Ribner on Galvez (2022)

Galvez, Paul. Courbet’s Landscapes: The Origins of Modern Painting. Yale UP, 2022, pp. 208, ISBN 978-0-300-24413-7

Comprising nearly two-thirds of his output, Courbet’s landscape paintings have received less scholarly attention than figural works dating from the half-decade leading up to the artist’s independent exhibition in the Pavilion of Realism on the occasion of the Exposition universelle of 1855­­a period bookended by two Musée d’Orsay colossi, Un Enterrement à Ornans (184950) and L’Atelier du peintre (1855). That body of work shows the artist at his most socially conscious, depicting provincial mores and emulating images d’Épinal, while offering apparently unvarnished encounters with material fact. Resonating with egalitarian and utopian aspirations stirred by the Revolution of 1848, that segment of his career has proven irresistible to social historians of art (e.g., Meyer Schapiro, Linda Nochlin, T.J. Clark, and James Rubin), as well as to code breakers (Hélène Toussaint and Klaus Herding) bent on penetrating the obscurity that paradoxically enshrouds portions of the oeuvre, despite Courbet’s profession (in the “Realist Manifesto” of 1855) that his aim is simply to “translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance” of his epoch according to his own estimation. In the thoughtful, articulate, and closely observed Courbet’s Landscapes: The Origins of Modern Painting, Paul Galvez expands the heroic years to include the 1860s. During that decade, near Bordeaux in the town of Saintes in the Saintonge region, in his native Franche-Comté bordering Switzerland, and on the shores of the Norman coast, Courbet produced paintings of forest, rock, river, and sea that are here claimed to have originary art-historical significance, boldly revisiting an artistic achievement monumentalized by Dominique de Font-Réaulx, Laurence des Cars, Gary Tinterow, and other contributors to the comprehensive Paris / New York Courbet retrospective (2008) and accompanying cataloguewhose heft is commensurate with the painter’s larger-than-life persona. In the New York edition of this catalogue,  Des Cars points out that “Courbet was first and foremost a landscape painter” (227), foretelling the focus of Courbet’s Landscapes.

Galvez’s argument rests on two aspects of the works in question. Through 1866, Courbet represented secluded forest sites as well as cavernous, limestone openings at the sources of the Franche-Comté rivers Lison and Loue. The author contends that these paintings manifest a preoccupation with origins evident in both style and content. Their densely stratified pigment can be appreciated solely with a slowness of observation redolent of the glacial pace of geological change and local history; and the emergence of rock and water from the blackness dominating the river source paintings suggests mysterious origins. Integral to this reading is the contention that Courbet equated the substance of paint with the natural substances he painted (i.e., they are “co-substantial”). These developments reach their apogee, according to Galvez, in views of the sea generated by trips to the Norman coast in 1865, 1866, and 1869. In those canvases, the watery substance of foaming waves is rendered with a startling muscularity evocative of the origin of life, itself. Building on the pioneering work of Petra ten-Doesschate Chu regarding the artist’s intellectual milieu, Galvez persuasively aligns his claims with an interest in origins shared by members of Courbet’s Franche-Comté circle, whether Max Buchon (fascinated by the linguistic origins of the regional patois); Charles Toubin, whose research into the historical origins of the French nation aimed to prove that Alesiasite of Vercingetorix’s defeat by Julius Caesar in 52 BCEwas located in Franche-Comté (rather than in Burgundy); or the distinguished geologist Jules Marcou, who investigated the Earth’s origins in deep time.

In accord with the uncommonly prolonged observation required of the viewer, individual works are described at the micro-level of mark making. Parsing application of pigment by palette knife, rag, sponge, and brush into three basic types“the dab; the scrape or smear; and the deposit” (80)Galvez enacts a visual counterpart to the explication de texte.  This attention to touch is refreshing. Demanding a slowness of reading comparable to the paintings’ labored (yet reportedly rapid) execution, this strategy presents the hazard of allowing the reader to lose the forest for the trees. And the jeweler’s-loupe focus on the 1860s leaves aside evidence that would lend support to the author’s argument. Identity between palpability of pigment and materiality of motif is already impressively manifest in, for example, Un Enterrement à Ornans. Perceptual oddities, such as those Galvez astutely discerns in Courbet’s forest views of the 1860s, also appear earlier, as in the diminutive cows in Les Demoiselles de village (185152), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), caricatured by a satirist as pull-toys on wheels. In both phases of Courbet’s career, transgressions of the logic of vision arise, paradoxically, from dogged loyalty to visual experience at its most literal, as well as from stubborn refusal to distinguish between major and minor compositional elements. What is new to the 1860s, as the book admirably demonstrates, is the greater boldness with which unity between the substance of paint and the stuff of the painted world is asserted through enhanced reliance on the palette knife and other implements besides the brush.

Early in the book, Galvez recounts fascinating episodes in which Courbet and Corot painted together en plein air in Saintonge during the summer of 1862. Though visual evidence alone cannot establish with certainty the extent to which Courbet worked directly before the motif, the landscapes and “sea landscapes” (the artist’s preferred term) of the 1860s combine an acuity of vision with a density of facture that, together, speak for work both outside and indoors. To its credit, Courbet’s Landscapes skillfully rescues those works from the margins of research and raises the question of whether they were consequential for the subsequent history of painting.

Jonathan P. Ribner
Boston University