Gustave Courbet: Le Château de Chillon
Lord Byron retells the lament of François Bonnivard, the legendary Prisoner of Chillon (1819), who was incarcerated in the dungeons of the medieval fortress from 1532 to 1536. The notorious harshness of Bonnivard’s punishment gains greater absurdity when the splendours of the castle’s natural setting are considered, and the visitor cannot but ponder upon the strange nature of the human kind. Such extremes certainly entertained the great Romantic imaginations of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rousseau (La nouvelle Heloise, 1761), Shelley (1816), Alexandre Dumas (1832) and Victor Hugo (1839) sourced their prose and poetry from the castle’s idyllic surroundings and terrible history. Artists were equally mesmerised by Chillon and Turner (1802), Delacroix (Prisonnier de Chillon, 1835) and Courbet are the most distinguished painters to have made significant contributions to the visual heritage of the castle and its history.
As a landmark of the Romantic Spirit, Chillon was to attract Gustave Courbet towards the end of his life. Fleeing a court case in France against the partisans of the Paris Commune - with whom he was accused of calling for the pulling down of the Vendôme Column, Courbet settled in the small town of la-Tour-de-Peilz, on the shores of Lake Geneva, between Vevey and Montreux. He stayed there until his death, on 31 December 1877.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, Chillon had become an important station on the Grand Tour passage from Switzerland and into Italy. The familiarity of Chillon with Courbet’s contemporaries would have been an important element in the artist’s choice of subject. With precarious finances to manage, Courbet must have felt inclined to depict variations on this popular theme. The provenance of the present view of the Chateau de Chillon appears to confirm this suggestion as Jules Budry, the painting’s first owner and keeper of the town’s Café du Centre, was someone with whom Courbet had a set table arrangement. It would appear that, at the artist’s death, outstanding debts from his meals at the Café were cancelled in exchange for certain paintings. These would have originated from the artist’s studio, where his close collaborator, Cherubino Pata (1827-1899), dealt with posthumous completions.
Courbet’s view of the Chateau de Chillon presents the castle at its most dramatic vantage point, entering the calm waters of Lake Geneva from the very end of a rocky promontory. The solid structure appears at once to float upon the water surface and to dominate the surrounding environs. The overall stillness conveyed in this particular work by the elements of stone/matter, water and air contribute to a vision of space and history transcending all times. [Bonhams]