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)
Due to his involvement with the failed civilian uprising of 1871, more commonly known as the Paris Commune, the painter 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 Yet the controversy did not hamper Courbet’s ability to sell on the private market. Despite Courbet’s 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. Unable to keep up with demand for his work he turned to collaborators.
In 1875 the newly established Republican government charged Courbet with the cost of rebuilding the Vendôme column. Unable to meet these costs Courbet fled to Switzerland. He was joined by Cherubino Pata, who by this time had been assisting Courbet with the production of his works for several years. In exile his escalating alcohol problem, failing health, and looming debts meant it became necessary for several assistants to produce works in the artist’s style. Courbet would then only need to tweak and sign the paintings. As a result, Courbet’s late paintings are plagued by issues of attribution and The Mill at Orbe, in the collection at Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, is no exception.
Several other factors exacerbate attribution of Courbet’s late works. It is difficult to establish a sense of stylistic evolution as he erratically changed how he painted. These changes are so pronounced that there is almost a sense that he painted differently depending on his mood, health, and sobriety. As his health declined, Pata took over the studio supervising copyists and arranging sales. Pata also continued to produce forgeries. In contrast with Courbet’s own work, two particular weaknesses in Pata’s painting style have been identified; these are his muddied grey tones and heavy-handed application of paint. These two issues are certainly present in The Mill at Orbe and this support the doubts over the painting’s authenticity. Yet the painting requires further study before one can pass a conclusive judgement 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 goes something like this: ‘Of the 1500 paintings by Courbet, 3000 are in the United States’. Not exactly side-splitting, I know. But it’s important to have a little perspective when it comes to art historical humour… I’ll stop now. It is not uncommon to find the joke’s figures altered and Jean-Baptiste-Camille. As with Courbet, it appears that Corot knowingly put his name to the work of others. He is know to have signed the works of financially desperate artists – an act of charity that ensured them a quick sale.²
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)
In spite of their authorship these works still serve to deepen our understanding of their social and political situation. Furthermore, our attitude to fakes and forgeries today is particularly interesting and reveals how we as a society have continued to define and value 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.
¹ Avis Berman, ‘Larger than Life’, Smithsonian Magazine (2008) <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/larger-than-life.html?c=y&page=3>
² Gary Tinterow and others, Corot (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996), p. 389.