‘His greatest contribution,’ said Cézanne of Courbet, was ‘the introduction into 19th century painting of nature’s lyricism: the smell of wet leaves, the mossy rocks in the forest […] And snow, he painted snow like nobody else!’
Courbet’s paintings of his native Franche-Compté blanched with a crisp layer of snow were a striking departure from precedent in French painting history. The artist’s christening of the winter landscape inspired his impressionist successors and irrevocably altered the course of the genre; no landscape painter after Courbet could consider their oeuvre complete without a snow-filled winter landscape. Among the most beautiful and perfectly nuanced Impressionist winter landscapes were those executed by Claude Monet. His was the undisputed master of the Impressionist "effet de neige", but he was not alone in his fascination with the subject: Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Caillebotte, Gauguin and others also produced images that depicted the special character of the air, light and delicate chromatic effects associated with landscapes blanketed with snow (C. Moffett et al., Impressionists in Winter, Effets de neige, 1998).
The passion with which Claude Monet pursued plein air painting in winter was legendary even during his own lifetime. In 1867, a journalist reported seeing Monet hard at work outdoors in Honfleur in the dead of winter. "It was cold enough to split rocks. We perceived a foot warmer, then an easel, then a gentleman bundled up, in three overcoats, gloves on his hands, his face half frozen; it was Monet studying an effect of snow" (quoted in exh., cat., Origins of Impressionism, New York, 1994, pp. 249-250).
Courbet first painted the subject in the cold winter of 1856-7, but it was only in the 1860s that he engaged more deeply with the theme, exploring snow and its textures in a series of paintings that would ultimately number eighty scenes, observed first in Franche-Comté and later, during the artist’s self-imposed exile, in The Alps. While his later works in this theme are stark and desolate, conveying the desperation of the artist’s condition in the final years of his life, his earlier paintings of snow, including La Chasseur a l’afflut are bright and glisten with sunlit shades of pure white and blue. For Courbet, these scenes of nature at its greatest intensity offered matchless scope for his immense ambitions and the snow-swept Franche-Compté landscape quickly became a personal trademark.
The self-declared bad boy of French Realist art, Courbet spent the first decades of his career in noisy subversion. Hunting scenes were ever bolder, bigger and bloodier, nudes shocked with their fleshiness. ‘When I stop being controversial, I'll stop being important,’ wrote Courbet in 1852. (In a letter to his parents in 1852.) By the mid-1860s, with his reputation secure, Courbet now was at greater liberty to focus on his own artistry. Yet, he never ceased to prod and poke at the Bonapartist establishment, both with his subjects and his technique.
For Courbet, one of the great technical innovators of his generation, the application of paint to canvas was a process deeply embroiled with his entire sense of his own artistry. In an open letter to his students, Courbet explained that paint and its own materiality was of central importance to the images he created with it: 'Painting’ he explained ‘is essentially a concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, which is made up not by words, but of all physical objects. An abstract object, being invisible and non-existent, does not form part of the domain of painting'. (Published in Courrier du dimanche, December 25, 1861) Cézanne observed of Courbet’s occupation with the fabrication of art, he was ‘a builder, a rude troweller of plaster, a crusher of colour’. The layering of paint on canvas, he explained, paraphrased the process of nature. Courbet welcomed spectators to his studio and those who witnessed the artist at work described his use of unconventional techniques and tools. Courbet began his compositions on a dark layer of colour. ‘You’re astonished that my canvas is black!’ he challenged, ‘nature without the sun is black and dark: I do what light does, I light up the prominent points, and the painting is done.’(Claudet 1878 p.9 cited in Gustave Courbet 2008 exh, p.229) Courbet laid down his paint with palette knife, spatula, sponges and blotting rags, building up an image out of darkness and creating a richly textured surface. His paintings of landscapes chilled by winter afforded him the opportunity to employ these techniques in the spirit of mimicking nature most creatively and to greatest effect. Having played the part of the sun, illuminating his subjects from blackness, Courbet’s elemental role also encompassed that of the snowstorm which blustered through his compositions, blanketing Franche-Compté’s limestone ravines and tree-lined watering spots. In La Chasseur a l’afflut, Courbet’s varied application of paint perfectly captures the irregularity and complexity of his natural subject. Snow is flaked onto the canvas with a palette knife in its various textures, forming crunchy snow-packed banks and feathery sprays on winter-stripped trees. Cool blue ice is slicked smooth with large soft brushes. Drawing on the palette Courbet had introduced earlier in the decade, the painting is a harmony of tinted whites, steely greys and blues. A gifted colourist, Courbet laced the startling whiteness of the painting with the rusted browns and black of rock and earth which peek darkly from underneath a blanket of snow white.
Landscape painting was the driving force of the second half of Courbet’s career. His passion for the subject was motivated in part by his attachment to his native Franche-Compté. He found great freedom in the unexplored territories of the Jura mountains and delighted in the mystery of the region’s undiscovered places. As Castagnary described in his preface to the retrospective exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1882,‘[T]he landscape according to Courbet does not hand itself over easily. It uses its secrets, its metaphors, and its double meanings carefully, and remains, like the entire oeuvre, fundamentally open to interpretation.’(G. Courbet 2008 exh cat 228 citing the preface to retrospective) Partly as a consequence of its unspoiled secrecy, landscape subjects provided Courbet with a powerful platform from which to continue his project of social dissent. (This case is made by Klaus Herding) The oak at Flagey, painted in the same year as the present work, is a comparable example of a landscape painting saturated with political symbolism. The subject recalls the Tree of Liberty, an icon of the 1848 revolution and connects the radicalism of this symbol to Courbet’s provincial landscape.
The opposition of man and nature was a motif Courbet frequently presented to his audience. The Napoleonic regime could be represented by the metonym of ‘man’. The regime’s roots were placed in urban society, power was expressed through architecture and technology, newly constructed railway lines which ploughed through previously unspoiled terrain were the veins of its command. Nature was thereby a site of retreat from the Bonapartist establishment. He flexed his political muscle by challenging his audience to view the political climate through this emotive lens. The conflict between the human and the natural presented in Courbet’s art is perhaps most clearly staged in hunting scenes such as this. In the midst of this icy landscape, a hunter and his prey are frozen in a moment of imminent violence, the axis of their mutual gaze bisecting the composition. As with many of Courbet’s hunting scenes, this moment is afforded the majestic tragedy of a history painting. The hunter’s blood red jacket prophesizes the fatal shot due to follow this second of stasis; the sanguine pigment appears to have bled into the exposed ground in which he crouches. Yet the hunter is not the victor in this scene. In Courbet’s composition, the human figure is a diminutive silhouette in a scene of monumental nature. Like Courbet’s compositions of crumbling man-made ruins, this scene hints at the ephemeral impact of man. The power of nature is recalled by the forbidding grey sky which hangs over this scene of violence, threatening another snowstorm.