Art: Courbet in Cincinnati

A Frenchman's journey to the Cincinnati Art Museum


Gustave Courbet's "Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland," has been part of the Cincinnati Art Museum's collection since 1887.

It's a small painting, and not a famous one, but Gustave Courbet's "Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland," is something of a conquering hero at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

It's on display in a gallery with prestigious Impressionist art next to a Monet seascape, and back from being on loan to a major 2006-2007 traveling exhibit, Courbet and the Modern Landscape, that brought it to the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts and Baltimore's Walters Art Museum.

During that time, its fascinating history emerged as the first painting by Courbet, the masterful and daring 19th-century French realist, to be acquired by an American museum. It entered Cincinnati Art Museum's collection back in 1887, a gift from a liberal Ohio governor and judge, George Hoadly, who sympathized with Courbet's radical politics.

"I find the part about Hoadly's history fascinating," says Betsy Wieseman, who was curator of European painting and sculpture at Cincinnati Art Museum when this painting was loaned to the exhibit. She now is curator of Dutch painting at London's National Gallery.

Truth be told, "Sunset, Vevey" struggled for attention among the 45 paintings in Courbet and the Modern Landscape show, which I saw in Los Angeles. It depicts a shoreline — jagged rocks, calm water and sky tinged with the melancholy red of low clouds. Larger landscapes in that exhibit more dramatically contrasted the darkness and light, the lushness and barrenness, of nature. But few had as interesting a background.

The show, curated by the Getty, offered landscapes done between the years 1855 and 1877. The artist, who lived from 1819-1877, is far better known for his scenes of everyday French life and his frank portrayals of nudes. (He is not generally considered an Impressionist.)

The artist hated the academic painting of his day, which often told allegorical stories with religious or mythological figures. He refused to paint an angel, he once said, because he had never seen one. And to him the palette knife was just like a brush, a way to apply oil paint to a canvas. Today that technique is common, but in Courbet's time, it was a breakthrough. It made him a modernist. And a confirmed rebel — artistically and politically.

In 1873, Courbet fled to Switzerland after the collapse of the radical/revolutionary Paris Commune, which he supported. Paris had first held out against the Prussians after Emperor Louis Napoleon III's government fell during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

It then rebelled against Adolphe Thiers' French government, which had signed an armistice ending the war. When the Thiers' government restored order in Paris, it found Courbet responsible for encouraging the destruction of a column at Place Vendome honoring Napoleon Bonaparte and his legacy of imperial power.

Forced into exile, Courbet battled depression and poverty in Switzerland during his final years. But he had an admirer in Cincinnati — Hoadly, a respected lawyer who had joined the firm of future U.S. senator and governor Salmon P. Chase in 1846.

From 1851 to 1866, he held positions as a Cincinnati Superior Court judge and city solicitor before starting his own firm. A Democrat who had become a Republican because he opposed slavery, Hoadly switched back in the 1870s and was elected governor in 1884-1886.

In 1873, while a Cincinnati lawyer, he commissioned Moncure Daniel Conway — a controversial abolitionist and writer living in England at the time — to buy a work from Courbet. Hoadly kept the painting while he was governor, a troubled tenure in which he was criticized for his reluctance to use the state militia to put down a Cincinnati rebellion that resulted in the burning of the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Shortly after completing his term, he donated "Sunrise, Vevey" to the Cincinnati Art Musuem. The museum has a letter from him to A.T. Goshorn of the Cincinnati Museum Association, dated Jan. 15, 1887, which reads in part:

"I sympathized very strongly (and still do) with two acts of Mr. Courbet's political life: first, his destruction of the Column Vendome, which I regarded as an emblem of the subjugation of France to imperialism; and secondly his attempted protection during the Commune of the residence, and valuable objects it contained, belonging to M. Thiers. With this feeling I ordered the picture."

Hoadly went on in his letter to describe the painting as "impressionist" — Courbet is rarely if ever considered one by art historians — and to warn Goshorn that he might not like it. "Indeed works of the impressionist school are not likely to give much pleasure," he wrote.

"Sunset, Vevey" was not the first Courbet to be seen in a U.S. museum — Boston's Museum of Fine Arts had displayed one earlier. But it shows how much of a commitment purchasing one was, given the artist's outspoken political nature.

Cincinnati has three Courbets in its collection, including "The Forest in Winter," which also was loaned for the exhibit. It had displayed "Sunset, Vevey" among its French paintings of the Barbizon school, which favored naturalistic outdoor settings and peasants and farmers at work. But about two years ago, Wieseman moved it to the Impressionist works.

"It looks more natural next to Monet, Renoir, Sisley," she says. "I see why Hoadly said it was an Impressionistic painting."

Benedict Leca, the art museum's new curator of European painting and sculpture, says he has no plans to move it, even if it isn't technically an Impressionist work.

"Thematically, it works well right next to that Monet," he says. ©

Scroll to read more Visual Arts articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.