Apart from a group of about twenty still lives painted in the early 1860s, the vast majority of Courbet’s still lifes were, like the present painting, executed in 1871 and 1872, during and shortly after his confinement in Sainte- Pélagie prison for his part in the Commune uprising. Courbet turned to still life painting in prison, using as inspiration the apples, flowers and other fruits that were brought to him by his sister Zoé. In a letter to his lawyer, Charles Lachaud, dated 25 October 1871, Courbet complained, ‘I am in every kind of pain: all 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 (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 446).
From these less than ideal conditions, Courbet developed a genre of still life painting which evolved from a product of necessity into one which met a receptive market upon his release from prison. From the simple compositions he created during his incarceration, Courbet developed his fruit still life paintings into much larger canvases which often combined fruit and landscape. The artist submitted a painting entitled Apples at the Foot of a Tree to the 1872 Salon, which was famously excluded from the exhibition, but was then promptly exhibited by Paul Durand Ruel in the window of his gallery.
The smaller still lifes, such as Pommes, either produced in prison or made as gifts for friends of the artist, demonstrate a purity that is immensely powerful and resonates in similar still lifes by Manet and Cezanne (fig. 1). Stripped down to its essentials, this painting distills realism into its most pure form. Instead of artfully composed apples in a fruit basket surrounded by foliage and various colors, the apples here are presented against an almost monochromatic background, leaving nothing but the color, texture and form of the fruit, illuminated by a light from an unseen source which reflects in splashes of bright paint off the apples’ red skins. The contemporary art critic Max Buchon wrote of Courbet’s creative process, ‘One would say that he produces his works as simple as an apple tree produces apples’(quoted in L. Nochlin, Style and Civilization: Realism, London, 1971).
The present work is accompanied by a letter of authenticity from Jean-Jacques Fernier, dated 22 January 1997.