Master's touch changed the look of landscapes

In the 19th century, Gustave Courbet got physical with paint, giving his canvases a textured, tactile quality

Art Review

October 15, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In a primeval landscape of gnarled trees and weathered rocks, a bubbling brook swirls and eddies under tumultuous skies filled with black storm clouds and billowing white cirrus clouds.

The rocks in the foreground, rendered in heavily impastoed paint slathered on with the edge of a palette knife, have a three-dimensional solidity that is all the more vivid for the obvious imprint of the artist's hand.

The Gust of Wind by Gustave Courbet was painted in 1865, when the artist was at the height of his popularity, even though his muscular brushstrokes and flamboyant use of palette knives, rags and even fingers to put pigment to canvas violated everything the French art establishment considered sacred.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in Sunday's A&E Today section about the exhibition Courbet and the Modern Landscape at the Walters Art Museum, the name of the curator for 18th- and 19th-century art was misspelled. She is Eik Kahng.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Now Courbet's revolutionary landscapes are the subject of an amazing and beautiful show at the Walters Art Museum, where the magnificence of the artist's vision is complemented by a magical exhibition design.

Courbet and the Modern Landscape presents some 40 of the artist's finest masterpieces, and it makes a convincing case that Courbet was one of the great painters of all time, as well as a pivotal figure in the 19th century's long march toward modernism.

The exhibition design, conceived by Eik Khang, Walters curator for 18th- and 19th-century art, and lighting designer Paul Deeb, incorporates an ingenious lighting system that subtly varies the intensity of the illumination on the paintings. Snippets of piped-in music composed by students at Peabody Conservatory add a subliminal acoustic backdrop to the artworks' varying moods.

"The lighting in the exhibition simulates the changing intensity of natural light over the course of a day," says Khang, "so the appearance of the paintings constantly changes in mood and atmosphere with the shifting illumination."

Defiant, controversial

Courbet, notes the catalog that accompanies the show, made his reputation in the 1850s by painting what to his contemporaries seemed shockingly realistic depictions of everyday life, such as his gigantic canvas Burial at Ornans. The subject is a country funeral attended by provincial clergy and relatives of the deceased, whom the artist rendered on a monumental scale previously reserved for titled royalty or mythological deities.

In 1855, Courbet defied the conservatives again when he mounted a private, one-man show outside the Universal Exposition in Paris, where he displayed 40 paintings that had been rejected by the official French Academy.

The centerpiece of that show was another huge canvas, The Studio of the Painter: A Real Allegory of Seven Years of My Artistic Life. It portrayed the artist at work surrounded by literary and artistic types, while a nude model and a small boy regard the work-in-progress on his easel.

It was significant that the painting on Courbet's easel in Studio of the Painter was a landscape of his beloved Franche-Comte, the mountainous area near the French border with Switzerland where the artist was born and to which he continually returned for inspiration.

Courbet's landscapes of his native region often centered on the area's craggy rock formations and dense forests, subjects that dramatized his defiant public persona as an outsider to the conventions of academic orthodoxy. (The artist once boasted "when I am no longer controversial, I will no longer be important.")

Deft with the knife

By the 1860s, Courbet's notoriety had made his landscapes attractive to collectors, who snapped them up as fast as he could paint them.

Curator Khang notes that Courbet employed an unusual technique that involved underpainting his canvases with black or other dark pigments that showed through the lighter tones on top when he scraped them away with his palette knife.

"Courbet had a unique way of applying paint that distinguished him from everyone else," Khang says, adding that in a Courbet landscape the artist's touch is always clearly visible, and that the effect invariably makes whatever he depicts seem more rather than less real.

"In addition to the brush, he used the palette knife more freely than anyone before him, also rags and even his fingers, so that some parts of the paintings seem almost completely abstract, even though it's still a representational scene," Khang observes.

The genius of the Walters show is to have contrived a setting that, for the most part, lets these masterpieces speak for themselves. Aside from a few compact text panels at the entrance that convey the basic biographical details of Courbet's life and its historical context, the show contents itself with a simple arrangement of the works by season - spring, autumn, winter and summer - and the uncannily atmospheric musical strains that mirror the mood of each gallery. (For those who wish, the museum also provides a 16-page illustrated gallery guide.)

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