Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Path through the Forest

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Path through the Forest
signed 'G. Courbet' (lower left)
oil on canvas
27½ x 36½ in. (69.9 x 92.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1860
Acquired by the grandfather of the present owner in Berlin, circa 1925.

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

Although perhaps best-known and most notorious for his enormous public, figural paintings, Gustave Courbet was first and foremost a landscape painter. Writing in 1882, the critic J. A. Castagnary stated, 'he (Courbet) discovered virgin territory where no one had yet to set foot, aspects and forms of landscape of which one could say were unknown before him. He climbed up to the free heights where the lungs expanded; he plunged into mysterious dens, he was curious about unnamed places, unknown, retreats.'

Almost three-quarters of Courbet's oeuvre are landscapes and they were generally well-received, particularly his sous-bois paintings, or landscapes of the deep forest, as they offered his city-bound viewers a sense of refuge and solitude. Courbet's best-known sous-bois paintings are of a favorite spot near his native Ornans that the locals called Le Puits Noir or the Black Well. This is where the stream of the Brême flows slowly between rocks in a narrow gorge surrounded by lush vegetation, and the combination of unique rock formations and dense forest undergrowth provided Courbet the perfect environment to merge his passion for geology with his interest in the materiality of paint.

Courbet's intimate knowledge of the landscape around his native Ornans in the Franche Compté came from both his meanderings through the forest and streams, and also from his hunting expeditions in the area. He understood the need to understand the countryside and wrote 'To paint a landscape you have to know it. I know my country. I paint it!'

Courbet's landscapes are sensually perceived manifestations of his idea of the vitality and dynamism of the land itself and this is achieved through the materiality of the actual act of painting. Just as Courbet's relationship to the land is physical, so is the process of transferring that vision to canvas. Courbet used dark grounds to prime his canvases, learned from the Dutch Old Masters in the Louvre, and he built up his landscapes from dark to light, bringing the painting to life the same way the sunlight brightens the greens of the forest. Courbet painted with a brush, but also used a palette knife to capture the solidity of the rock formations and sometimes used bags, sponges and even his fingers in order to create the visceral quality of the weight of forms in nature.

At the beginning of the 1850s, Courbet's landscape painting began to develop in a new and more visceral direction. The artist came to the belief that nature was so dramatic in its own right there was little need for figures and he moved away from the panoramic landscapes that marked the earlier period in his oeuvre. Landscape itself is the portrait, for the land has a physiognomy, like the features of a face, and Courbet in Path through the Forest the artist has presented the viewer with a lovingly painted portrait of the strange beauty of his native country.

We are grateful to Sarah Faunce for confirming the authenticity of this work.

More from 19th Century European Art

View All
View All