Gustave Courbet (Ornans, Franche Comté 1819 - La Tour de Peilz, near Vevey 1877)

Les Gorges de Saillon

signed and dated ‘75/G. Courbet’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
42 x 33 cm (16½ x 13 in)

In this enchanting painting, authenticated byMs. Sarah Faunce, Gustave Courbet combines the sublime with the playful, which results in a delightful ambiguity as the viewer is unsure whether the image is a faithful rendering of a unique natural phenomenon, or a product of one of the great artistic minds of the nineteenth-century. A cascade of water can be seen through a narrow crevice in the rocks, pouring into the gorge below. The waterfall is hemmed in by soaring cliffs, and from the rocks on the left-hand side, what appears to be a man’s face emerges in profile. One does not notice this profile immediately, and its emergence provokes a delightful secondary reaction for the viewer. A series of ladders lead from the roughly hewn steps, up the canvas and out of sight beyond the cascade. These ladders serve as a reminder of man’s presence, their contemporaneous and flimsiness contrasting with the ancient and rugged landscape. With no skyline to frame the subject matter, or to serve as a reference point, the viewer is immediately drawn in and confronted by the immediacy of the landscape. To have constructed the composition in such a direct and engaging manner was unique, and this style of Courbet’s constituted a significant departure from the conventions of landscape painting. Consequently, although the size of the canvas is relatively small, the overall impact of Les Gorges de Saillon is strong.

Although, with its unique rock formation, the landscape appears fantastical, Courbet did in fact depict the scene from life, with recent research pinpointing the exact location as the Grotte des Géants, or ‘Cave of Giants’ in Saillon, Valais, south-west Switzerland. The fantastical rock formation was not a result of Courbet’s imagination, but a genuine natural feature secreted away in the Salentze Gorge.

Courbet depicted the Grotte des Géants on at least one further occasion, in the Musée de Picardie’s Vue de la Caverne des Géants près de Saillon. Courbet uses many of the same techniques in both works, including a narrow palette. Les Gorges des Saillon is dominated by greens and yellows, as lush foliage and moss overwhelm the cavern. From this background the profile emerges, painted in a similar tone. In contrast there is a more arid feel to the landscape in Vue de la Caverne des Géants près de Saillon, and what little foliage there is appears dry and parched. As a result the reddish greys of the bare rocks dominate the palette, and from this the rust coloured silhouette appears. Such is the variation in appearance between the two depictions of the same landscape, that it seems likely Courbet must of visited the Grotte des Géants on a number of separate occasions. This was not unusual for Courbet, who often depicted the same landscape on a number of occasions, perhaps most notably the source of the River Loue, which has a similarly dramatic rocky landscape.

Les Gorges des Saillon was painted during the most tumultuous period in Courbet’s life, whilst he was living in exile in Switzerland, and it is worth examining in detail the reasons for his enforced absence from his native France. In the wake of the defeat of in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), a revolutionary force took over the governance of Paris, forming the Paris Commune in March 1871. Courbet had been elected president of a federation of artists, to advise on the maintenance of monuments and art treasures, and partly on his recommendation, the Vendôme Column was pulled down to the applause of 20,000 Parisians. The column celebrated Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) military triumphs, and Courbet argued that the monument celebrated ‘the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment’. When the Commune was overthrown, Courbet was held responsible for the columns destruction and imprisoned for six months. After his release he was found to be liable for the cost of rebuilding the column, and as he had no hope of repaying the 500,000 francs, he opted to flee to Switzerland, rather than be imprisoned again. As Fernier has says, in 1871 ‘As a revolutionary in art, he allowed himself to become embroiled in the revolution of political institutions’.¹ Throughout his last years in exile Courbet remained desperate to pay off his debts and be allowed to return home, and so worked prolifically. Les Gorges des Saillon is a product of this period, but retains the many qualities for which Courbet had achieved his reputation as one of the leading European painters of his generation.

Dramatic landscapes, with waterfalls, caves and gorges, recur throughout Courbet’s career. Les Gorges de Saillon can be compared to another of his cascade scenes, Le Gour de Conche (1864, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besçancon) which he painted eleven years earlier. The two paintings are similar in subject matter, in palette, and in that they both evoke a sense of natural mystery and depth. It is clear from looking at both works that Courbet was less concerned with creating topographical studies and identifying the landscapes in question than he was with capturing a specific aspect of nature: in these instances, the downward descent of the waterfalls and rock faces. Where Le Gour de Conche depicts but a glimpse of sky in the upper right hand corner of the composition, Les Gorges de Saillon has been even more dramatically cropped so as to obscure the viewer’s spatial perception by not revealing the full height of the rock face.

