La peinture, c’est moi—La nature, c’est moi—La vérité, c’est moi.

[I am painting, I am nature, I am truth.]

Quote attributed to Gustave Courbet on the title page of the Courbet exhibition catalogue, Wildenstein Gallery, New York, 1948

Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is. I am nature.

Jackson Pollack

Gustave Courbet, The Wave, 1869-70. Oil on canvas, 112 x 144 cm (43 5/8 x 56 1/8 in). Berlin, Nationalgalerie

GUSTAVE COURBET’S appearance on the New York art scene in 1948 might be seen as something of a renaissance for the nineteenth-century French artist. At the very least, it affirmed his currency as a modern painter. The Wildenstein Gallery mounted a major retrospective of Courbet s work, on view from December 2,1948, to January 8,1949. It included forty-three paintings, more than half of which were landscapes. Making Courbet’s painting available to a new generation, the exhibition and its catalogue argued for its relevance:

Today Courbet becomes not a problem of rediscovery, but of reevaluation. He creates an art which is positive, objective, and vigorous, with an emphasis on essence and form. Himself deeply rooted in tradition, he cleaned off the rubble and pushed open the door for things to come. Whatever he meant as a man or politician, today his art stands on its artistic values. Unappreciated and misjudged in his time, he now occupies, proudly and undisputedly, an important chapter in the history of art.

These sentiments were echoed in a review of the exhibition by Clement Greenberg, best known (then and now) as the primary champion of the abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Greenberg was undoubtedly aware of how Courbet’s example might nourish the pictorial imaginations of the contemporary abstract painters he wrote about. In his review of the Wildenstein show, Greenberg seizes on Courbet’s paintings as proto-abstractions and suggests that he jump-started the modern tendencies of Manet and the Impressionists:

One might think that his desire to convey the solidity of nature, and the emphatic modeling this required, would have induced a strong illusion of three-dimensional form, but his simultaneous desire to make the picture itself solid and palpable worked against this in a subtle way. True, we get a vivid impression of mass and volume from Courbet’s art; yet he seems to have wanted to render the palpability of substance and texture even more. Thus in his landscapes and marines, he tends to suppress atmospheric recession in order to bring the background forward so that he can make evident the texture — even if it is only the color texture — of cliffs, mountains, water, or sky…his marines also arrive at a clarity of color and a sudden flatness that anticipate the impressionists… Most of the impressionists began painting under the influence of Courbet.

Not incidentally, only a few months before, Greenberg had written an essay entitled “The Role of Nature in Modern Painting.” In this account, which identifies a lineage from Courbet to Paul Cézanne to Cubism to abstraction, Greenberg declares: “The best modern painting, though it is mostly abstract painting, remains naturalistic in its core, despite all appearances to the contrary. It refers to the structure of the given world both outside and inside human beings. The artist who… tries to refer to anything else walks in a void.” In his review of the 1948-49 Wildenstein show, Clement Greenberg noted the strength of the landscapes, specifically the subgenre of seascapes:

The completely satisfying pictures in this show are the seascapes and, to a lesser extent, the landscapes. The artist seems, during the last twenty years of his life, to have been able to handle best what was inanimate and removed somewhat by physical distance — especially those things one is unable to take between one’s fingers, like light, water, and the sky. For all his adoration of the solidity of nature, Courbet came in the end to feel its intangibility with the most truth.

Jackson Pollock, Number I, 1949. Enamel and metallic paint on canvas, 160 x 259.1 cm (63 x 102 in). Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rita and Taft Schreiber Collection, 89.23

We may never know whether Pollock saw this show at Wildenstein. Certainly, though, he was aware of Greenberg’s review, for Pollock and his Abstract Expressionist cohorts (including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still [American, 1904-1980], and Mark Rothko [American, 1903-1970]) were acutely attuned to the critic’s assessments. The following month, in February 1949, Greenberg reviewed Pollock’s second exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, which ran from January 24 to February 12. Greenberg’s ideas about Courbet, nature, modern art, and Pollock come into focus in terms absolutely informed by each other.

Writing about Pollock’s Number I, 1948 (Museum of Modern Art), Greenberg claims:

I do not know of any other painting by an American that I could safely put next to this huge baroque scrawl in aluminum, black, white, madder, and blue. Beneath the apparent monotony of its surface composition it reveals a sumptuous variety of design and incident, and as a whole it is as well contained in its canvas as anything by a Quattrocento master… Pollock is one of the major painters of our time.

The coincidence of the Wildenstein Courbet exhibition and the Pollock show at Betty Parsons within a few weeks of each other in January 1949 is surely serendipitous. But the fact that Greenberg reviewed both shows alerts us to unexpected connections between Courbet and the new generation of New York painters emerging at that time.

Courbet’s legacy registers in many instances of continuity between the nineteenth century painter and later artists who responded to his example and his pictorial achievement. In many cases, artists themselves acknowledge a debt to Courbet. For instance, two notable modern painters, Cézanne and de Kooning, identified Courbet as a source of inspiration — and both men furnished a convenient trail of published quotes. Otherwise, scholars, curators, and critics make the connections. Aside from textual sources, Courbet’s importance to subsequent generations can be observed visually. Indeed, his landscape painting seems to resonate most strongly with artists working in an abstract (or an abstracting) mode.

