Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Property from a European Museum
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

La cascade

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
La cascade
signed 'G. Courbet.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
31 ¾ x 25 ½ in. (80.6 x 64.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1874.
Henri Hecht (1840-1891), Paris.
His sale; Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 8 June 1891, lot 9.
(possibly) M. Guerin de Letteau.
Acquired by the present owner, 1949.
A. Estignard, Courbet, sa vie, ses œuvres, Besançon, 1896, p. 172, as Paysage avec cascade.
R. Fernier, La vie et l'œuvre de Gustave Courbet, catalogue raisonné, Paris and Lausanne, 1977-1978, vol. II, pp. 208-209, no. 976, illustrated.

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Lot Essay

Although perhaps best-known and most notorious for his enormous, public figural paintings, Gustave Courbet was throughout his long career first and foremost a landscape painter. In the preface to the catalogue for the posthumous Courbet exhibition held at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1882, Jules 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 the artist’s oeuvre are landscapes. Courbet’s intimate knowledge of the landscape in and around his native Ornans in the Franche Compté came from his meanderings through the forest and streams and 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!’
Painted in 1874, while the artist was in exile in Switzerland suffering from ill-health and melancholy, La cascade evokes the landscapes of earlier decades. Deep in debt and unwell, Courbet returned to many of the themes and motifs of his earlier works not only to generate much-needed income, but also to seek solace in a world now defined by uncertainty. The results were often some of the most beautiful and dynamic versions in the artist’s oeuvre.
Courbet had always fundamentally worked his landscapes from memory and in the studio, so it is not unusual that he would turn to the bedrock of his art in his exile. His best and most satisfying landscapes are always fictionalized renditions of real places, as it was always more important to Courbet to paint the visceral nature of the landscape rather than to capture it in minute detail. His landscapes are sensually perceived manifestations of his idea of the vitality and dynamism of the land itself and for him, this was achieved through the physical act of painting. His landscapes invite the viewer to ponder nature’s timeless power and grandeur through the lens of direct experience, distilled by the artist’s pictorial imagination.
In La cascade, Courbet explores the architecture of nature, reveling in the contrasts of the textures of the rocky outcroppings, stony cliffs, cascading waterfalls and gentle streams of his homeland. The landscape is cropped in such a way to draw the viewer into what is clearly a completely inaccessible natural domain.
Throughout his career, Courbet used brushes, knives, sometimes rags and even his fingers to recreate natural processes that had taken millennia to evolve. This juxtaposition of the use of a completely modern technique to celebrate the pace of glacial time is quintessential Courbet.

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