UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate a realist image

Landscape with stagGustave Courbet1873   oil on canvas   65.5 x 81.6 cmArt Gallery NSW

Landscape with stag
Gustave Courbet
1873 oil on canvas 65.5 x 81.6 cm
Art Gallery NSW

For this annotation I have chosen Landscape with stag by Gustave Courbet, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Once again my desire to work from the actual painting drove my selection. The photos in this post were taken on my mobile phone and are particularly poor, so I strongly recommend the Gallery website version: or for even more detail on the google art project,

courbet_galleryviewI don’t entirely blame the equipment (phone) or the operator (me) for the bad photo. The gallery shot shows the Courbet in situ, one of a number of works squeezed in around the flamboyant Vive l’Empereur by Edouard Detaille (1891). My subject painting is the one to the left, above the heads of the people reading the signage for Vive l’Empereur. The Gallery is very short of space (plans for an expansion have been floated but money is yet to appear), and unfortunately in this instance the Courbet is left languishing, hung too high and too poorly lit to see properly (Vive l’Empereur literally taking the spotlight).

I’ve had great difficulty seeing this picture – not just the physical aspects mentioned above, but being able to focus on it and make sense of what I was looking at. It took me quite a while to even find the stag, the triangle of blue sky in the top right distracted me, and what was the source of that light behind the trees? It was closed in as if the side of a mountain, but filled with almost glaring light. I’ve viewed the painting multiple times over the past few weeks, sometimes a detour on trips with other purposes (Renaissance to Goya, the sarcophagus of Yu Hong, The defence of Rorke’s Drift), later as the primary focus. I’m enjoying it more and more as I go, but it still escapes me somehow. I’ve made up my own story…

courbet_01We are beside, almost standing in, a stream running through a forest. The waters froth as they pass over and around rocks that have tumbled in. Ahead and to the right a mountain rises. There was a rockslide not too long in the past – the source of the clearing on the steep slope behind the fringe of trees. The bared rock of the mountainside reflects light into the glade where the stream reflects the light again – it is a bright sunny day outside. The landslide was also the source of the rocks that have disrupted the flow of the stream. In the front left stands a stag that has come to drink the waters in a quiet side pool. Further back the forest closes in and the stream disappears into a shadow made even darker by the contrast of the reflecting light.

courbet_04My standard drawing of lines doesn’t yield much information. I was surprised that the very centre of the picture was actually one of the brightest areas. Adding a square and the rectangles left by squares put the stag (circled in purple) into its own nice area, but no other insights.

courbet_05Looking for lines was more interesting. The most obvious is related to the bright light bouncing around the scene. There’s also that (to me bothersome) triangle of blue sky. The scene is otherwise so enclosed, with so little depth and with a restricted palette that the distant blue seems very out of place. It took me longer to see and appreciate the fresh yellow-green of leaves catching sunlight directly rather than reflected from the mountainside. It’s quite mottled – I think it may have been sponged on – and makes a lovely irregular diagonal above and not quite parallel to the relatively harsher light. The colour is not so much reflected as repeated in other small areas around the picture. With all these brighter diagonals it’s rather nice to find the darker vertical rhythm of tree trunks proceeding in their subdued diagonal down across the painting. All this light and movement makes the source of the stream on the left even darker and more mysterious.

courbet_02This is a closeup of the stream at the bottom right of the picture. The colour is very broken up. There are patches with little lines running through which I think may be the result of using a palette knife. On the rock there it looks like the end of a brush may have been dragged through paint, creating line and texture. In areas the shadows of earlier colour show through – from what I’ve read this suggests the use of transparent glazes (not being a painter I’m not sure of my ground here). There are still solid shapes in the large rocks. There is a wide range of values and quite a mix of colour in the water. I think it is very effective in suggesting a fast-running mountain steam forming rapids over the rocks, with light reflected from the hillside and also filtering directly through the trees.

courbet_03Another closeup, this time up the bank of the stream near the centre of the picture, just above the large rock. Once again there is a jumble of broken-up colour and shape. I think I can see signs of the brush being used in different ways, scrubbing and stroking, perhaps sponge near the top. Some shapes are blurred and indistinct, but there is a certain angularity, a repetition of triangular forms, that can also be seen in other parts of the painting. In my interpretation of the picture there a little space behind the trees, closed off by the remains of the rockslide. I suppose it could be snow, but there is no sign of that elsewhere in the scene. I also think the colour is too warm for snow.

Landscape - solitude Richard Westall 1811 oil on canvas 102.6 x 127.9 cm

Landscape – solitude
Richard Westall
1811 oil on canvas 102.6 x 127.9 cm

The course notes ask whether the chosen painting has reference to other artistic traditions. Pondering this, I went wandering through the Gallery and came across this painting by Richard Westall (the Gallery’s image is at Note the triangle of blue top left and the stream running over rapids and around rocks, its source disappearing into darkness. On the left instead of a stag we have a bird (heron perhaps?), on the right trees going up a hillside.