Paul Cézanne, Bridge at Maincy, 1879-8o. Oil on canvas, 58.5 x 72.5 cm (23 x 28 5/8 in). Paris, Musée d’Orsay

Occasionally, an artist will directly quote from a Courbet composition; a key instance, among many in nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting, is Cezanne’s Bridge at Maincy (1879-80), which squarely invokes Courbet’s Shaded Stream (1865). In other cases, the connections to Courbet are less literal, rooted in technique, notably in his revolutionary use of the palette knife and in his performative, patently physical manner of painting. The question of Courbet’s influence is a recurring trope in accounts of artists working at different times and places, in different pictorial styles and media.

For instance, the hunt for iconographic sources leading to Courbet can yield surprising results, including not just twentieth-century painting but contemporary photography as well. In a 1997 exhibition catalogue on the work of Jeff Wall (Canadian, b. 1946), the iconographic lineage of his photograph The Drain (1989, depicting figures in a shaded stream) is traced back to Courbet, via Cézanne, referring to the same works. Wall’s constructed scene is more a cinematic tableau than a Realist observation of nature. His inclusion of figures lends a narrative element, but his compositional and iconographic roots clearly point to a Cézanne /Courbet genealogy. Wall makes it clear that he is making art from art, and that his practice has been informed by a variety of pictorial sources.

The fictional, constructed quality of Wall’s photograph underscores an important element of Courbet’s work, one that runs contrary to much received wisdom about his paintings, and about his landscapes in particular. Scholars and critics have emphasized Courbet’s Realism — his connection to place, his habit of working directly from nature, and the commercial aspects of his landscape practice. Furthermore, much Courbet scholarship insists on the inextricable links between his work and the mid-nineteenth-century sociopolitical contexts in which he painted. Until now, however, his landscape paintings have not been understood in the illuminating, exclusive context of other Courbet landscapes.

Jeff Wall, The Drain, 1989. Transparency in lightbox, 229 x 288 cm (90 3/4 x 113 in). Jeff Wall Studio

Of course, Courbet painted specific, real sites in Ornans and elsewhere. However, his painted vision of landscape was not uniformly faithful to capturing, in a mimetic way, what those landscapes really look like. The sustained experience of looking at Courbet’s landscapes (especially the valley, wave, and snow pictures) reveals how truly constructed, invented, and imagined the paintings are. Courbet certainly observed and responded to particular sites in his native region, but his inventiveness has not been sufficiently addressed.

Courbet consistently and assertively uses geometry to organize the landscape compositions. When seen together, Courbet’s paintings might be regarded as variations on a theme: powerful diagonals (see The Valley of Ornans, The Gust of Wind, and La Roche Pourrie) and vortex-like contours (see Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne and The Wave). While it is true that some motifs are faithful to the places Courbet painted (as in the Source of the Loue series), Courbet was a frequent practitioner of the paysage composé (composed landscape), as in the case of the late pictures and in pictures painted from memory or from his imagination (see Composed Landscape: Spring in the Rocks of Doubs, The Gust of Wind, and Seascape).

The terrain of Courbet’s pictorial imagination was as powerful as his lived experience of the landscape. And his way of painting capitalized on the physical energy of applying paint on canvas in order to suggest the power of nature. The surface marks on a painting like The Gust of Wind are exerted with such force that the work seems to anticipate the terms of Harold Rosenberg’s seminal essay, “The American Action Painters”: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Courbet, it seems, was an action painter avant la lettre, which a new generation of Abstract Expressionists evidently recognized.

Art News article, “Is Today’s Artist with or against the Past?” (Summer 1958), illustrating pl. 11 and fig. 15 (opposite).

In 1958 Art News posed the question to a group of living artists, “Is today’s artist with or against the past?” Responding to the editors’ inquiry, de Kooning made his engagement with tradition clear: “Painters are bound to be involved in painting. Old and new are just one thing.” De Kooning proposed the compelling idea that “[contemporary] artists keep influencing the old masters. Maybe some of the young painters take things from Monet. But it was some one like Clyfford Still, who probably never looked at Monet, who got them to see it.” The idea that an Abstract Expressionist work can shed new light on Impressionist painting reframes the notion of artistic influence. It is in this spirit that Courbet’s legacy in the twentieth century can be situated and understood.

In de Kooning’s formulation, influence is not just a matter of older art nourishing the
pictorial imaginations of subsequent generations. De Kooning’s declaration of interest in Courbet inflects how we respond to Courbet’s art; the midcentury artist’s words — and his
paintings — invite us to see the nineteenth-century painter in a new light. In the 1958 interview, de Kooning claimed Courbet as a point of reference:

Now I’m very interested in Courbet. He could walk in a forest and see something, concretely, just the way it is; be obsessed by the bark on a tree. His painting is not tradition or nature or style, but there it is. Being a painter I naturally see things, outdoors, on the streets; maybe I can see things more naturally in museums.

Willem de Kooning, The Time of the Fire, 1956. Oil and enamel on canvas, 150.5 x 200.7 cm (59 1/4 x 79 in). Private collection

Importantly, de Kooning confirms that seeing works of art in person is crucial to engendering dialogues between living artists and the art of the past.

