“Courbet and the Modern Landscape,” which ended recently a year-long tour at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, is a tight show with a solid thesis. We tend to think of great nineteenth-century landscapists as Romantic or Impressionist, but these thirty-seven paintings—executed between 1855 and 1877 by the quintessential French Realist—are deeply moving and intellectually engaging. The catalogue essayists, Mary Morton and Charlotte Eyerman (curators at the J. Paul Getty Museum, co-organizer, along with the Walters and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, of the exhibition) and Dominique de Font-Réaulx (photography curator at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris), present historically detailed evidence for Courbet’s modernism. They juxtapose Courbet’s pronouncement “La nature, c’est moi” with Jackson Pollock’s famous line “I am nature.” They discuss Courbet’s 1948 New York City retrospective, which elicited raves from Abstract Expressionist-booster Clement Greenber Courbet, a political agitator and a shrewd businessman, sometimes seems too earthy to be a forerunner of abstraction. That earthiness carries over into the muscular sensuality of his images, permeating his landscapes as well as his depictions of women, and powers his facture. The authors cite Paul Cézanne’s admiring and very astute assessment: “He slapped paint on the way a plasterer slaps on stucco. A real color grinder. He built like a Roman mason. But he was also a real painter.” Courbet came at his canvas with brushes and palette knife, rags and his own fingers; he trowelled paint on and scraped it off. He combined scumbling and glazing to exploit both the transparency and the opacity of oil, and his works have extraordinary physical presence. His approach is exemplified by his handling of white in depicting clouds, the foam of a wave and snow. Dabbing and stippling suggest the texture as well as the luminosity of snow in The Forest in Winter (1860). A rather artificially inserted deer stands between dark trees and rocks in an inverted triangle of snow. Courbet never abandons the illusion of three-dimensional space, but the strength of the formal shapes and the energy of the facture pull the eye toward the two-dimensional surface. Courbet was earthy in another sense: his landscapes grow out of the rocky terrain of his native region, the topography of Franche-Comte province and the Jura mountains around his hometown, Ornans. In his mid-forties Courbet (1819–77), retreating from the strain of a successful but turbulent career in Paris, returned for a full year to his terroir and found fresh inspiration. Like Constable, he delves deep into his local soil.g, among other critics, and argue that the physicality of the nineteenth-century artist’s painthandling is proleptic of Action Painting. Mary Morton notes that landscape was “a genre more open to experimentation than figural painting because it was not at the heart of academic practice.” Nineteenth-century artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar Friedrich have long been recognized as precursors of modernist abstraction. But Courbet’s work does not flatten out in the same way as the optical experiments of Claude Monet, the spiritual voids of Friedrich or the tonalist gauzes of James McNeill Whistler, who admired and painted alongside Courbet.
Courbet’s landscapes can be serene. Stream in the Forest (c. 1862), before the return to Ornans, suggests the Barbizon School, with its slender, light-touched elms, but Courbet’s palette of greens is darker. The Gust of Wind (c. 1865) is more radical, a struggle between sunlight and shadow. The alarmingly cerulean sky is invaded by a flying wedge of black cloud, and the wind is made visible through the diagonal force field of shaken foliage. The principal tree, which naturally inclines over the stream, becomes anthropomorphic—a figure walking against the wind, hair violently blown back. In contrast to this wild openness, Courbet’s sous-bois and grotto paintings have a mysterious, enclosed feeling. A favorite spot was Le Puits Noir (the Black Well), a particularly dense patch of woods. Typically, Courbet avoids figures, domesticated animals or other signs of human habitation; the idyllic decorum of the arcadian pastoral and the picturesque rustic life of the peasantry are abandoned in favor of a more primordial nature. Courbet claimed: “Where I place myself is all the same to me, any location is good as long as I have nature before my eyes.” This does not mean, of course, that Courbet’s compositions are haphazard. Formally, they are strongly constructed, and there are certain natural features—rock faces, grottoes, waves—that exert a magnetic pull. Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne (c. 1864) depicts natural architecture. The way the artist builds up and rubs away paint mimics the processes of glacial movement and erosion that formed the grotto. The stream that emerges from the black maw is a tributary of the Lison River. Cropping the tunnel-like space gives the composition a modernist look, and vigorous painthandling makes for surface interest. Yet this image seems more ancient than any aesthetic fashion. Craggy and curvaceous, the grotto is a womb-like mystery. In a related work, Source of the Loue (1864), Courbet includes a mill on one side of the composition, but the man-made structure is puny and ramshackle next to the vibrant cascade emerging from the mouth of the cave. Courbet seems very much in touch with the chthonian deities, without resorting to mythological iconography.
Some paintings seem still, at rest, composed, using the word in the sense of poised and serene. Other paintings seem to be happening in the moment, as you look at them. Courbet’s landscapes surround you with sensation: you can almost hear the wind and the rush of water. The Walters installation tried underlining this auditory quality by incorporating music. This kind of play can be risky, but here wind and water sounds, along with original ambient music by composition students from the renowned Peabody Conservatory, another important Baltimore institution. There were also lighting effects, a bit of a gimmick but useful in reminding us how theatrical many nineteenth-century art exhibitions were.
Courbet’s seascapes are among his most admired works. They can be divided into “marines,” typically depicting the sea at low tide, with most of the composition given over to dramatic skies, and “waves,” pure expressions of oceanic weight and force. Seacoast (1865) is almost abstract. There are no boats, no figures, no coastal rocks—just a blue-grey sky dominated by a swath of cloud and a flat, grey-rose sea. The texture of the paint adds a visceral edge to the ethereal feeling of limitless space. The Waterspout (1866) is more dramatic, with a couple of tiny boats menaced by the dizzying swoops of wind-churned water that have been sucked up into the sky. Crusted paint signals the ripple of waves approaching the shore, and the brushstrokes depicting this phenomenon seem driven by the weather itself. Courbet’s waves leave the coast behind. The viewer seems suspended in the middle of the swell, without solid earth or flat horizon line for perspective, but the disorientation is liberating. The painter contrasts the glassy green translucence of the rising water and the thick white scumble of foamy collapse with great skill. Not all of Courbet’s nature paintings have this sort of elemental power. In an effort to avoid contrivance, he sometimes falls into banality, and the palette can be almost impenetrably dark. In his late, melancholy exile in Switzerland, he painted a series of more conventional if lovely views. Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland (1874) is a good example, with the rough paint of the pebbled shore contrasting with the dragged strokes of peachy light in the sky. Still, Courbet’s landscapes—which make up two-thirds of his oeuvre—continue to surprise. Anyone interested in the artist will want to add the excellent catalogue of the exhibition, Courbet and the Modern Landscape (published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, $45 hardback) to a shelf that undoubtedly already includes Courbet Reconsidered by Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin, the catalogue for the 1988 Brooklyn Museum show. Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201. Telephone (410) 547–9000. On the Web at www.thewalters.org