Gustave Courbet’s (1819-1877) detailed painting of a fox devouring a rat in a wintry landscape was exhibited in the official French Salon of 1861. This unsentimental image of nature is a strong example of Courbet’s realism and relates to larger paintings by Courbet that focused on the subject of game and hunting. Courbet himself was an avid hunter, and the accuracy of the scene likely derives from his own experiences in the rugged countryside of his native village of Ornans in the east of France.
The central subject is a fox devouring its prey. Courbet used a brush and palette knife to build texture on the canvas and execute the dark, sleek coat of the fox in stark contrast against the crispness of the snowy environment. Specks of red blood from the rodent provide added tension between the work’s light and dark and saturated and muted colors.
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Gustave Courbet was born to a well-to-do farming family in the village of Ornans in the east of France. This was a setting that he returned to often, painting his family and his native landscape many times. Courbet went to Paris at the age of twenty to study art and quickly developed a personal style with bold brushwork and dramatic lighting. His audacious style and politically ambiguous subject matter established his reputation as a rebel by his early thirties.
Considered the father of French realism, Courbet created uproar among French academicians in the 1850s when he submitted two paintings, The Stone Breakers and A Burial at Ornans, to Paris Salon, which was a government-sponsored exhibition. Both of these works, which depicted Courbet’s native village of Ornans, were revolutionary in style and subject matter. Courbet challenged the painting traditions supported by the French Academy and Salons by featuring such mundane scenes of daily life on large-scale canvases typically reserved for works with a historical or religious subject.
In 1870, Courbet was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government, which he refused to accept as an assertion of his independence from any government authority. However, he did play an active role in political issues throughout his life and was eventually arrested and sentenced to six-months in jail for his actions. In 1873, with the establishment of a new government, Courbet went into voluntary exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877.
Realism calls for an objective and truthful depiction of contemporary life. The art movement emerged after the Revolution of 1848 that overturned the French monarchy. Just as the French population called for democratic reform, the Realists democratized the subject matter of works of art by rejecting idealized classicism and exotic romanticism for the portrayal of modern subjects observed in the every-day. A large portion of this imagery presented on grand scale canvases came from the lives of the working class. Courbet, known as the father of realism, said that “painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things.”
Courbet was self-proclaimed as the “proudest and most arrogant man in France,” and continually aroused scandal at the Salons with his advocacy of realism. Courbet embraced contemporary subjects and attempted to infuse a sense of realism in all of his work, including rarely captured scenes of contemporary life, hunting, and landscape, along with more traditional genres such as society portraiture. Critics denounced his works featuring rural Ornans as “ugly” attempts to depict “peasants in their Sunday best.” Elevating the rural, middle-class to the subject matter of expansive Salon paintings challenged class boundaries and upset wealthy Parisian audiences, especially in the midst of class struggles and civil uprisings against the government.
When Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life was rejected for display at the 1855 World Fair, Courbet established an independent exhibition of his work and created his “Realist Manifesto” for circulation. Courbet was the first artist to create independent exhibitions that circumvented the censorship of state-sponsored venues. This act of rebellion set the stage for other artists that would follow him, such as the Impressionists in the 1870s.
Nature and Hunting Scenes
Courbet exhibited his first hunting scene, which earned both critical and popular praise at the Paris Salon of 1857. Courbet himself was an avid hunter and also took an interest in careful depiction of nature and landscape, particularly the topography of his native Ornans.
France changed dramatically during the nineteenth century. The century began with Napoleon I Bonaparte declaring himself emperor of the French and undergoing an official coronation in 1804. He would be exiled to Elba ten years later in 1814, and Louis XVIII would ascend the throne as the first constitutional monarch of France. Uprisings and revolutions such as the July Revolution in 1830 and the February Revolution in 1848 would lead to the establishment of a series of Republics.