The de Kooning interview was illustrated in Art News with juxtaposed reproductions of a Courbet landscape, The Stream, and a de Kooning abstract painting, The Time of the Fire. The de Kooning painting does not literally resemble the Courbet, but when the mid-twentieth-century painter expresses his admiration for Courbet, we are invited to see both pictures through that lens. Although the bold color in The Time of the Fire bears no relation to the comparatively subdued palette in Courbet’s Stream, the juxtaposition (a choice likely orchestrated by the editors at Art News) reveals a similar notion of the pictorial surface as divided by zones of light and dark and unified by an overall painterliness.

By claiming Courbet as one source of inspiration, de Kooning casts his own work in terms of a named and identifiable genealogy. Furthermore, de Kooning quite self consciously engaged in the pastoral tradition, acknowledging the seminal importance of landscape (its imagery and conventions) to his abstract paintings. Certainly, his admiration for Courbet is just one strand in de Kooning’s artistic DNA, but his declaration invites the question: What did he — and so many of his peers, working in New York in the 19508 — respond to in Courbet’s art, and in the landscapes in particular? Perhaps it is attributable to “zeitgeist,” but Courbet was very much on the radar in midcentury America, an artistic moment inextricably associated with Abstract Expressionism.

Late in 1959 another major Courbet retrospective was mounted, by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1960. Of the eighty-six paintings on view in the exhibition, nearly half were landscapes. In the catalogue for the show, Courbet’s relevance to contemporary art of the moment was explicitly stated: “There is no real contradiction between Courbet’s way of seeing things and that of the Abstract Expressionists; instead, there is a progressive development from one to the other, almost a lineal descent, paradoxical as this may seem when judged superficially.” And in Mainstreams of Modern Art (1959), John Canaday elaborates on Courbet’s technique in terms germane to Abstract Expressionism, with language evocative of painterly freedom:

And always there is the paint, its own fat oiliness a part of the expressiveness of the painted objects. Courbet frequently applied paint with his palette knife, the thin flexible blade that is ordinarily used to mix colors on the palette. He would strike in the side of a rock with the flat of the knife, or with its tip he would flick in a sparkle of light. He painted whole pictures in this way, a technique familiar enough today, but with him an innovation.

Indeed, like Courbet’s painting, “action painting”— as practiced variously by Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline—was performative: gestural, physical, and emphatically painterly. Rosenberg’s 1952 article had given a name to the new kind of painting practiced by these Abstract Expressionists, all of whom worked in quite distinct manners. What they shared, however, was a celebratory approach to the materiality of paint.

Among the 19505 American painters who admired Courbet (according to artist and writer Elaine de Kooning [American, 1920-1989], Willem’s wife) was the Pennsylvania-born Franz Kline, best known for his dramatic black-and-white paintings. Kline’s abstract paintings elevate the brushstroke to an epic scale and confirm painterliness itself as the content of his art. Like Courbet, he identified with his native landscape and often gave titles to his pictures that connect to specific places, such as Bethlehem, which refers to the town in Pennsylvania (1959-60). Kline’s title also points to his roots as a landscape painter.

Franz Kline, Bethlehem, 1959-60. Oil on canvas, 158.1 x 198.8 cm (62 1/4 x 78 1/4 in). Saint Louis Art Museum, Given by Sam J. Levin and Audrey L. Levin, 24:1992

The bold geometry of this abstract painting recalls Courbet’s compositions that similarly divide the canvas into regions of squares, rectangles, and triangles. It compares interestingly with The Valley of Ornans (1858), which likewise evokes place through pictorial drama and an overriding sense of geometry. Courbet’s Valley of Ornans displays, according to the art historian Kermit Champa, 

an enormous range of constructive paint markings and a highly unconventional division of color zones between the dark foreground and the complex topographical and architectural motif of the middle ground and background. .. . There is no imposed atmospheric unification of tone or color value. Instead, Courbet’s paint deposit is allowed to exert very openly both its descriptive and its abstractly tactile intensity.

If we read Champa’s words with Kline’s Bethlehem in mind, they seem entirely apt.

The strong diagonals and geometric “carving” of space in Courbet’s Valley of Ornans are evident in works by other artists as well, from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Camille Pissarro’s Jaláis Hill, Pontoise (1867) and Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, which translates a specific location in Venice, California, into lyrical and colorful arrangements of triangles, rectangles, and squares (a representative work would be Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park, 140,1985).

J. M. W. Turner, Van Tromp, 1844. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.9 cm (36 x 48 in). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 93.PA.32

The connection between Courbet and twentieth-century artists was declared in the Art News review “The Artist’s Artist,” lauding the 1959-60 Courbet exhibition: “Courbet, seen in a magnificent loan show at the Philadelphia Museum, later to travel to Boston, generally ignored by the modern public, but adored by modern artists.” The article discusses the kinship between Courbet and Pollock, identifying it in terms of “an empirical but absolutely pictorial rhythm; and a bravura and command in paint handling which never obscures the solidity and clarity of implied structure yet seems to come pure out of nature, leaving conscious art behind.” It draws explicit parallels between Pollock’s work and Courbet’s landscape paintings, especially his Source of the Loue and wave paintings. Courbet’s wave series is also identified as sharing the pictorial power of J. M. W. Turner’s seascapes. Both Courbet’s and Turner’s dramatic marines are cited as precursors to the pure abstractions that Pollock achieved in his “poured” paintings.

