‘Painting’, wrote Courbet in his open letter to prospective students, ‘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 Courier du dimanche, December 25, 1861).
To Courbet, a painting was made of the paint itself, and only then does it stand for an object in the physical world. Snow in particular allowed the artist to indulge in his passion for all the tactile qualities of paint itself. In Chasseurs dans la neige the heavily painted surface of the landscape is the actual subject of the painting and the hunters are simply the animating forces within the landscape. Cézanne observed Courbet’s occupation with the fabrication of art, stating that he was ‘a builder, a rude troweller of plaster, a crusher of color’ (P. M. Doran, Conversations avec Cezanne, Paris, 1978, p. 142). 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 color. ‘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’ (M. Claudet, Souvenirs: Gustave Courbet, Paris, 1878, p. 9).
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 Switzerland. 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 Chasseurs dans la neige 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-Comté landscape quickly became a personal trademark
Courbet’s paysages de neige are regarded as among his most successful paintings. No artist painted snow with as much pleasure as Courbet, for it allowed him the opportunity to explore with complete abandon the tactile quality of paint. The palette of these snow paintings is completely controlled, and in the case of the present painting, almost monochromatic. Courbet’s use of the dark ground, learned from his examination of Old Master paintings in the Louvre, heightens the effect of the whites of the bright snow carpeting the open fields and blanketing the trees. Within the confines of white, grey, brown and black, Courbet is able to play freely with the actual paint, creating contours, atmosphere and even temperature solely through the use of paint. Courbet laid down his paint with palette knife, spatula, sponges and blotting rags, building up an image out from the darkness and in the process, creating a richly textured surface. His paintings of landscapes chilled by winter gave him the opportunity to employ these techniques in the spirit of mimicking nature most creatively and to greatest effect.
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-Comté. 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 exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1882, ‘the 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' (J.–A. Castagnary, Preface in exh. cat. Exposition des oeuvres de Gustave Courbet à l’Ècole des beaux-arts, Paris, 1882).