Contested Terrain: Gustave Courbet's Hunting Scenes
Tseng, Shao-Chien, The Art Bulletin
During his lifelong quest to develop a Realist aesthetic, Gustave Courbet elaborated on the Romantic legacy that emphasized artistic subjectivity and natural vision. With the goal of interpreting the manners and ideas of his time, he produced an oeuvre that reflected his critical understanding of and articulated historical problems in how humans perceived and treated animals. This is especially evident in his hunting scenes, chiefly painted between 1856 and 1869, which display a profound conflict between the desire to pursue and master wildlife and mourning for the prey's unnatural death. Courbet's multilayered series of hunting paintings, which defy the unity of coherent narrative, may be read as the artist's inscription in the charged historical moment of the revival of royal venery, middle-class enthusiasm for the hunt, and the rising animal protection movement of nineteenth-century France. His representations of the hunt elicited divergent reactions from his contemporaries, which signal the crisis and attempted reinvention of the tradition of this pictorial genre. In the face of an increasingly urbanized, industrial, and capitalistic society, Courbet sustained his artistic practice by drawing on the resilience and nurturing of nature, which provided him with vital sources of artistic inspiration, spiritual healing, rural bourgeois identity, physical exercise, dreams, and memory.1 Courbet saw in nature a rich and complex ensemble, encompassing the environment and its various organisms, humanity, and the instincts. His embrace of nature as a guiding principle of life is manifest in a letter to his writer friend Champfleury in 1863: "I take my convictions from nature, and for me the totality of men and things is nature."2 Courbet's conception of nature epitomizes a fundamental desire for the fullness of existence; it is not opposed to culture or history as otherness but is rather interwoven with art and philosophy. Courbet's hunting scenes call attention to human-animal relations mediated by cultural values and embody his endeavors to resolve the contested identities of both modern artist and hunter.
While Courbet's landscape, hunting, and animal paintings were often admired for their innovative techniques and virtuoso facture and effects, the artist's erstwhile defenders Théophile Thoré and Francis Wey,3 as well as modern scholars Linda Nochlin, T. J. Clark, and Anne Wagner considered them to be devoid of sociopolitical significance, little more than conciliatory gestures to the market.4 The consensus has, however, changed in recent decades, and Courbet's landscapes are now investigated in social, geologic, and phenomenological terms and linked to the impact of Jean Jacques Rousseau's work of educational philosophy, Émile.5 Although Courbet's hunting imagery has garnered scant scholarly attention, the empathy and respect for the hunted animals portrayed have been duly noted. Klaus Herding read these qualities as a metaphor for political persecution, and James Rubin construed them as a call for ethical responsibility toward nature.6 In a more extensive article, Kerstin Thomas argued that Courbet's hunting scenes are expressive of his persona as a provincial savage and his adoption of the French venery tradition.7 Such observations are largely based on the artist's biography, rather than Courbet's hunting images, whose historical, psychological, and aesthetic complexities merit further study, for a number of questions remain to be explored. There is the apparent discrepancy between words and visual representations: What accounts for the gap between the innovative paintings and the conventional venery terminology of their tides? Is there a dynamic interplay or even a productive dissonance to be found between Courbet's letters, notes, and paintings? What manner of debate over hunting and animal issues informed Courbet's reconceptualization of the traditional genre? What role did hunting play in defining notions of masculinity, and how did Courbet's work negotiate with the norm? …