In 2017, a Zurich industrialist of Jura origin bequeathed Canton of Jura (Switzerland) an unpublished painting by the famous French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). The canvas was unknown to specialists and did not appear in any catalogue raisonné. After a vast investigation, lead by a historian of art and literature, exhibition curator and a president of the Swiss Society for the Study of Gustave Courbet Mr.Niklaus Manuel Güdel, the bequeathed painting joined state collections of Jura (Switzerland). Unofficially titled Jura Landscape, the work aroused unexpected enthusiasm in the Jura region, raising geographic and historical questions. How did the work appear? When and how did it leave the artist's studio? Is the canvas authentic? The full history of the investigation, as well as a new introduction to the landscapes of Gustave Courbet in general, has been reflected in the book Une enquête sur le paysage. ArtLaw.club is honoured to have an opportunity to talk to the leading researcher of Jura Landscape, Mr.Niklaus Manuel Güdel:
- Dear Mr.Güdel, please tell our readers about yourself. What has contributed to your deep infatuation in the creative work of Gustave Courbet?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel: Initially, I am rather a specialist of Swiss art of the end of the 19th century, and of Ferdinand Hodler in particular. Nothing predisposed me to take an interest in Gustave Courbet, whom I knew of course, of whom I had already seen many works and important exhibitions, but whom I did not appreciate in particular. Maybe it was because I didn't know him well. I turned to Courbet in detail when the government of the Canton of Jura commissioned me to clarify the problem of the Jura Landscape. It was necessary to clarify both the provenance of the work and to verify that it was authentic. And then, this led me to become interested in other aspects of Courbet's work, and in particular in his drawings, which remain little known, for an exhibition that the director of the Gustave Courbet Museum in Ornans (France) asked me to prepare. So I came to Courbet by force of circumstance and I learned to love him little by little.
- Before we move on to the Courbet masterpiece, could you elaborate a bit on the provenance research as such. For a long time authenticity was the leading element/characteristic of recognizing the "real" work and attaching a relevant value to it. During the last decades the balance shifted and now this is the precise and detailed provenance that gets the garland. What is this most important that the provenance can tell us about? How does it help in understanding the author himself and establishing attribution?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel: The problem with connoisseurship is that mistakes are not impossible. How many experts, even the most important ones, have ever been wrong? Almost all of them. For example, in the case of Courbet, many artists of his time worked in much the same way, with the same materials, which makes visual authentication problematic. With the recently acquired importance of provenance, it is as if art history is discovering that paintings must also be examined through historical sources, and that these sources - a letter, a receipt, an old photograph, an exhibition catalog, a press article, etc. - often make it possible not only to know where the work comes from, but also and above all to prove that it is authentic. In the case of Courbet, who painted several thousand canvases, only about 200 of them are documented by a source, so that their authenticity is indisputable.
- Of course, every case is unique and asks for individual approach and special knowledge. However, maybe there is an algorithm or any sequence of steps that is common to provenance research process?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel: The processes are always the same. One searches in both directions, i.e. from the artist (in his correspondence, in his sales catalogs, etc.) and from the most recent collector (place of acquisition, previous collectors, dealers who sold the work, etc.). It is like drilling a tunnel. You attack from both sides of the mountain. Sometimes you manage to make the junction, but that's exceptional. Most of the time, there is always an unknown. What is most curious for an art historian - and no doubt for a lawyer as well - and sometimes difficult to accept, is that what is not found is as important as what is found...
- Can any of modern technologies (virtual or augmented reality, special scanning or other methods) be of a help to a provenance researcher? Or is it still the knowledge, connoisseurship, experience and tremendous work of an expert that is indispensible?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel: With modern technology, the means to authenticate a work are more complete. For example, I find it important to corroborate the conclusions of the expert with a technological examination. It allows, inter alia, to attest that the materiality of the work, notably the pigments and binders used, correspond well to the period when it was painted. Moreover, the technological examination (radiography, infrared, UV lamp, etc.) allows to highlight aspects that we cannot necessarily see with the eye, such as the existence of an underlying drawing or the presence of inscriptions that are often useful for provenance research. So yes, modern technologies help in the authentication of a work of art, it has even become essential today.
- Moving on to Jura Landscape, what were the main factors that aroused such an increased interest in the painting?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel:What first aroused interest was that the work, at the time of its discovery, was not documented in any catalog and was not known to any specialist. The fruitless research and the silence of the work were disturbing elements, but they also fed the enigma. The painting then made it possible to better understand Courbet's way of painting, to analyze in more detail his color palette, the effects he pursued and the materials he worked with.
- What was the most challenging and/or the most hard in the research process?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel: In Courbet's case, the most difficult thing was to have no leads to begin with. Usually, when you start an investigation, you have an object and one or more clues. Here, the clues came down to what the object was telling us. The painting is signed G. Courbet and dates from 1872. We knew nothing else, neither about its provenance, nor about its authenticity. The most difficult thing was to know in what order to proceed, to find the first tracks of research, then things were arranged little by little. It was also very difficult to move forward in the Courbet research community, because the Institut Gustave Courbet has never been collaborative, on the contrary. It did not fulfill its mission, which meant that the museums of France no longer recognized its authority and that we ourselves, in the investigation, had to deal without them and without access to the archives that they said they held. In provenance research, one must rely heavily on the goodwill of the people, archives and museums that one solicits, and this is probably the weak point of this discipline, because each institution has different rules of transparency.
- Was there any astonishing revelation in examining the work?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel: There was not really any fundamentally new discovery thanks to this painting, neither on the way of working, nor on the colors, nor even on the questions of iconography. What has been most significant, at least from the point of view of art history, is the discovery, thanks to infrared reflectography, of an underlying drawing made in a manner very similar to that found under The Origin of the World in the Musée d'Orsay. This discovery came rather late in our investigation and it definitely confirmed our opinion that this was indeed an authentic Courbet painting. It is interesting to see that for a large landscape such as this, Courbet was careful to place certain elements of his painting beforehand.
- Due to the passage of time, the chances to unveil unknown masterpiece of classical artists reduce dramatically, but these occasions, as we see it with Jura landscape, nevertheless do happen. How do you think, how many authentic works are still in the attics, in the basements or just hanging on the wall unattributed? How realistic is to find another uncatalogued Courbet painting in the nearest time?
Niklaus Manuel Güdel: I am often presented with paintings that look like a Courbet, but are not. From time to time, there is a painting that can be attributed to him, but the research is not necessarily done, because the ratio between the cost and the benefit of such an investigation is not balanced. However, we have been working for two years on a very important painting by Courbet, a truly major masterpiece, which was recently rediscovered and which will be presented to the public during a major Courbet exhibition to be held in 2023-2024. So there are still some surprises in store for us.
collage of works by Gustave Courbet: The Valley of Ornans; A Mountain Stream; Young Ladies of the Village; Le chêne de Flagey
source: Wikimedia Commons