Lot 143
  • 143

Gustave Courbet

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  • Gustave Courbet
  • Le Veau Blanc
  • signed G. Courbet. and dated 73 (lower right)
  • oil on canvas
  • 35 by 45 3/4 in.
  • 88.9 by 116.2 cm


Artist's Studio; Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 28, 1882, lot 9
M. Bernheim (acquired at the above sale)
M. F*** Collection
Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 27, 1891, lot 17
M. and Mme Maurice Bunau-Varilla (by 1921 and sold: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 9-10, 1947, lot 12)
M. Léonardo Bénatov, Paris  (by 1954)
Mme. Léonardo Bénatov, Paris (by 1969)
Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above, November 1981


Geneva, Galerie Pia, 1875
London, Deschamps Gallery, 1876
Paris, École National des Beaux-Arts, Exposition des oeuvres de G. Courbet, 1882, no. 168
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Trente-deux Tableaux de Gustave Courbet, March-April, 1909, no. 28
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Exposition Gustave Courbet: (1819-1877), 1929, no. 179
Paris, Petit Palais, Gustave Courbet, May-June 1929, no. 67
Venice, XXVII Biennale di Venezia, 1954, no. 47
Lyon, Palais Saint Pierre, Gustave Courbet:, 1954, no. 52
Paris, Petit Palais, Gustave Courbet, January-February, 1955, no. 91
Berne, Kunstmuseum, Gustave Courbet, September 22-November 18, 1962, no. 74
Ornans, Hôtel de Ville, Gustave Courbet, July 10-September 17, 1962, no. 42
Berne, Kunstmuseum, Gustave Courbet, 1962, no. 74
Paris, Galerie Claude Aubry, Courbet dans les collections privées françaises, May 5-June 25, 1966, no. 33
Rome, Accademia di Francia, Villa Medici; MIlan, Palazzo Reale, Gustave Courbet,  1969, no. 41  


Paul Eudel, L'Hôtel Drouot en 1882, Paris, 1883, p. 419
Emile Gros-Kost, Courbet, souvenirs intimes, Paris, 1880, pp. 77-80
Alexandre Estignard, G. Courbet, sa vie et ses oeuvres, Besançon, 1896, pp. 168, 185
Gustave Geffroy, "Gustave Courbet," L'Art et les Artistes, vol. IV, 1906-1907, illustrated p. 262 (as Le Jeune Taureau)
Chales Léger, Courbet, Paris, 1929, pp. 179-180, note 1; 216-217
"Chronique des Ventes," Bullétin de la Société des Amis de Gustave Courbet, no. 2, 1947, pp. 20-21, illustrated
Charles Léger, Courbet et son temps, Paris, 1948, p. 148
Pierre Courthion, Courbet raconté par lui-même et par ses amis, Geneva, 1948, p. 285-286
Gerstle Mack, Gustave Courbet, New York, 1951, pp. 101, 311, 324
Marcel Zahar, "Ornans et Courbet," Bullétin de la Société des Amis de Gustave Courbet, no. 30, 1962, p. 3
Robert Fernier, Gustave Courbet,  Paris, 1969, p. 101, no. 93, illustrated
Jack Lindsay, Gustave Courbet, His Life and Art, London, 1973, p. 296, 366, note 41
Robert Fernier, La vie et l'oeuvre de Gustave Courbet: catalogue raisonné,  Paris, 1977, vol. II p. 172, no. 880, illustrated, color plate opp. p. 251
Courbet und Deutschland, exh. cat., Hamburg, Kunsthalle, 1978, p. 314 (cited in no. 296), 556 (cited under no. 474, illustrated p. 556, reproduced in photograph of Exposition des Oeuvres de G. Courbet, 1992
Pierre Courthion, L'opera completa di Courbet, Milan, 1985, p. 122, no. 871, illustrated
Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 524, 602, 605

Catalogue Note

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.

In 1873, Courbet was still struggling with governmental forces that wanted to hold the artist accountable at least symbolically for the destruction of a monument during the disastrous demise of the Paris Commune two years earlier -- a venal effort by a shaky political establishment to distract the public from the regime's own horrendous record.  During 1870-71, France (and Paris particularly) had been terribly rocked by the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, capped by the protracted siege of the French capital. Courbet had remained in Paris as the Second Empire regime collapsed and as most of the government fled. Perhaps naively but wholly in keeping with the self-image he had long promoted, Courbet took on the ill-defined role of "President of the Art Commission" within the administration that was cobbled together to protect the city.  When France ultimately surrendered and government forces tried to retake the capital, an angry rebellion against the incompetence of the ruling regime was put down in a horrifically bloody fight through the streets of Paris.  Several of Courbet's colleagues were summarily killed and he himself was imprisoned for six months.  Throughout 1872-73. after his released and now back in his native homeland, Courbet was beleaguered by lawsuits and demands that he personally pay for the reconstruction of the Vendôme Column, a political monument torn down in the Commune's last days.  Courbet's fury and righteous indignation are easily traced through his massive correspondence of the early 1870s, but the impact of his tribulations on his art is more difficult to parse.  Nonetheless, Courbet's unexpected return to animal painting during his Ornans respite in 1872-3, after more some seven or eight years devoted to portraits and increasingly abstract landscape art, clearly offers a key to his personal situation. 

Courbet's first biographyer, Émile Gros-Kost, writing just three years after the artist's death, tells a self-contradictory story that has clung to the discussion of Le Veau blanc, although its truthfulness is very suspect.  Gros-Kost describes Courbet spotting a ragged and muddy young bull in an Ornans farmyard and arranging to paint the animal.  When the bull was delivered to artist's studio, however, its owner had washed and groomed the animal within an inch of its life, even decorating it with ribbon rosettes, infuriating the artist who refused to paint it.  The best testatment to the apocryphal nature of Gros-Kost's anecdote is the simple existence of Le Veau Blanc; but a far more thoughtful biographer writing in the twentieth century, Gerstle Mack, has connected Gros-Kost's anecdote to the consistent effort by the conservative art establishment, throughout Courbet's lifetime, to damn the artist and to dismiss his revolutionary paintings by arguing that Courbet deliberately sought the sordidness and dirtiness of life. In fact, the beauty of Le Veau blanc, coexistent with the animal's massive power, is a strong argument for the complexity of Courbet's goals in the animal paintings woven throughout his career.

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 ( fig. 1).  "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 (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).  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 (Hachioji, Musée Murauchi), 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  (fig.2).

A second version of Le Veau blanc, similar in the figure of the animal but substituting a low hillside for the forested rise of Le Veau blanc was shown in the 1975 exhibition Courbet und Deutschland in Hamburg and is now in a private collection.  A study for the animal's head is recorded in a French collection early in the twentieth century but has never been further traced.     

This catalogue note was written by Alexandra Murphy.