In keeping with de Kooning’s notion of the two-way street of influence, Courbet’s reception in 1960, the Art News critic argues, owes something to Abstract Expressionism. Like Greenberg before him, the writer responded most powerfully to Courbet’s seascapes:

The last great wave pictures (there are at least a dozen, in various countries) are the high point of Courbet’s career and his unique contribution to the history of landscape painting — At the same time Courbet remains a peasant and a near German one at that; his vehement masculinity may well have been a handicap to his public reputation over the past generation — Possibly his appreciation will improve in a day beginning to respond to the rugged frontality of de Kooning and Kline Courbet stands — likewise apart from his social and political roles which possibly have been overrated — as one of the supreme colorists and formal inventors of his century. Surely it was in response to such achievement that Cézanne, as we are told, if the name of the master of Ornans was mentioned, would solemnly and silently raise his hat.

Cézanne (and Pablo Picasso [Spanish, 1881-1973], building on his example) was the godfather of Modernism, a point reinforced not just by critics and art historians, but by artists as well. For example, asked about the roots of modern art, Pollock drew the map: “It didn’t drop out of the blue; its part of a long tradition dating back with Cézanne, up through the cubists, the post-cubists, to the painting being done today.”

“Cezanne’s Courbet” was an important touchstone for mid-twentieth-century critics and artists alike. Indeed, the debt that Cézanne owed to Courbet as a modern painter has been well documented and continues to be discussed. However, Courbet’s landscapes have not been recognized as avant-garde to the same degree that Cezanne’s have. It is illuminating, therefore, to rethink Courbet’s achievement in light of Cezanne’s enthusiasm for Courbet’s art and his landscapes in particular. As Cézanne was the clear progenitor of modern painting (according to mid-twentieth-century Zeitgeist), Cezanne’s admiration for Courbet only confirms his vanguard status. The links between Cézanne and Courbet may seem very clear, particularly since they are underscored by Cezanne’s own words and by strong visual relationships, as noted earlier.

Courbet, according to Cézanne, was “a builder”:

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. There hasn’t been another in our century who can beat him…. He is profound, serene, velvety…. He always created compositions in his mind. His vision remained the vision of the old masters. It’s like his palette knife, he used it only in landscapes. He is sophisticated, meticulous…. I say that it was force, genius that he put underneath the finish. And then, ask Monet what Whistler owes Courbet, from the time when they were together…. No matter how big, he made things subtle. He belongs in museums.

Cézanne and Courbet, provincials who specialized in the familiar sites of their native regions, shared many painterly fascinations. Both painters’ reputations became inextricably tied to their hometowns, Aix-en-Provence and Ornans, respectively, because they moved back and forth between Paris and the country. If Paris was the crucible of making an artistic reputation, the provinces provided the raw material with which to work. Of course, both men enjoyed long careers that yielded an exceptionally eclectic array of subjects painted. Both, too, experimented with different styles at different moments, depending on the scale and subject of the picture. The identification with place is but one point of intersection; Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series and Courbet’s Source of the Loue series are likely the most familiar. Both artists worked from specific sites and comparably distilled those observations through the process of painting them over and over again.

Paul Cézanne, Bibemus Quarry, ca. 1895. Oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm (25 5/8 x 31 1/2 in). Essen, Museum Folkwang

Cézanne and Courbet often painted nature repeatedly, perhaps obsessively. They observed and recorded rocks, trees, streams, mountains of extremely familiar local sites. Cezanne’s late Bibemus Quarry (ca. 1895), while not a direct or literal descendent of Courbet’s Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne (ca. 1864), resonates strongly with the earlier picture. Cézanne seizes on the formal and chromatic possibilities offered by rocky terrain and rock surfaces as Courbet had done thirty years earlier. It is certainly possible that Cézanne saw Courbet’s Grotto, whose first owner was a major avant-garde collector of the “Impressionist” painters while their work was still considered radical.

Certainly Cézanne would have discovered rocks in the landscape of his native region without the mediating influence of Courbet, but would he have understood their full pictorial possibilities without it? What Courbet offered Cézanne and other Impressionist painters of landscape was a way to approach the genre as anti-narrative (in the traditional, literary sense). Courbet’s “pure landscapes,” those unpopulated by human beings, suggest a drama contained within the landscape — a drama revealed by the painter’s pictorial construction.

Here is Cézanne, rhapsodizing:

The great ‘Vagues [Waves]’, the one in Berlin, is marvelous, one of the important creations of the century, much more exciting, more full blown than the one here [referring to ‘Stormy Sea (The Wave)’, 1870, Musée d’Orsay]. Its green is much wetter, the orange much dirtier, with its windswept foam, and its tide which appears to come from the depth of the ages, its tattered sky, and its pale bitterness. It hits you right in the stomach. You have to step back. The entire room feels the spray.

Cézanne s words bring to life the energy of Courbet s Berlin Wave.

In addition to making connections between Courbet and other artists, the 1960 Art News critic characterized Courbet as “a peasant and a near German one at that.” No explanation was offered (could it be attributed to cold war-era art critical code?), but it does remind us that Courbet and his art had especially strong ties to Germany. During his lifetime, Courbet successfully established an international reputation. He traveled extensively and had a broad network of extremely loyal patrons in France, Belgium, the United States, and, especially, in Germany. He traveled there numerous times between 1856 and 1869. The trips, primarily to Cologne, Frankfurt, and Munich, included hunting excursions, which Courbet enjoyed immensely. His travels in Germany cemented a strong base of patron support. He also exhibited numerous times in Germany in the 1860s and 1870s. To this day, German museums have exceptionally strong holdings in Courbet’s landscapes, most of which were purchased (directly by museums or by private collectors who later donated them) during the nineteenth century or in the early twentieth century.

