs, rocky outcrops, and waterfalls, whose cold subterranean streams become the swift mountain waters of the Puit Noir valley and the source of the Loue River, that lurks throughout Courbet’s oeuvre.

Courbet’s grandfather was an anti-clerical follower of Voltaire; his father, a man of the soil whose love of agricultural innovations caused him to mostly lose money. Courbet’s refined and sociable mother of this only son and four girls was a magistrate’s daughter from a republican catholic background.

As part of the rural bourgeoisie, Courbet was educated with the view of studying law in Paris. In his Catholic secondary school, his art teacher had been a student of neoclassical artist Antoine-Jean Gros; then at the Collège Royal de Besan ç on he intensely studied drawing with a pupil of Jacques-Louis David. But once in Paris, Courbet quickly replaced the Law Faculty with the capital’s independent art academies, such as Père Suisse or atelier de Suisse, where students could draw from live models for free without supervision or examinations, which suited Courbet’s anti-authoritarianism and auto-didactic abilities.

Scholars mention the ateliers of other prominent Paris teachers, including August Hesse and Charles von Steuben. But the narcissistic artist insisted he had only himself as his master, writing, “Creation is a matter of temperament and individuality and no teaching could replace this.” But by closing the door on the Académie system, Courbet excluded himself from the support of instrumental teachers, making his path more arduous than a more traditional one.

Courbet taught himself through copying masterworks at the Louvre by Titian, Raphael, Holbein, Rubens, and Rembrandt. Unlike generations of artists, he didn’t look to Italy for mentors (he found religious art offensive), although the flesh tones of his extensive nudes recall Coreggio, and their voluptuous womanliness, Giorgione. Instead, for inspiration Courbet turned to the richly shadowed Spaniards: Ribera, Velázquez, and Zubarán.

Starting in 1846 Courbet traveled to Belgium and the Netherlands, where he studied Rembrandt’s unforgiving self-portraits (and consequently painted several dozen of his own), Dutch game pieces, and the sky-heavy compositions of 17 th century Dutch seacapists. A strong Flemish influence is clearly stamped on Courbet’s life work; his (1859) After the Hunt recalls the composition and skillful foreshortening of Jan Weenix or Frans Snyders.

Courbet was a homme de terroir, with a deep sense of place and its traditions. An enthusiastic hunter, he rarely missed the season’s opening, writing, “The hunter is a man of independent character, having a free spirit or at the very least the feeling of freedom.” With his mates and neighbors he vigorously pursued roe deer and the occasional wild boar on foot, running the scent with good-nosed farm mutts over the Doubs’ highland plateaus and heavily exploited forests.

Rural hunting, as Courbet portrayed it, was the antithesis of hunting on horseback, or venery, in the royal forests around Paris, with its purebred hounds, thoroughbred horses, borrowed Anglophile dress, and strictly choreographed Ancien Régime etiquette, brought back into style after the French Revolution by Emperor Napoléon III. Although in 1861 he did spend five weeks participating in the imperial hunt at Rambouillet, Courbet’s paintings such as Hunters in the Snow (which actually portrays poachers, under the 1844 laws prohibiting hunting at night, with greyhounds, or in the snow) has little in common with Second Empire venery as famously depicted by Francois-Gabriel Lepaulle in Rendez-vous de chasse de Napoléon III à Pierrefonds or similar works by Courbet’s slightly younger contemporary, Alfred de Dreux.

Compassion for the prey as in German Hunter (1859), or the presence of a despondent protagonist as in Hunter on Horseback – Recovering the Trail (1864), was the very opposite of British “sporting art,” or its French version with its tittering departs, déjeuners, or rendez-vous de chasse as reproduced in countless prints and on wastebaskets.

Still, Courbet hoped for large state or court commissions for public buildings or chateaux, like the hunting murals Louis Godefrey Jadin (1805–1882) painted for the duc d’Orléans’s Tuileries palace dining room. If he dreamed of becoming an official court painter of the hunt, in the tradition of Oudry and Desportes, that position ended for good with the capture of Napoléon III by the Prussians at Sedan in 1870.

