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Exhibition Opens in Los Angeles Before Traveling to Houston and Baltimore

November 29, 2005

LOS ANGELES—The Getty will launch the first major exhibition to address Gustave Courbet’s (French, 1819–1877) pivotal achievements in landscape painting, which influenced generations of artists. Courbet and the Modern Landscape, at the Getty Center, February 21–May 14, 2006 will bring fresh attention to this neglected aspect of the artist’s career and its important place in the history of modern painting. Courbet and the Modern Landscape is the Getty’s winter Premiere Presentation and one of the most important shows of the year.  The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (June 18–September 10, 2006) and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (October 15, 2006–January 7, 2007) following its Los Angeles debut.

Courbet and the Modern Landscape gathers a carefully selected group of 45 landscapes dating from 1855 to 1877, including an important new acquisition from the Getty's collection and paintings from major international public and private collections. Most are from the 1860s, when Courbet was inspired by the countryside of his hometown of Ornans in southeastern France and the shores of the Normandy coast.  Many of these paintings have never been on view in the United States, and most have not been seen together.  As such, this exhibition presents a rare opportunity to explore the powerful thread of modernism that runs though Courbet’s landscapes in the unusual compositions and innovative techniques used.

At the Getty Center, the exhibition will include a selection of 19th-century French photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection that resonate with Courbet’s work and attest to the role that the new medium played in shaping his modern landscapes.  In addition, objects from the special collections of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute—including various cartoons lampooning Courbet’s maverick reputation in the art world—will provide added context in the exhibition.

One of the most notorious avant-garde figures in European art, Courbet defied convention and reset the course of French landscape painting.  He experimented with dramatic compositions, including close-ups and cropping techniques that may have been inspired by contemporary photography. He also focused on contrasting effects of light and shadow, moving towards abstraction. Courbet transformed traditional oil painting with his innovative use of tools, especially palette knives, and also rags, sponges, and even his fingers. These new approaches laid the groundwork for a vital strain of modernist painting. Despite their enormous significance, Courbet’s landscapes have received little sustained attention and he is remembered today more for his monumental figurative works and his dominance of the Realist movement.

Courbet’s landscapes celebrate the geography of France.  His paintings mine a variety of natural motifs, including cliffs and valleys, forests and streams, rocks and grottoes, snowscapes, and seascapes.  Among the highlights of the exhibition is Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne (1864), a recent acquisition in the Getty’s collection. The painting displays an intense interest in the rock surface in a severely cropped, decidedly modern composition. Another highlight is the epic painting The Gust of Wind (about 1865), on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a vivid example of Courbet’s technical brilliance in its combination of contrasting textures: small delicate brushstrokes in the background, boldly worked paint applied with a knife and brush in the foreground, oily drags of a soft brush at the right, and subtle brown stipple marks at left.

Courbet and the Modern Landscape provides the first opportunity to examine Courbet’s serial treatment of one of his best-known and best-selling motifs—a spot near his native Ornans called the Puits Noir (black well). Beginning with The Stream (1855), on loan from the National Gallery, Washington, and followed by other paintings of the site produced over a decade, visitors will see Courbet’s treatment becoming increasingly abstract.  He gradually eliminates detail and conveys space by building up and scraping off layers of dark and light paint.

Another popular motif for Courbet was the sea, which he painted  repeatedly throughout the 1860s.  This large body of work is divided into two groups: marine painting and waves.  These seascapes resonate with the work of his contemporary, the pioneering photographer Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820–1884), whose works are included in this exhibition and were very likely a source of inspiration for the painter.

Courbet spent the last years of his life—in the early 1870s—in exile in Switzerland because of his role in the Paris Commune unrest.  Cut off from his family and friends, and weakened by alcohol and disease, he produced a number of accomplished landscapes with a haunting, melancholic tone. The exhibition includes Le Château de Chillon (1874), on loan from the Musée Courbet, France, depicting a picturesque medieval castle that was a symbol of isolation and imprisonment.  It was among the last paintings he made before his death.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, Courbet and the Modern Landscape by Mary Morton and Charlotte Eyerman,  curators in the department of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum; and Dominique de Font-Réaulx, curator at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. (Getty Publications; cloth: $45; available in the Getty Museum Store, by calling 800-223-3431 or 310-440-7059, or online at

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Miranda Carroll
Getty Communications Department


Thea M. Page

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