The Gust of Wind
Gustave Courbet, French, 1819–1877
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 57 3/4 × 90 7/8 in. (146.7 × 230.8 cm) Frame: 75 7/8 × 109 1/4 × 7 in. (192.7 × 277.5 × 17.8 cm)
Habits of Mind
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
SUBJECT AREALanguage Arts
The Gust of Wind
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans, France, into a family of successful farmers in the eastern region of Franche-Comté, near the Swiss border. His family encouraged him to study law, but he moved to Paris at the age of twenty to pursue his painting career. Courbet’s first paintings were portraits, genre scenes with several figures, and landscapes in the Romantic style. He then developed his own style, known as Realism, which dealt not with the perfection of line and form in an idealized scene, but entailed spontaneous and rough handling of paint, and the suggestion of directly observing the true irregularities in nature.
Courbet was highly political and created several famous works depicting peasants, laborers, and ordinary citizens with underlying messages of governmental reform and revolution. He began to write essays on his socialist ideas which brought him criticism both personally and professionally. He was imprisoned for six months in 1871 for his role in the revolutionary activities of the Paris Commune and was fined more than he could pay. He eventually fled to Switzerland, where he died in 1877.
TheGust of Wind depicts a storm rapidly advancing over a stretch of land in a forest. Small, delicate brushstrokes capture the sunlit hills at the horizon and the darkening sky in the background, while the rocky landscape, the pool, and the wind-bent, craggy trees are described with the rough marks of brush and palette knife. The scene in this painting is probably a site in the Forest of Fontainebleau, a vast expanse of virtually untouched forest a short distance from Paris. The Forest of Fontainebleau was a favored subject of a group of mid-19th-century artists who, like Courbet, rejected the classical landscape prescribed by the French Academy and concentrated instead on simple rural images. The inclusion of the mountain range in the background, which does not exist in proximity to the forest, transforms this very realistic landscape into a type of fantasy. This painting is Courbet’s largest canvas devoted solely to landscape.
Courbet rendered The Gust of Wind with extraordinary energy in a variety of strokes and smears. He considered painting a physical challenge and experimented with manipulating textures to create what he saw. Often painting in large scale, Courbet applied paint to the canvas with dramatic gestures and a variety of tools: large and small brushes, a palette knife, rags, and even his thumb. Many of Courbet’s landscapes seem to be roughly finished with visible surface texture, defiant of the smooth style of Academic painting. His spontaneous use of color creates movement and conveys the impression of light flickering over the rocks, of rippling water, and of leaves trembling in the wind. Courbet’s innovative paint application and rough textures inspired generations of artists.
By the late 1850s, landscape painting, a genre that received little respect from the Academy, became Courbet’s favorite subject. He became increasingly dissatisfied with his treatment by art juries and took it upon himself to show his work at his own expense during the World Fairs of 1855 and 1867. When two of Courbet’s major works were rejected from the Exposition Universelle in Paris, he withdrew his other eleven accepted submissions and displayed his paintings privately in his Pavillon du Realisme, not far from the official international exhibition. Even when Courbet lived in self-imposed exile, cut off from family and friends for the last part of his life, he continued to paint landscapes.
- What emotions can you read in this painting? Back up your answer with visual details from the painting.
- Look closely at the painting and try to identify the different kinds of brushstrokes Courbet used. How did he paint the horizon differently from the rocks in the foreground?
- Can you see any repeated elements in this chaotic scene?
- Wind is invisible, yet Courbet set out to paint it. How does he show us the gust of wind without painting it directly?
- Why do you think Courbet chose to paint in such an imprecise way?
- Might there be an allegorical meaning to this painting? Keep in mind that Courbet was involved in revolutionary politics, including the Paris Commune.
- Courbet wrote, “Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things.” Do you agree or disagree? Does The Gust of Wind support Courbet’s theory?
• Study the social conditions in mid-19th-century France that Courbet sought to expose and change through his art. Look at and discuss some of those works of art and compare them to his landscapes. What are the similarities and differences in style and subject matter?
• Write a description of the scene in Courbet’s painting. Describe colors, lines, textures, and movement and how each contributes to the mood of the painting.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider