Lac Léman avant la tempête was painted during Courbet's exile in Switzerland in 1873. The artist was never to return to France and he died at his home, Bon-Port, at La Tour-de-Peilz on the north shore of Lake Geneva in December of 1877.
During his exile, Courbet completed a considerable amount of accomplished work, the majority of which were landscapes. Courbet was very taken with the particular topography surrounding his home and in a letter to James McNeill Whistler he wrote, 'Let's turn to something else. I am here in a charming countryside - the most beautiful in the world - by Lake Geneva, which is surrounded by gigantic mountains. You would like the sky, for on one side is the lake and its horizon. It is better than Trouville because of the landscape' (Letter to James A. McNeill Whistler, 14 February 1877 in P. ten Doesschate Chu, ed., Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 602).
As in the landscapes of the earlier years, Courbet painted Lac Léman avant la tempête on a dark-colored ground upon which is laid multiple layers of lighter paint to create areas of shore, water and sky. The palette knife and the brush are both used to create surface textures that are unique to Courbet's work. The composition is grounded by the rocky mountain landscape that separates the shores of the lake from swirling clouds in the sky. The dark undertones of the ground imbue the entire scene with a sense of gravity and majesty. This painting, along with many produced during the years spent in exile, evokes the melancholy that pervaded the later years of the artist's life. Courbet's final years were spent removed from his family and friends, cut off from the vitality of Paris and in declining health. However, these landscapes are also the product of one of the most innovative painters of the time created with the fully developed and mature technique upon which Courbet's reputation was formed. With its masterful brushwork, carefully chosen palette and unique invocation of atmosphere, the present work represents the culmination of a long career of experimentation and innovation in landscape painting.
Jean-Jacques Fernier confirmed the authenticity of this painting in 1998. He will include the painting in his forthcoming supplement to the Courbet catalogue raisonné.
We are grateful to Sarah Faunce for confirming the authenticity of this painting.