Apart from a group of about 20 floral still lives painted in the early 1860s, the vast majority of Courbet's still lives were, like this painting, executed in the 1871-1872, during and shortly after his confinement in Sainte Pélagie prison for his activities in support of the Commune uprising. Courbet turned to still life painting in prison -- usually of apples, and occasionally other fruits and flowers, brought to him by sister Zoé -- for lack of any other motif. In a letter to his lawyer, Charles Lachaud, dated 25 October 1871, he complained: 'I am in every kind of pain: all of the guards are preventing me from working at Ste.-Pélagie and from carrying out here what I had planned. They just authorized me to paint in my cell without leaving it, without any kind of light or model. Their authorization is useless for in that case I have no other motifs than God Almighty and the Holy Virgin.'
From these imposed conditions, Courbet developed a genre of still life painting which evolved from being a product of necessity into one which met a ready market upon his release. From the relatively simple compositions he created in captivity, Courbet developed his fruit still life paintings into much larger canvases, which typically combined fruit, landscape, and trees, and submitting a painting entitled Apples at the Foot of a Tree to the 1872 Salon (which was famously excluded, but then promptly exhibited by Durand Ruel in the window of his gallery).
The smaller, more pared down still lives such as this one, produced in prison or as gifts for friends, have a purity about them that is immensely powerful, and reminiscent of similar works in the genre by Manet and Cézanne. Stripped back to its essentials, this painting distils realism into its purest form. Instead of artfully composed apples in a fruit basket, surrounded by foliage and colour, the apples are here presented against the simplest black and white background, leaving nothing but colour, texture, form and the light from an unseen source which reflects with splashes of white paint off the apples' bright red skin. One is reminded of the comment of the art critic Max Buchon, who wrote of Courbet's creative process: 'One would say that he produces his works as simply as an apple tree produces apples.'