revolutionary dreams - landscape fakes, by jessica hoare

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We present four essays, giving a fresh look at the Museum's collection of pre-Impressionist French paintings, researched and interpreted by postgraduate students from the University of Bristol.


  • Landscape Fakes by Jessica Hoare

    Due to his involvement with the failed civilian uprising of 1871, known as the Paris

    Commune of 1871, Gustave Courbet was arrested and imprisoned. Following his

    arrest and subsequent exile to Switzerland, his work remained popular but was

    boycotted by the French State until his death in 1877. The artist Jean-Louis Ernest

    Meissonier, in his role as a judge for the 1872 Salon, announced that Courbet must

    be excluded from the Salons, henceforth; he must be dead to us.1 However the

    controversy did not hamper Courbets ability to sell on the private market. Despite

    Courbets inability to sell at the Salon, the popularity of landscapes with the clients of

    private dealers led to his increasing dependence on the genre after 1873.

    1 Avis Berman, Larger than Life, Smithsonian Magazine (2008) [accessed 14th January 2012]

  • Unable to keep up with demand for his work and meet debts imposed by the State

    he turned to collaborators.2 His exile to Switzerland had followed in 1875 when the

    newly established Republican government charged Courbet with the cost of

    rebuilding the Vendme column. Unable to meet these costs Courbet fled. In

    Switzerland he was joined by Cherubino Pata, who by this time had been assisting

    Courbet with the production of his works for several years.

    While in Switzerland his escalating alcohol problem, failing health and looming debts

    called for several assistants who learnt to produce works, which he only needed to

    tweak and sign. Resultantly Courbets late paintings are plagued by issues of

    attribution and Amgueddfa Cymrus The Mill at Orbe is no exception. There are

    several factors that exacerbate attribution further. First, it is difficult to establish a

    sense of stylistic evolution as he erratically changed how he painted.

    2 Anik Morrow, Gustave Courbet: Materials, Techniques and the Problems with The Attribution of a Painting Entitled "The Mill" (Unpublished doctoral thesis, Harvard University, 1989). p. 4.

    Gustave Courbet, The Mill at Orbe, 1875, oil on canvas, 49.6 x 60cm, purchased with funds from the James Pyke Thompson bequest, 1912 (NMW A 2446)

  • These changes are so pronounced that there is almost a sense that he painted

    differently depending on his mood, health and, arguably, sobriety. As his health

    declined, Pata took over the studio supervising copyists and arranged sales. Pata

    also continued to produce pseudo Courbets. Two particular weaknesses in Patas

    painting style have been identified in contrast with Courbets own work and these are

    his muddied grey tones and heavy-handedness in application.3 These two issues are

    certainly present in the museums painting and support the doubts over the paintings


    The Mill at Orbe requires further study before we are able to make further

    judgements on its attribution. Courbet was certainly not alone in his deceit. There is

    a joke within the art history community that illustrates the issue, it says that: of the

    1500 paintings by Courbet, 3000 are in the United States. It is not uncommon to find

    the jokes figures altered with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corots name inserted instead.

    Manner of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, A Lake at Sunset, oil on canvas, 22.6 x 34.9cm, bequeathed by Gwendoline Davies, 1951 (NMW A 3494) 3 Morrow, p. 6.

  • The Lake at Sunset , in the museums collection, was previously thought to be by

    Corot but has been confirmed a fake. As with Courbet, it appears that Corot may

    have collaborated in this deception to a certain degree. As acts of charity he would

    sign works for artists that needed to make a quick sale.4 Our attitude to fakes and

    forgeries is particularly interesting and reveals how we as a society define value and

    creative genius. Despite the fact that these issues appear to be less of a concern for

    some of the artists who colluded in the process and these works still serve to deepen

    our understanding of the situation and temperaments of particular artists.

    4 Gary Tinterow and others, Corot (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996) p. 389.