Emil Nolde, Autumn Sea XII, 1910. Oil on canvas, 70 x 89.5 cm (27 1/2 x 34 7/8 in). Frankfurt, Deutsche Bank AG

The visionary German museum director Hugo von Tschudi bought Courbet’s Wave for the Nationalgalerie Berlin in 1904. A comparable work, The Wave went to Frankfurt in 1907. This powerful picture is an object lesson in modern painting. The Berlin Wave evokes, and indeed anticipates, the seascapes of German Expressionist painter Emil Nolde (1867—1956). While it is clear that Nolde and his Expressionist brethren drew on many sources, the debt to Courbet’s image and his use of the palette knife is visually palpable. Nolde and his confreres were very “museum literate” and would have been familiar with the collections in Berlin. He produced a great number of seascapes characterized by compositional energy and thick, painterly surfaces that evoke Courbet’s inventiveness in treating the motif. The relationship between the cresting wave and the dramatic sky in Autumn Sea XII seems particularly close to that in the Berlin Wave.

Courbet’s legacy as a landscape painter registers powerfully throughout twentieth century German art, from the first decade to the last. In addition to Nolde’s painterly response to Courbet, the French Realist was a major subject of early twentieth-century German art historical writing. Courbet enjoyed a prominent place on the stage of the German art world from his first trip there in the 1850s. Given the strengths of Courbet holdings in public and private German collections, he still does.

The pictorial power of the Berlin Wave, its muscular application of paint on the surface, and the work’s verging-on-abstract composition share many features with the Getty Museum’s Grotto of Sarrazine. The Grotto‘s dynamic composition draws the viewer in with the concentric circular pattern framing the mouth of the cave. At the same time, in echt Modernist fashion, Courbet’s technique dramatizes the flatness of the canvas. Using the palette knife to evoke the texture of the rock strata and the mottled colors of the mineral deposits, Courbet used oil paint in a radically innovative way.

In the Grotto, many different techniques are in play. In some areas, he laid it on, scraped it off, laying and scraping over and over again to achieve a kind of a marbleized effect in the craggy rocks in the upper right of the picture. The surface is varied and rich. In some places (the pellucid blue stream at left) Courbet delicately applies glazes. In other sections, he works the paint, wet on semi-dry, to create a rough, chalky texture (in the lower right). The range and the richness of his color are astonishing: mossy green, crystalline blue, ocher, mustard, brown, mauve, blue, gray, black, yellow, cream. Courbet is not often discussed (in the art historical master narrative that depends on the massive, somber paintings Burial at Ornans and The Studio of the Painter) as an artist sensitive to or associated with color. To take a sustained look at his landscapes, though, is to rethink his oeuvre (or at least his art historical status) entirely.

Gustave Courbet, Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, ca. 1864 (detail)

The stunning modernity of a picture like Grotto of Sarrazine resonates with innovative painting by artists previously discussed in this essay: Cézanne, Nolde, Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline. Surprisingly, perhaps, it also evokes the work of the contemporary German painter Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Like Courbet’s work, Richter’s cannot be tied down to a singular style or technique, for it defies traditional conventions and art historical categories.

Richter’s November is an enormous diptych that, in terms of scale and ambition, is akin to the epic claims of Courbet’s Burial at Ornans. Like that gigantic, dark, challenging painting, Richter’s November is somber, serious, and undeniably ambitious. Yet it is also a work of astonishing lyricism, quite unlike the Realist brutalism of Courbet’s Burial. In the Richter, surface texture evokes the idea of seasonality, the darkness of winter, the inevitable flux of weather and nature. Richter’s technique of application and removal results in a complex, delicate, and thoroughly mysterious surface. The connections between Courbet’s use of the palette knife and Richter’s technique of layering, removing, adding, and subtracting to achieve both narrative and visual effects present compelling parallels.

Gerhard Richter, November, 1989. Diptych. Oil on canvas, 320 x 200 cm (126 x 78 3/4 in). Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Dr. and Mrs. Alvin R. Frank and the Pulitzer Publishing Foundation, 30:1990a, b

More than one hundred fifty years after Courbet put landscape at the center of his public reputation (with The Studio of the Painter at the Pavilion of Realism exhibition in 1855), his avant-garde legacy endures. We can only imagine the delight with which he would respond to the achievements of Cézanne, Nolde, Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, and Richter (to name only a few). One wonders how looking at their innovations in painting would have inspired Courbet in turn. As an artist who pushed conventional limits, he would have undoubtedly thrilled at the new possibilities that twentieth-century artists forged. The language of painting remains dynamic and relevant, even for artists working in other media. Undoubtedly, the traditions that Courbet engaged and challenged will continue to evolve in the twenty-first century and beyond.

This essay was originally published in the exhibition catalogue, ‘Courbet and the Modern Landscape’, on the occasion of the retrospective exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2006

All artworks and texts © the artists and authors 

To access the full publication, click here.

