'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 Courrier 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 afforded the artist to indulge in his passion for all the tactile qualities that paint itself could afford. Chevreuils dans la neige, with its heavily painted surface, is similar to the landscape Paysage avec un pêcheur in that the landscape itself is the subject of the painting and the deer, in the case of this painting and the fisherman in the case of the above-mentioned, are simply animating forces within the landscape.
Courbet's paysages de neige are regarded as among his most successful paintings. No artist painted snow with such 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 Chevreuils dans la neige, almost monochromatic. Courbet's use of the dark ground, learned from his examination of paintings by the Old Masters in the Louvre, heightens the effect of the bright snow carpeting the forest floor 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, even temperature solely through the use of paint.
Courbet was exiled to La Tour de Peilz in Switzerland in 1873 for his participation in the felling of the Vendôme Column, and he was never allowed back into France. Chevreuils dans la neige was painted at the end of his life, when the artist, alone and frustrated by his lawyers and dealers, turned for solace to the motifs of an earlier, happier time in his life.
This work has been authenticated by Sarah Faunce and will be included in her fourthcoming Courbet catalogue raisonnê.