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

Les Récits de la Grand-Mère Salvan (Les trois soeurs de Courbet)

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Les Récits de la Grand-Mère Salvan (Les trois soeurs de Courbet)
signed 'G. Courbet' (lower left)
oil on canvas
24 x 19¾ in. (60.9 x 50.1 cm.)
Painted circa 1846-1847
The artist.
Acquired from the above by Gustave Petrequin-Dard, Lausanne, 1874.
Mosse collection, by 1928.
Lemoine collection, Paris, 1929.
Private collection, Paris, 1935.
Private collection, Paris, 1974.
with Artemis Fine Arts, London & New York, 1993.
with Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York, 1996.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997.
C. Gronkowski, 'La rétrospective de Gustave Courbet' in Figaro artistique, no. 240, 4 July 1929, p. 699, illustrated.
C. Léger, Revue de l'Art ancien et moderne, 1929, p. 99, illustrated.
C. Léger, Courbet, Paris, 1929, plate 3.
'Notes from Abroad' in International Studio, November 1930, p. 72. 'Um di Zürcher Courbet Ausstellung' in Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft Jahresbericht, 1936, pp. 39-51.
G. Mack, Gustave Courbet, New York, 1951, p. 43.
T. Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851, London, 1973, p. 114.
J. Lindsay, Gustave Courbet, his Life and Art, London, 1973, p. 34 R. Fernier, La vie et l'oeuvre de Gustave Courbet, Lausanne-Paris, 1978, pp. 48-49, no. 78, illustrated.
P. Courthion, Tout l'uvre peint de Courbet, Paris, 1987, p. 75, no. 71, illustrated.
Paris, Petit Palais, Gustave Courbet, May - June 1929, no. 15.
Paris, Galerie Sèvres, Tableaux inconnus de Gustave Courbet, 28 June - 12 July 1930, no. 111.
Berlin, Galerie Wertheim, Gustave Courbet, 28 September - 27 October 1930, no. 5.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Gustave Courbet, 15 December 1935 - 31 March 1936, no. 16.
Ornans, Hôtel de Ville, Gustave Courbet et la Franche-Comté, 20 June-14 September 1969, no. 6.
Hamburg, Kunsthalle, 19 October - 17 December 1978; and Frankfurt, Städtische Galerie, 17 January - 18 March 1979, Courbet und Deutschland, no. 222.
New York, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Gustave Courbet, 28 October - 29 November 2003, no. 1.
Paris, Grand Palais, 13 October 2007 - 28 January 2008; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27 February - 18 May 2008; Montpellier, Musée Fabre, 14 June - 28 September 2008, Gustave Courbet, no. 23.

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Lot Essay

Gustave Courbet's early oeuvre is notable for the large number of portraits he painted of his immediate family and close friends, reflecting the same ties of loyalty that are revealed quite differently in the later landscapes of his native Franche-Comté. However, the importance of the present work is that it differs from the Romantic, almost troubadour style of his first portraits and self-portraits and 'signals the beginning of his engagement with modern rural subjects drawn from his native Ornans' (K. Galytz in exh. cat, Gustave Courbet, New York, 2008, p. 133), which he would later develop into many of his most ground-breaking Realist canvases.

Courbet depict his sisters in an almost pastoral scene: Zoé in a straw hat on the far left, Zélie with her back to the viewer, and the youngest of the three, Juliette, facing outwards; the old lady of the picture's title on the right is the grand-mère Salvan, a home help in the sisters' parental farmhouse at Flagey, near Ornans, who is shown in profile recounting tales to the three girls. The scene is observed as if through a half-open door, with a strong contrast between the blurred background shadows and the strongly lit, well defined features of the four women; incidentals are kept to a minimum, with only the sideboard, light glinting off its edges, indicating an interior setting.

Courbet enjoyed a particularly close relationship with all his sisters, and he painted them often, both in portraits and as models for some of his most famous canvases, painted shortly thereafter, notably as mourners in Courbet's epic frieze of local figures represented in Burial at Ornans of 1850 (fig. 1), and in Young Ladies of the Village of 1851-1852, where they are depicted in a quite different context, dressed in their Sunday finery (fig. 2). As Dominique de Font-Réaulx writes: 'Their features inspired certain feminine figures. The Sleepwalker shows Juliette's large eyes and the elongated oval of her face; the solidly-built body of Zoé and her calm brunette beauty appear in several canvases. The serene abandon of his painted women - their tranquil sleep, their extended reverie - draw on the deep intimacy established between Gustave and his sisters; near them he was able to observe the warmth of an enclosed, peaceful world. He thus represented not the tension of seduction, but the quietude of confidence' (op. cit., p. 126).

Although Courbet set off for Paris in 1840 with an emphatic determination to make a name for himself, he announced himself very publicly as a painter of the Franche-Comté, stressing the importance of strong roots in forming a painter. His friend, the critic Jules Castagnary, recalled Courbet accosting one particular Orientalist artist with the reproach 'You have no country of your own if you have to borrow one from someone else'. In the frequent letters he sent home, he bombastically related his own successes, but also evinced a genuine nostalgia for his native region and his immediate family, to whom he returned faithfully at least once every year.

The plain costumes, the palette of russets and browns, the hay fork held by Zélie and the tradition of oral storytelling which lends the painting its narrative, all stress the artist's rural origins. While these were to provide the basis for many of Courbet's most ground-breaking compositions, such as After Dinner at Ornans and those mentioned above, all of which elevated their humble subject matter to a monumental scale previously reserved only for history painting, the values which underpin this work were clearly heartfelt; indeed the starker realism of his larger canvases is here softened by an almost bucolic undertone which hints at the artist's affection towards his subject matter. It is perhaps no coincidence that Courbet was to maintain possession of this painting until almost the end of his life, selling it only in 1874 when in need of funds after his exile to Switzerland.

Various commentators have pointed out similarities to the work of the German artist Hans Thoma, and the possible influence of German rural imagery; indeed the figure of Zélie is derived from a sketch Courbet made in Germany on his return from Holland in 1846, which shows a young girl with plaited hair and a similar bodice. However, the domestic setting, earthy tones and sense of simple material contentment more strongly recall Dutch Golden Age painting, in particular the work of artists such as Peter de Hooch, which had so strongly impressed Courbet in Amsterdam (fig. 3). Pictures in this genre thus linked Courbet's own roots to a tradition already established by the Old Masters, and were made even more immediately familiar to their audience by the contemporary rural setting, which Courbet was to so forcefully emphasize. As remarked Courbet's friend, the radical republican Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: 'Courbet is the very much the painter of the Ornans landscape and of the Flagey peasantry. That's what makes his strength. It's also what makes him the merciless critic of his time and of Parisian morals'.

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