An early astute marketer who took advantage of “the current vogue for landscapes and animals,” Courbet deployed a network of powerful reviewers, dealers, galleries, and bourgeois collectors who dictated taste, replacing the artist’s total dependence on the aristocracy’s commissions. When the Salon rejected his life-size Burial at Ornans – an icon of Realism – for the 1855 Exposition Universelle, he simply organized a private exhibition of 40 of his works, across the way at the Pont d’Alma, in his own admission-paying Pavilion de Réalism; he did this again in 1867.

In 1856 Courbet started traveling to Germany, where he had commissions, exhibitions, and invitations to hunt. He even joined a hunting club in 1858. In his letters, he boasts of bags of 170 hares (“It was useful for me to see all that”) and of his killing a 12-point red stag, reportedly the largest taken in Germany in 25 years. In private hunting reserves near Hamburg and Wiesbaden he observed fierce battles between rutting stags, and spent “an entire winter” hunting near Frankfurt, “until I killed a stag, which I used for this painting [The Spring Rut – Battle of the Stags] and some that my friends killed.”

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Of Courbet’s catalogued 1,100 works, 130, painted mostly between 1857 and 1867, treat hunting. Unlike Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) whose dramatizations of Scottish highland stags were a mid-century critical favorite, Courbet’s Realist, but often allegorical or elegiac, portrayals of hunting and game animals caused outrage, or were outright ignored by the hunting press that barely mentions them.

Courbet’s easy inaccuracies offended the hunting market – he shows roe deer in winter coats set in summer foliage, and stags rutting in the spring instead of autumn! Courbet’s excuse: “The action of the painting demanded that moment of the year.”

Nevertheless, for the 1861 Salon, fully three of his five submissions involved hunting, including The Spring Rut which measured a monumental 11’6” x 16’6” – a size usually reserved for state-commissioned works of historic importance, and not genre painting of landscapes and animals. In fact, it was rumored the state would purchase it, but Napoléon III personally opposed the choice. In retaliation, in 1870, Courbet refused the Légion d’honneur, claiming that the state had no competence in artistic matters.

The title to Courbet’s 7 x 6-feet (1856) La Curée (which refers to the moment the dogs are fed the quarry’s entrails, and is terribly translated into English as The Quarry) almost mocks this melancholy painting. Here, at what the French consider the highpoint of the hunt, a dejected hunter (who looks like Courbet) leans against a tree in contemplation for what should be a ceremony, while the seated horn blower is the reverse of erect and alert. The deer is hung, the dogs are ready, but the ritual has come to a halt; instead, the canvas’s action is internalized in the chiaroscuro of the hunter’s meditation.

Although Courbet invited criticism or simply created bewilderment, his painting often won accolades for its technical skill and composition. In La Curée, the diagonal line of tree trunks divides the canvas in two triangles, while the red hunting vest, white sleeves, and opaquely highlighted markings of the mongrels strongly draw the eyes to the lower right one.

Of Courbet’s brushstroke, Cézanne said, “He slapped paint on the way a plasterer slaps on stucco… He built like a Roman mason.” He used rags, his fingers, and especially a palette knife to increase surface relief. “The knife is my best tool,” wrote Courbet. “Try to make rocks like that, rusted by time and rain, with great veins from top to bottom, using a brush!”

He rarely made detailed preparatory sketches but drew with a pencil directly on the canvas. He established tone by applying a wash, and built a palette of overall harmony with his juxtapositions and optical mixing of colors, plus the careful application of glazing and scumbling depending whether transparency or opacity was his desired effect. Starting around 1855, after trips to the Mediterranean and Normandy coast, Courbet’s palette became progressively lighter and less somber.

Courbet, son of the Doubs, the utopian republican, died bankrupt and in exile in Switzerland for his participation, during the short-lived socialist Paris Commune of 1871, in the demolition of the Vendôme Column – a symbol of Napoléon Bonaparte’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz – for which he was imprisoned and ruinously fined.

The Musée Courbet, the restored family farm at Flagey, and hiking trails that take you through the heart of Courbet’s Doubs landscapes – not to mention the region’s fine Comté cheeses and “vin jaune” – is Brooke Chilvers’s excuse to pack her bags in 2014.