Notes: 

1. Wildenstein Gallery 1948, frontispiece. The exhibition was held at the Wildenstein Gallery, December 2, 1948 – January 8, 1949. No citation was offered for the Courbet quote, and efforts to track it down have not yielded a reference.

2. Jackson Pollock, June 1956 interview with Selden Rodman, reprinted in O’Connor 1967, 73.

3. An undated statement made by Pollock in response to teacher and artist Hans Hoffman’s comment, “You do not work from nature,” per Lee Krasner in a 1967 interview. See Glaser 1967, cited in Karmel 1999, 28. Also cited in O’Connor 1978, 101. Discussing Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 (1950, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Hans Namuth’s capturing of that work’s creation on film, O’Connor links Pollock to Charles Baudelaire (French, 1821-1867), a contemporary of Courbet: “the great French writer and the great American painter both understood the essential link between artistic and natural processes. That Pollock could assert pragmatically that ‘I am nature’ places him at the conclusion of a ‘romantic’ tradition which Baudelaire began by articulating the role of the artist as intermediary between the inner and outer worlds.” Indeed, Courbet aligned with the same ideas.

4. Wildenstein Gallery 1948, 39.

5. Clement Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition of Gustave Courbet,” The Nation, 8 January 1949, reprinted in Greenberg 1986, 276, 277. The connection between Pollock and the Impressionists was made by MoMA chief curator William Rubin in a series of essays published in Artforum; see especially Rubin 1967; he discusses Cézanne and Monet primarily, and the rubric of painterly freedom is a predominant theme.

6. Partisan Review, January 1949, reprinted in Greenberg 1986, 275.

7. The Nation, 8 January 1949, reprinted in Greenberg 1986, 279.

8. The Nation, 19 February 1949, reprinted in Greenberg 1986, 285-86. For an analysis of this Pollock painting, as well as of Greenberg’s criticism, see Clark 1999, 309-14.

9. Brougher 1997, 33, 99. Brougher mentions Courbet’s Source of the Loue series and specifically cites The Shaded Stream (pi. 14). The latter is illustrated with Cezanne’s Bridge at Maincy, 33. Once the Courbet connection is established, the titles of Walls photographs included in the exhibition resonate with Courbet’s paintings and other nineteenth-century sources: A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993), 125; A Hunting Scene (1994), 131. In addition to landscapes, Wall’s penchant for self-portraiture, socially conscious portraits of workers, and trenchant, staged genre scenes in a “Realist” idiom further underscores the persistence of Courbet’s example into the late twentieth century.

10. Likewise, the contemporary German artist Thomas Demand (b. 1964) creates scenes (often inspired by photographs), reconstructs them in his studio, and then photographs them. Clearing (2003), “his version of a forest, made up of 270,000 individually cut leaves” (per Kimmelman 2005), exhibited at a MoMA retrospective in 2005, similarly evokes the density and chiaroscuro of one of Courbet’s Puits Noir pictures.

11. See Mary Morton, “To Create a Living Art,” herein; see also Faunce 1988, i, and Linda Nochlin’s entry in that catalogue on the political/historical meanings of Courbet’s The Oak at Flagey (1864, Murauchi Art Museum), 150-51. For an incisive analysis of the Courbet Reconsidered exhibition and catalogue, see Herding 1989.

12. For an account of the literature, see Morton, “To Create a Living Art,” herein, note 3.

13. Faunce 1988, i. On the landscapes, see Chu 1988, which offers a very good précis on the scholarly literature on landscape. See also Herding 1991, especially chapter four, “Equality and Authority in Courbet’s Landscape Painting,” 62-98.

14. See Mary Morton’s and Dominique de Font-Réaulx’s essays herein for a discussion of this issue and for an account of Courbet’s assertions about painting particular places.

15. Rosenberg 1952. On the political meanings of Rosenberg’s argument, and the marginalization of Rosenberg in light of Clement Greenberg’s criticism, see Orton 1991; on the performative quality of Courbet’s painting (and his habit of painting before an audience), see Morton, “To Create a Living Art,” herein.

16. “Is Today’s Artist with or against the Past?” 1958.

17. “Is Today’s Artist,” 27.

18. “Is Today’s Artist,” 56. On de Kooning’s engagement with Courbet see also the recent biography Stevens and Swan 2004, 278, 434. The de Kooning picture evoked in relation to Courbet (and to de Kooning’s interest in him) is Door to the River (1960, Whitney Museum of American Art).

19. Abigail Solomon Godeau addresses the link between Courbet and later generations in her entry on Snowy Landscape with Boar (ca. 1866-67, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen), in Faunce and Nochlin 1988, no. 71,183: “Courbet might equally well have said, thereby anticipating modern critical formalism, that a painting is in fact made up of paint itself, which then comes to stand for the physical objects in the material world. But if such a formulation was unavailable to Courbet in 1861, it is nonetheless a perceptible element of his art and one of the reasons he was so profoundly esteemed by later, purely abstract painters.”

20. See Cooke 1993.

21. Courbet’s importance to/influence upon mid twentieth-century painters was not limited to those working in the United States: the French Surrealist André Masson painted a version of Source of the Loue in 1955, in addition to numerous erotic drawings that invoke Courbet’s nudes. See Jean-Jacques Fernier 1991, 25. And Balthus’s 1937 The Mountain (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) responds to Courbet in its treatment of figures and the landscape.

