Gustave Courbet’s Landscape Cleaned Up

Revealing the true beauty of a painting after almost 100 years can be easier than uncovering its history. Read about the Museum's landscape painting by French Realist Gustave Courbet revived through a recent cleaning and the corresponding provenance work.

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Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) is known for works of mammoth proportions, such as Un enterrement à Ornans (Burial at Ornans) at over ten feet by twenty feet, found today at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The Gardner Museum’s Courbet A View Across the River is a fraction of that size. Our conservators cleaned the painting in early 2022 and its brightened appearance ensures visitors can fully appreciate the landscape, despite its diminutive size. It holds its own amongst other masterpieces found in the Blue Room. Close examination of the canvas provided us with the opportunity to find out more about how it came into Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection and gain more clues on its provenance.

Heading: Courbet’s Hometown

Gustave Courbet is hailed as the leader of France’s Realism movement of the nineteenth century. But if you asked him, he would have told you he was the “proudest and most arrogant man in France.”¹ This art movement championed painting what you see in both subject and style in an attempt to capture what practitioners thought was an accurate and realistic depiction of contemporary life.² Courbet was born in Ornans, a small commune along the Loue river in eastern France, and today known as the “Little Venice of Franche-Comte.” The artist’s hometown was the subject or backdrop to many of his works, and that’s exactly what you’ll see with the Museum’s landscape. It was painted in about 1855 in Ornans.

An oil painting of a landscape with a bridge at the foreground and a pond at the center surrounded by foliage and hills in the background.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Alice Tully, 1993 (1995.537)

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819–1877), View of Ornans, probably mid-1850s. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (73 x 92.1 cm). Another example of one of Courbet’s landscapes featuring his hometown of Ornans.

Heading: Cleaning the Painting

A View Across the River shows two women side by side in the foreground standing among lush green foliage, admiring the view of the cliffs and the town across the chasm. There’s a clear blue sky that makes up the top half of the painting, its true color revealed to us after the 2022 cleaning—its first since 1930. According to the Museum’s Chief Paintings and Research Conservator Gianfranco Pocobene, the treatment focused on the removal of a badly yellowed natural resin varnish and old restorations with mild solvents. After some inpainting of minor abrasions with conservation grade pigments and revarnishing the entire painting with non-yellowing synthetic varnish, museum visitors can now appreciate the view along with the two figures in the painting.

An oil painting of a landscape with two women in the foreground looking out into the distance where there are hills and a cluster of small buildings. A before and after slider shows the impact of the painting’s recent restoration.
 An oil painting of a landscape with two women in the foreground looking out into the distance where there are hills and a cluster of small buildings.

Heading: The Painting’s Provenance

Cleaning the painting allowed Collections staff to look for clues on its provenance—the history of ownership. Once it was temporarily taken off the wall, we could closely examine the front and back of the painting and its frame. We didn’t find anything new on the back of the frame, but we were able to take higher quality photographs of details that included a label from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston when it was lent to the museum in 1880 for an exhibition. The new photography also included a detail of the artist’s signature found on the lower left in red paint.

Although we’ve always had a pretty good idea about how and when Isabella acquired the painting, what we lacked was a record of the purchase. It’s possible that the invoice might have been lost or misplaced. Isabella, likely through a proxy, purchased the painting at an auction in Paris at Hotel Drouot on 22 February 1877. Gustave Courbet’s catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive, scholarly listing of all known accepted work of an artist, notes the sale of the work under the title Rochers for 525 francs.³ We found two different copies of the sale catalogue, each annotated by different hands with the sale price of our painting and others. It’s not uncommon for an artwork, especially an old one, to have its name changed throughout its lifetime. The catalogue raisonné also lists a second alternate title of Payasage (Le château d’Ornans vu de la Roche-du-Mont).

Isabella acquired the painting early in her collecting, so it’s not out of the ordinary that there’s no record of the purchase. We know from photographs of her Brookline home known as Green Hill that Isabella displayed the painting there in 1905, two years after Fenway Court opened.

A black and white photograph of the corner of a room in Isabella’s Green Hill home, with a large mirror over a fireplace, several paintings hanging on the wall, and some chairs and a sofa against a wall.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (ARC.007402). Gustave Courbet’s landscape can be seen to the right of the window.

Thomas E. Marr and Son (American, about 1875–1954), Drawing Room at Green Hill, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1905. Gelatin silver print.

Isabella added and changed things in the museum even after it was opened in 1903. She sold Green Hill in 1919 and it may have been at that time that she installed Courbet’s A View Across the River in the Blue Room. The new research we conducted added to our understanding of the history of the painting, and these crumbs may lead us to finding out even more one day.

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¹ Kathryn CalleyGalitz, “Gustave Courbet (1819–1877),” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2009)

² Ross Finocchio. “Nineteenth-Century French Realism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004)

³ Robert Fernier. La Vie et L'Oeuvre de Gustave Courbet: Catalogue Raisonné (Paris, 1977), p. 108.

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