Napoleon III and his city planner, Baron Haussmann would also undertake a huge reconstruction of the city, transforming small medieval streets easy to barricade into expansive boulevards. These would become the mixing grounds of various classes, and while the lower-classes would be relegated to the outskirts of the city, the petit bourgeoisie, or middle classes, would rise in status. Much of the interaction between classes would take place at public venues intended for leisure and the observation of spectacle, including cafes and dancehalls, which replaced private drawing rooms as gathering places. These spaces of public spectacle and mixing of classes would become the subject matter of many modern artists, such as Édouard Manet (1832-1883), the Impressionists, and the Post-Impressionists.
The French Academy of Art was established in 1648 as a place to provide instruction, visibility, and patronage to emerging artists. The academy emphasized a hierarchy of subject matter, with historical and religious subjects considered the most valued, followed by portraiture and still-life, and finally landscape. Due to lack of competition or other avenues of seeking notoriety and subsequent patronage, the Academy and Salons regulated public taste and controlled official patronage.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, artists such as Courbet were undermining the Academy and Salons through blatant disregard of traditional subject matter and independent exhibitions of their work. In 1863, the Salon of the Refused was established to exhibit works rejected by the Salon jury, and the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, who would later be termed the Impressionists, had the first of their eight independent exhibitions in 1874 at the former studio of the photographer Nadar. By the end of the nineteenth century, new or alternative Salons were increasing, while the importance of formal academies decreased.
1. What parts of this painting grab your attention? What choices has the artist made to create emphasis in the painting?
2. What visual clues has the artist given you regarding the weather conditions and season in Fox in the Snow? How would this painting be different if the season depicted was different?
3. Prior to the 1850s, artists typically portrayed landscapes and nature as idyllic and illustrated humans in harmony with their surroundings. This painting from 1860 falls into a new art movement that is called “Realism,” which is characterized by modern and every day subjects portrayed with detail and dignity. In what ways is this work an example of realism? What aspects of the painting, if any, don’t look real to you?
4. In this work animals struggle against the weather and one another. What does this painting communicate about the possible relationships between humans and their natural surroundings? Do you think this image can apply to society in general? Why or why not?
1. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, just one year prior to Courbet’s painting. Darwin’s treatise suggests that only the fittest survive. Read excerpts from Origin of Species and consider whether or not Fox in the Snow endorses Darwin’s ideas. What do you think? Then, discuss the extent to which survival of the fittest may or may not apply to our world. Create an art work which includes your reactions either to your natural or your man-made environment. You may wish to use collage materials cut from magazines or photographs. You may wish to combine both the natural and the technological in your works. Remember that your work should suggest your personal feelings.
2. Compare Fox in the Snow with Jean Joseph Claude Vernet’s Landscape with Approaching Storm. Consider how both of these works depict nature and humans’ or animals’ relationship to it.
3. Imagine you could enter into the world of Fox in the Snow as yourself or become one of the animals shown in the painting. Create a sensory poem that describes what you would see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. (Hint: Younger students can write short, individual sentences for each sense. i.e. I see…. I hear…. etc.)
Champa, Kermit Swiler. The Rise of Landscape Painting in France: Corot to Monet. Manchester, New Hamp.: Currier Gallery of Art, 1991.
Chu, Petra. Nineteenth-Century European Art, 3rd edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Chu, Petra. The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997.
Faunce, Sara. Gustave Courbet. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993.
Faunce, Sarah and Linda Nochlin. Courbet Reconsidered. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1988.
Gustave Courbet. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.
Lindsay, Jack. Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art. Bath, Adams and Dart; London, Distributed by Jupiter Books (London) Ltd., 1973.
Books for Students:
Cimabue, Andrea. Vaughan, William. Encyclopedia of Artists. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Gunderson, Jessica. Realism (Movements in Art). Creative Education, 2008.
Welton, Jude. Eyewitness: Impressionism. DK Children, 2000.
Visit this website for an overview of the exhibition Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! at the Clark Art Institute.
This website provides biographical information about Gustave Courbet.
Read an overview of Impressionism.
This website provides an overview of realism in 19th century France.
This website provides information about the French Salon and Royal Academy