Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne
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Gustave Courbet
French, Franche-Comté region, about 1864
Oil on canvas
19 11/16 x 23 5/8 in.

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To create a living art, that is my aim.
--Gustave Courbet

Through a dynamic composition and radical painting technique, Gustave Courbet emphasized the specific qualities of this primordial cave in his native region of the Jura Mountains in eastern France. Earthy hues and textures swirl around a tunnel-like entrance, drawing attention to the clear blue stream running through it. Two large boulders stand before the vortex, several feet from a wall hugged by delicate scaffolding. To mimic the cavern's craggy and colorful surfaces, Courbet used palette knives to apply and scrape off paint and brushes to mix drying paint in with wet.

Like many tourists and scientists of his day, Courbet was probably drawn to the grotto for its geological interest. In the mid-1860s, he frequently painted caves as a means to explore composition and technique freely, and to demonstrate his strong belief that artistic subjects should be rooted in one's lived experience. He saw the basis of Realism as "the denial of the ideal," the rejection of established classical subjects and a refined style. He chose instead, to paint only what he could see.