A landscape painted more than 150 years ago by the radical French realist Gustave Courbet had been slowly moldering in a box in the basement of a building on the University of Pennsylvania campus, likely for more than a century, until it was accidentally discovered by a construction crew doing renovations.
“They brought the boxes up to [Penn Dental Vice Dean] Liz Ketterlinus’ office and said, ‘Would you like these or should we throw them out?’” said Lynn Marsden-Atlass, curator of the university’s art collection.
The painting was so dirty, Marsden-Atlass said, and the varnish on the surface had deteriorated so badly, she couldn’t even see what it depicted.
“It was already 152 years old, was unframed, and it was very difficult to see,” she said. “I saw three letters of the beginning of someone’s name.”
Those decipherable letters, “G. Co,” were enough to start what became a years-long process to clean, conserve, authenticate, and display what has been confirmed as being “The Source of the Lison (La Source du Lison)” (1864). Seven years after its unlikely discovery, the painting is the centerpiece of the exhibition “At the Source: a Courbet Landscape Rediscovered” at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery.
A champion of the working class, Courbet is known for realistically detailed paintings like “The Stone Breakers,” which shows peasants hammering rocks.
“He’s the head figure of a movement called Realism, in which everyday scenes of lower [class] life are built up to the size and proportions that used to be occupied by important historical and mythological events,” said Andre Dombrowski, a professor of 19th-century European art at Penn.
Courbet later shifted to mostly landscape work, like “The Source,” likely painted as a commentary on nature conservation in the face of France’s growing industrialization.
The painting depicts a dramatic rock formation and grotto, out of which gushes a waterfall that feeds the River Lison, in southern France. The image, with a seemingly unfathomable black cave at its center, is designed to be a view onto the pure beauty and mystery of nature. Courbet deliberately cropped out a nearby industrial mill on the river.
“The landscapes are important,” Dombrowski said. “Even though they seem less political than those larger figurative works, in many ways they are just rerouting the politics of Realism into the landscape.”
Finding inspiration in exile
Courbet did not limit his politics to canvases. Much of his earlier figurative work, including “The Stone Breakers,” was in response to the French “February” Revolution of 1848, when people in the lower classes toppled the monarchy.
Later, during the Franco-Prussian war, Courbet became one the leaders of a socialist rebellion government called the Paris Commune, which took control of the city for a brief period in 1871. As part of that movement, he orchestrated the tearing down of a Napoleonic statue, the Vendome Column.
After the violent suppression of the Commune by the national French Army, Courbet spent the last several years of his life exiled in Switzerland.
That period was one of the most productive of his life, said Dombrowski, the European art professor. In exile, Courbet established a studio with other artists and painted landscapes similar to the one discovered at Penn.
“One of the key features of this landscape, and why I love having it on campus and why I like teaching with it, is that it is a landscape that thinks very hard about human encroachment on natural sites,” Dombrowski said of the new find. “It is very deliberate about what it wants to show and what it doesn’t want to show. It’s not just a beautiful, interesting landscape. It’s also an interesting document on environmental thinking.”
There are three known paintings of the River Lison by Courbet. The Arthur Ross Gallery borrowed a larger version from a private collection in Minnesota, likely painted for a salon exhibition, to accompany Penn’s smaller version, likely painted for the collector’s market.
The latter painting was ultimately acquired by Thomas Evans, one of the most prominent dentists of the 19th century. The Philadelphia-born doctor was as charismatic as he was innovative: he popularized the use of metal alloy in tooth fillings and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anesthetic.
From Paris to Penn
Evans moved to Paris and became the go-to dentist for European aristocracy, including Napoleon Bonaparte III and Empress Eugenie in France, Queen Victoria in England, and the Queen of Brussels.
“The royalty from Russia, from Turkey all used him as the dentist,” said Marsden-Atlass, the Penn art curator. “Dr. Evans often received gifts for his dental skills: oftentimes paintings, oftentimes beautiful decorative objects, gold boxes, fabulous pieces of silver.”
It’s not clear how Evan acquired “The Source,” per Marsden-Atlass, but it was clearly in his possession when he died: it is listed in the official police inventory of everything in Evans’ Paris house made immediately after his death in 1897.
Much of Evans’ estate was donated to the University of Pennsylvania, along with many objects related to dentistry and art, to create the Thomas Evans Museum and Dental Institute in what is now the Evans Building at 40th and Spruce streets.
Evans is buried nearby at the Woodlands Cemetery. His grave has the largest funereal obelisk in the United States, at 150 feet tall.
The dental museum closed in the 1960s and many of its objects were put into storage. In the 1980s the dental school sold at auction some valuable art pieces, including two paintings by Édouard Manet.
Marsden-Atlass said there is no record of the Courbet painting being put on display while the museum operated. It likely stayed in its box, forgotten, since the turn of the century.
After its discovery, “The Source” spent about a year in conservation. It was then sent to the Instutut Gustave Courbet in Ornans, France, for authentication, a process slowed by the COVID pandemic.
“It took us about six years to have them look at the painting, to research it and to authenticate it. That we just received in May of 2022,” Marsden-Atlass said. “We were thrilled because we were planning this exhibition, and it would have been a different exhibition if it had not been a Courbet.”
Marsden-Atlass said the future home of the painting is not yet determined. After “At the Source” closes on May 28 it may go back to a prominent place at Penn’s dental school. In the meantime, she said she is fielding requests from departments and VIPs all over the campus clamoring to have the painting hung in their spaces.