22. Huyghe 1959.

23. The association of Abstract Expressionism with an ethos of liberty echoes the discourse about Courbet: “Courbet’s artistic protest against hierarchical structures, fixed systems of perspective, the ostensibly unalterable nature of things and the values associated with them nevertheless contained implications that were not to be fully explored until the twentieth century.” Herding 1991, 98. On Jackson Pollock, B. H. Friedman wrote in Art in America, December 1955: “Pollock’s reality, his vision, is freedom which is one of those important words which has unfortunately become muddied in our time”; cited in O’Connor 1967, 73.

24. Canaday 1959,106. Certainly, many Abstract Expressionists, like Courbet, were not limited to abstraction but also painted landscapes and the human figure. For an informative and intelligent discussion of this strain of representational painting in the 19505, see Schimmel, Stein, et al. 1988. For a critical account of Abstract Expressionism’s relationship to the past, see also Clark 1999, 370-403.

25. de Kooning 1962, 10.

26. On this painting see St. Louis Art Museum 2004, 292, entry by Robin Clark.

27. Entry on The Valley of Ornans in Champa 1991, 138.

28. Sedgwick 1960, 40.

29. Ibid.

30. Regarding the connection to Pollock, the author specifically cites Ocean Greyness (1953, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum); see also the “Seascapes” section (by the present author) herein and fig. 17. From February 14 to June 12, 2005, Jackson Pollock’s Number i, 1949 (fig. 11) was installed in the “Impressionist and post-Impressionist” gallery of the J. Paul Getty Museum as part of the INTERJECTIONS initiative with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The Getty’s Courbet Grotto (pi. 20) was hanging in the adjacent gallery, and one could see both works across a rather large expanse of gallery space. The ability to see the works in proximity to one another shed light on connections between these “performative” painters. Strong relationships in terms of composition, movement, and chromatic sophistication were also evident. On the MOCA painting, see Clark 1999, 312-13.

31. Sedgwick 1960, 66. See also a review by Douglas Cooper (Cooper 1960), which takes a less celebratory view of both Courbet and contemporary art in 1960.

32. As of this writing, an exhibition titled Cézanne and the Twentieth Century was being planned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for 2008; see also Fondation Beyeler 1999.

33. Jackson Pollock, interview with William Wright, The Springs, Long Island, New York, late 1950. Broadcast on Radio Station WERI, Westerly, Rhode Island, 1951, and cited in Karmel 1999, 21. Barnett Newman (American, 1905-1970) also linked the pictorial practices of Cézanne and Courbet, cited in Pissarro 2005, 37.

34. See Cachin et al. 1996, 26, 96, 186-88, 371-73. The references to Courbet occur both in nineteenth century criticism and in the catalogue entries by that exhibitions curators, Joseph Rishel and Françoise Cachin. On Cézanne in the twentieth century, see Rishel 1996. Likewise, in the 1948 Wildenstein catalogue, the foreword invokes Cézanne, who, following in Courbet’s footsteps, “devoted his life to renew and reaffirm… the same view of nature Courbet’s meeting with nature was marked by this broad tradition. But he in turn enriched this by offering it his own discovery of the pictorial values of earth and sea, rocks and clouds, peasants and workers, stones and trees, of all of which he left us such a strikingly living and forceful picture.” Wildenstein Gallery 1948, 11. Herding (1991) also identifies the “planarity” of Courbet’s landscape compositions as anticipating Cézanne, 81 and 98. See also Yve-Alain Bois, “Cézanne: Words and Deeds,” trans. Rosalind Krauss, October 84 (Spring 1998): 31-43; on Courbet and Cézanne, 37. Courbet’s importance for and influence on Cézanne was a subject of animated debate at the recent symposium “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro, 1865-1885,” held September 10, 2005, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

35. Doran 2001,143.

36. Clement Greenberg, in his 1949 review of the Courbet exhibition at Wildenstein, cited the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902-4) as an example of Cezanne’s “recapitulating Courbet’s effort to seize the substantial reality of nature.” Greenberg 1986, 277.

37. The collector, Ernst Hoschedé, was a department store magnate whose most famous purchase (in retrospect) was Monet’s Impression. Sunrise (1872, Musée Marmottan); infamously, his wife later left him for Monet. Facing financial crisis in the 18705, Hoschedé sold the Courbet Grotto (as La Grotte humide) on April 20,1875, lot 32 at the Hôtel Drouot sale, “Collection H…, Tableaux modernes” The unillustrated sale catalogue (Paris: Imprimerie de Jules Claye) indicates that the work was engraved by H. Toussaint (though we have not located this print). Another engraving, from a Durand-Ruel catalogue (Recueil d’estampes gravées à l’eau forte 4, no. 195; Paris, 1873-75), by C. Deblois, depicts the Getty picture as Grotte de la Source de la Loue. On Hoschedé’s collection see Distel 1989.

38. On thé anti-narrative tradition in modem painting see Fried 1990, 284-90; on Courbet’s influence on Gauguin, see Richard R. Brettell, Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, Gauguin and Impressionism, exh. cat., New Haven 2005, 180 – 81.

39. Doran 2001,144.

40. See Hofmann and Herding 1978 (see also Morton, “To Create a Living Art,” herein). On Courbet’s collectors in Germany see also Pophanken and Billeter 2001.