Information from the Gallery signage: “The artist was brother to the William Westall who (on the recommendation of Benjamin West) was chosen to accompany Flinders on his voyage to Australia in 1801. Though Richard remained in England he brought a certain savagery to romantic visions of landscape such as this.”

westall_03This detail shows Westall’s handling of the cascading water. I rather like the patterning that is formed, but the whole approach is an extraordinary contrast to Courbet’s later work, although the colour range of the stream has a lot of similarities. The painting was hung high, so once again I had difficulties in seeing clearly, but I’m fairly sure the surface of the picture was very smooth and uniform. Texture and volume are created by areas of colour, not by physical layers and lumps of paint.

westall_02This closeup of the bottom left corner shows the detail provided by Westall (the fuzziness is in the photograph, not the painting). Separate leaves, flowers, and fronds of fern or bracken can be seen – quite possibly botanically correct, although the gothic branches and clutching roots of the trees look like an illustration to a ghost story.

I think this gives a wonderful indication of how far Courbet had moved from a Romantic style. The paintings are superficially similar in subject and composition, but seem much further apart than 62 years.

Going further back, it was interesting to return to my notes on the two Rembrandt’s I saw at NGV (see post 13-Sept-2013). In the earlier work, Two old men disputing (1628) (, individual brushstrokes could be seen as many small flecks creating light and texture and shape.

rembrandt_2372_handThe second work by Rembrandt was Portrait of a white-haired man (1667), see and my detail shot at the right. My notes back then included “so varied and fluid and uneven, none of that sense of painstaking precision”. In my eyes Courbet’s work has echoes of this textured, free painting. It was gratifying to find some support for this in a paper by David Bomford. He wrote of the ‘rough manner’ which developed in Spanish and Dutch painting, and mentions in particular the late works of Rembrandt. Rather than deliberately copying Rembrandt, Bomford suggests Courbet showed an “almost unconscious exercise of visual memory”, “absorbing a sort of mnemonic code of representation, to be rediscovered and reinvented in the extraordinary low-relief formations that were his landscape paintings” (Bomford, 2007, p.11). This went beyond the surface to the dark prepared surface lying under the painting.

Courbet himself both acknowledged his study and debt to earlier artists and claimed his own independence. “I have studied … the art of the ancients and the moderns. I have no more wished to imitate the one than to copy the other… I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent understanding of my own individuality” (Courbet, 1855).

Rather pleased with my earlier success finding the Westall picture, I went searching for a link forward, to works created after Courbet’s. I’d read of Courbet’s influence on Cézanne, but the only work in the Gallery’s collection is very solid and horizontal and open, much flatter in its brushwork, wider and brighter in its palette and in my eyes not a strong connection.

On the other hand, this painting by Georges Braque seems to me to have some relationship. Apologies this time for the speck of dust on the lens. The Gallery link is

Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Landscape with houses
Georges Braque
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

In one – many – senses the paintings are nothing alike. What caught my eye: the tree on a steep slope, an angularity and repetition of triangular forms, a sense of being closed in, the colour palette, the dark area coming into light.

The brushwork is quite different, more ordered, moving together to distinguish forms and create movement around the picture. One similarity would be that the individual marks are visible, and important in the overall effect of the painting.

The course notes ask to what extent the image combines “an imaginative grasp of [the age’s] paradoxical spasms of ‘heroism’ and its moral and spiritual desolation” (quoting Honour and Fleming p. 670 in reference to Baudelaire). How can I know of that age’s spirit and valour? My research for Rorke’s Drift is just one example of the malleable nature of history, and it can all get a bit circular – I know of the age what I learn from the artifacts left from that age, and of course the histories and stories written since.

Schwartz suggests that at this late period in his life Courbet’s work was more reflective of his personal experiences than society as a whole – “his subject matter ultimately became the act of painting itself, an expressive emotionalism dictated by his own exacerbated psychology which had been brought about by circumstances of exile and political outrage” (Schwartz, 1998, p7). Far from an expression of society, “He revealed things as they were without cultural makeup” (Schwartz, 1998, p. 8).

In contrast, Fernier has written that Courbet was driven “back to nature in search of serenity. … From this point on, Courbet would depict deer and stag – innocent victims of man’s violence – in place of the peasant class and social outcasts” (Fernier, 1998, p. 16)

Perhaps these concepts of the individual or of society are not contradictory or opposing, but rather different aspects of a whole. In Rubin’s analysis “Realism, the translation of one’s own times, depends on freedom because it depends on bringing one’s own vision to the representation of experience” (Rubin, 1997, p.159). These ideas seem very modern to me. This relates as well to the question of Courbet’s place with regard to academic tradition. “Courbet had forever changed the role of art in society by insisting that its vision be rooted in reality and that its purpose be related to society” (Rubin, 1997, p. 164).


Bomford (2007) Rough Manners: Reflections on Courbet and Seventeenth-Century Painting. In papers from the Symposium Looking at the Landscapes: Courbet and Modernism Held at the J. Paul Getty Museum on March 18, 2006. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust [Online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

Courbet, G (1855) The Realist Manifesto Cited in Rubin, J (1997) Courbet. London: Phaidon pp. 157-158

Fernier, J (1998) “The Natures of Courbet”, in Courbet: Later Paintings, New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, LLC.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Rubin, J (1997) Courbet. London: Phaidon

Schwartz, C. (1998) “Courbet: The Late Years”, in Courbet: Later Paintings, New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, LLC.

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate a realist image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Annotate a realist image

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