After his release from prison in 1872 for his role in the Commune uprising of 1871, Courbet moved back to Ornans, the town of his birth, and then, in 1873, to exile in Switzerland near the border with France. He painted numerous views of Lake Geneva, producing some 20 different compositions of the 12th-century château de Chillon, including several painted from a similar angle to the present work.
The painting juxtaposes rock, water, landscape and buildings in a way that recalls the many paintings of his homeland in the Franche-Comté. The castle, although man-made and dominating the composition, seems almost subsumed into the landscape, creating a sense of peaceful, but lonely grandeur.
The site was a popular one with tourists, having been made famous by Byron in his 1819 poem, The Prisoner of Chillon, and was subsequently reproduced frequently by photographers and engravers. As a result, it has been suggested that Courbet, by now infirm, never went to Chillon, and that his series of compositions of the site were executed from photographs in response to the financial difficulties in which he found himself. While the site was indeed often photographed from a similar perspective to the present work, the number of other views painted by Courbet, both of the castle and of the lake, combined with his widely recorded travels of the area, suggest this is unlikely.
Moreover, "We can't...limit this grand view of Chillon to a work simply intended to feed himself. If the composition and the angle of view were inspired by engravings and photographs, the melancholy tone of the painting is personal to Courbet. No atmospheric variation troubles the eternal calm of the site; the painting gives rise to the sense of a place eternally fixed, which is doubtless related to the sense of enclosure and constraint the artist experienced, profoundly, in exile." (D. de Font-Réaulx, exh. cat., Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 422)