41. One wonders if Courbet’s ties to Germany played a role in his political fortunes, particularly in light of his exile and the punishment he endured for his alleged role in the destruction of the Vendôme column (see the “Exile” section of Morton, “To Create a Living Art,” herein).

42. On the Berlin Wave see Hohenzollern and Shuster 1997, 42-45. Hugo von Tschudi bought four other Courbet landscapes for the museums he directed in Berlin and Munich. On Tschudi see Jensen 1994. On Courbet’s love of Germany see Herding 1989, 246 (and his note 4).

43. See, for example, Die Explosion der Farbe 1998; see also Selz 1963, 9-16. Avant-garde, early-twentieth century German painters were exposed to artists like Courbet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, etc., through the selling and collecting activities of German galleries, collectors, and museums.

44. The Stàdel, Frankfurt, also has an impressive Courbet Wave from about the same period (p. 40). Furthermore, the sea paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774-1840; such as Monk by the Sea, 1808-10, at the National galerie in Berlin), would have been an important touchstone for Nolde’s marines, as well as for Courbet. On the importance of Friedrich see Rosenblum 1975, 10-40. Rosenblum argues that Abstract Expressionism grows out of this tradition.

45. See also Kirsten Menneken’s essay on Courbet’s influence on the nineteenth-century German painter Carl Schuch (Austrian, 1846-1903); Menneken 2000; as well as Fried 2002, which discusses Adolf Menzel (German, 1815-1905), his reception in France, his debt to French painting, and his resonances with Courbet through a different paradigm.

46. Richard Muther published Courbet (the forty eighth volume in a series of sixty-four Die Kunst books, of which he was also the editor). He illustrates numerous landscapes and writes eloquently of the constructedness of the seascapes. While Muther does not discuss Courbet’s vitality nor his relationship to contemporary practices of painting, he does tie Courbet back to the great tradition. This same trope occurs in Julius Meier-Graefe’s work on Courbet, in which the Realist is granted the gilded status of being compared to Frans Hals (Dutch, ca. 1581-1666) and Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606-1669). He wrote two books on Courbet, Meier-Graefe 1912 and 1924.

47. The conservation report on the painting (a part of the acquisition process) is exceptionally illuminating. I quote a section that vividly evokes Courbet’s technical mastery: “Courbet’s extravagantly textured composition retains the lively surface characteristics of an unlined canvas. The artist’s virtuosity in manipulating oil paint with both palette knife and brush is seen throughout the painting. He superimposes smooth, opaque passages with glassy transparent glazes upon which he presses plaster-like smears and coarse, dry nugget-like particles. In describing the scaffolding he drags fluid, calligraphic strokes that contain dry, coarse particles; in a few areas, the thin, transparent paint of the scaffolding has faded, leaving only the clear impression of the brushstroke behind. The milky, mineral rich water emerging from the grotto is created by heavy, vigorous scumbling over a deep blue underpaint. In a sense, the structure of the paint imitates the geological layering that he aims to represent.” Condition report on Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous- Sainte-Anne by Elisabeth Mention (Associate Conservator Emérita, J. Paul Getty Museum), December 16, 2003. Elisabeth and I worked closely together on this acquisition, and I am grateful to her for her insights, her poetic prose, and her uncanny ability to look at and understand paintings as processes. Though this sentence didn’t make it into the official report, Elisabeth once commented that this painting showed the most innovative use of oil paint she had ever seen, because of the way Courbet used the palette knife to mix the paint, work the surface, and literally “stretch” the oil paint to the limit of its possibilities.

48. See Morton, “To Create a Living Art,” herein, for further discussion of Courbet’s use of color; see

also Herding 1991, 111-34.

49. On Richter see Storr 2003. Richter also made marine imagery reminiscent of Courbet’s seascapes (and of German precedents such as works by Nolde and Friedrich); see also Homburg 2003.

50. For a brief and incisive commentary on Richter’s November and the two related works, January and December (both diptychs, 1989, all in the Saint Louis Art Museum), see Bevan 1990; on November see page 161. See also Saint Louis Art Museum 2004, entry by Robin Clark.

51. A request to interview Mr. Richter on the subject of Courbet and his example was sent to the Richter studio, which cordially responded that Mr. Richter was not able to participate. While it would have been instructive and interesting to learn whether the artist has thought about Courbet in these terms, the works of art themselves provide us sufficient fodder on which to ponder the connections.

52. In 2004 and 2005 the Musée d’Orsay and The Metropolitan Museum of Art presented installations by video artist Tony Oursler (American, b. 1954) that riff on Courbet’s Studio of the Painter. The Musée d’Orsay presented Courbet—Tony Oursler as an iteration of its “Correspondances” contemporary art program. It was on view sharing a gallery with Courbet’s Studio of the Painter and Burial at Ornans from October 26, 2004, to January 23, 2005. Oursler’s Studio: Seven Months of My Aesthetic Education (Plus Some) (NYC version, 2005, mixed-media installation, Private collection) was on view at The Metropolitan from May 17 to September 18, 2005. See also the related publication, Vannier 2004. From January 30 through April 30, 2006, the Musée d’Orsay is presenting, as part of its “Correspondances” contemporary art program, an installation featuring work by the contemporary painter Brice Marden (American, b. 1938) in dialogue with Courbet.