Klaus Herding has proposed that in obscuring the precise location of these landscapes through the use of compositional cropping, Courbet was motivated by a desire to facilitate reflection through nature: in order for the viewer to be able to project their feelings onto the landscape and become truly introspect, an indeterminate location must be depicted. Herding suggests that this is the reason Courbet has provided no contextualisation or local identifiers: instead favouring the depiction of an inherently beautiful, soulful landscape whose location is not important. This approach would belie an appreciation of the sublime, reflective essence of nature - a particularly interesting feature given Courbet’s well-known rejection of Romantic sentiment in art.² In what could be considered another interesting contradiction to his status as a realist, Courbet would also stretch the truth when painting landscapes, freely idealising his depictions of nature. An eyewitness present at the painting of Le Gour de Conche explains:

I accompanied the painter to the Gour de Conche, explaining to him on the spot that the bridge overhanging the three basins had been farther forward in the past and thus even more picturesque. Courbet gave to the waterfall more water than there was that day, made it whiter, added some foliage, and placed the bridgewhere I had indicated. So I said to him when he gave the last swipe of the brush, “Realism?” “Oh,” he laughed, “nothings, some touches of beauty. It happens sometimes.”³

Courbet’s unique approach to the composition of his landscapes can also be linked to the influence of photography. In keeping with the trend of contemporary landscape photography which offered an exciting and alternative close-up of nature, Courbet strove to capture new perspectives, compositions and ways of depicting light. The intended effect which he seems to have so effortlessly achieved in Les Gorges de Saillon is one of nature looking as if it was “happened upon”; accidentally zoomed in on.

Courbet was one of the most important figures in nineteenth-century art, whose legacy proved enormously influential to the development of modernism. Courbet was born into a family of well-off farmers in the small town of Ornans, near the Franco-Swiss border. His rural upbringing was of extreme importance, and the landscape of Ornans, and the realities of rural life were subjects that he depicted throughout his life. At the age of twenty he moved to Paris to receive formal artistic training but soon became dissatisfied with the traditional academic teaching of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Throughout the 1840s Courbet tended to show his work in the provinces and abroad. However, in 1851 he exhibited three works at the Paris Salon, and their impact thrust him to the forefront of contemporary French painting. The Stone-Breakers, A Burial at Ornans and Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair were austere and direct, and broke free from traditional academic norms. Not only did Courbet depict ordinary peasants and workers, but he monumentalised them laid bare the harsh realities of their lives. Courbet had introduced a new style into contemporary painting, which blended the grandeur of French history painting, with the traditions of Dutch portrait and genre painting.

For two decades Courbet reacted against almost every aspect of traditional French art. His subject matter shocked viewers; for example his nudes were graphic, and unequivocally sexual. His technique was spontaneous with no regard for academic rules governing composition. He often shunned mainstream exhibitions, preferring to exhibit independently. With his strong political views, and eccentric artistic behaviour he was often assessed as much by his personality as for his work. He worked in a number of genres, and his landscapes are rarely idealised, but often dramatic and claustrophobic.

As discussed Courbet’s strong political views and resultant actions eventually led to his exile. In the four and a half years he spent in Switzerland he worked prolifically in an attempt to raise money. He also collaborated on some works, and Fernier has suggested that Courbet’s friend and colleague Chérubino Pata (1827-1899) may have assisted with Les Gorges de Saillon. Courbet was very depressed during this period and turned to drink, but despite his personal problems, and his use of assistants, some of the landscapes and portraits he painted were superb, and the present work demonstrates that he retained those abilities. He died in exile, but left the enduring legacy of freeing European art from the restrictions of the academic ideal.

We are grateful to Sarah Faunce, who has confirmed the attribution to Courbet on the basis of a photograph.

¹ Robert Fernier, Gustave Courbet, (Pall Mall Press, London, 1969), p.102.
² Herding, K., ‘”The more you approach nature, the more you must leave it”: Another Look at Courbet's Landscape Painting’, from the Symposium Looking at the Landscapes: Courbet and Modernism, held at the J. Paul Getty Museum, March 18 2006, p.2.
³ Memoirs of Charles Toubin, cited in Charles Pornier, ‘Un Témoin de la Bohème Littéraire’ in La Revue de France (March 1925), pp.85-86.