Friday, March 18, 2016

The White Calf (1873)

Gustave Courbet: The White Calf

Painted in 1873, Le Veau blanc is one of the last paintings that Gustave Courbet created in his much-loved Ornans as he prepared to flee across the border into Switzerland in self-imposed exile. The distant limestone cliffs, the trickling stream at which the bull pauses, and the lush, olive-tinged foliage of the rising hillside all refer to the mountainous Jura region that Courbet had celebrated in so many paintings over thirty years. Courbet had always deeply entwined his own life in his art and it is quite probable that in Le Veau Blanc he wished to recreate something of his younger self in this powerful bull calf, holding its ground so forcefully, locking the viewer in its knowing gaze.

Le Veau blanc has frequently been compared to the most famous old master animal picture, Paulus Potter's life-size Young Bull, painted in 1647 and carried off to Paris by Napoléon's conquering armies in 1795. "Potter's Bull" was frequently reproduced during the nineteenth-century and the painting was consistently upheld as the measure of animal realism by numerous critics appraising pictures of Courbet's most prominent animalier rivals, Rosa Bonheur and Constant Troyon. Courbet had frequently painted animals as important elements of larger compositions, whether the hunt scenes for which he first won popular success during the 1850s, or more complex views of life in Ornans, such as Young Ladies of the Village. But the concentrated focus on the young bull in Le Veau blanc is unusual in Courbet's art, as is the animal's direct engagement with the viewer, suggested by animal's alert stance and steady gaze toward the center of the picture's audience. Le Veau blanc is the 1873 equivalent of Courbet's 1864 masterpiece, The Oak of Flagey, a painting in which Courbet wrapped his provincial origins and immense ambitions into a ground-breaking depiction of a massive tree. In the uproar of 1873, Courbet chose to identify with a young bull.

Courbet was quite proud of Le Veau blanc and attempted several times during his years in exile to enter the picture in international exhibitions in England and America. His compromised position made the effort futile and Le Veau blanc was not seen for the first time until the extraordinary posthumous celebration of Courbet's work mounted at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1882. A sumptuous photo album, recording every wall and screen display of that exhibition, provides important documentation for Le Veau blanc and demonstrates how easily this unexpected white bull holds his own among Courbet's most powerful portraits and figure compositions. [Sotheby’s]

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