Courbet painted events and scenery primarily from his native Ornans, a village in the remote Franche-Comté region. A proponent of realism, he challenged traditional ideas about art by depicting simple peasants and rustic scenery with dignity and on the grandscale usually reserved for history paintings.
La Grotte de la Loue depicts the source of the Loue river and surrounding massive rock formations, a scene of intense and primitive beauty. Eliminating all but rocks and water in this dense geometric composition, Courbet heightened the contrast between dark cavern and still water inside and rugged limestone rocks tinted soft pink, blue, and gray and flowing white water outside the cave. Except in the diminutive figure, Courbet used the unorthodox palette knife technique to apply irregular layers of pigments, creating a roughly worked surface imitating the textures of the setting and evoking the physical presence of the terrain. Long interested in the natural history of his region, including its geology, Courbet was scrupulously accurate in depicting the setting, a famous site near Ornans. One of several variant images of the site, the National Gallery painting is distinctive for the inclusion of a spear fisherman, whose presence gives scale to the immensity of the overhanging rocks and unseen depths of the cave.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/french-paintings-nineteenth-century.pdf
lower left: Gustave Courbet
Sold February 1872 by Courbet to Paul Durand-Ruel; (Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris). Emile de Girardin [1806-1881], Paris; (his estate sale, Paris, 24 May 1883, no. 8, as La Grotte). (Stephen Higgins, Paris); sold 28 December 1956 to (Germain Seligmann/Gersel Corp., New York); (Jacques Seligmann & Company, New York); sold 1957 to Brigadier General Charles Lionel Lindemann, Washington, D.C.; gift 1957 to NGA.
- Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad; State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, 1986, no. 11, repro.
- Courbet Reconsidered, The Brooklyn Museum and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1988-1989, no. 48, repro.
- Gustave Courbet Retrospective Exhibition, The Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1989, no. 25, repro.
- Gustave Courbet (1819-1877): Later Paintings, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York; Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York, 1998, not in cat. (shown only in Roslyn Harbor).
- Gustave Courbet et la Franche-Comté, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie, Besançon, 2000, no. 63, repro.
- Gustave Courbet, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Musée Fabre, Montpellier, 2007-2008, no. 113, repro.
- Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The National Art Center, Tokyo; Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, 2011, not in catalogue (shown only in Tokyo and Kyoto).
- Courbet/Cézanne, La vérité en peinture, Musée Gustave Courbet, Ornans, 2013, no. 48, repro.
- Gustave Courbet, Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2014-2015, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Riat, Georges. Gustave Courbet, peintre. Paris, 1906: 253, 330, repro.
- Wartman, W. "Courbet, die Grotte der Loue." Jahresbericht 1946 der Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft. (1946): 33, pl. IXb.
- Comstock, H. "The Connoisseur in America: Courbet's 'La Grotte de la Loue.'" The Connoisseur 140, no. 566 (January 1958): 281-282, repro.
- Evans, Grose. French Painting of the 19th Century in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1959 (Booklet Number Two in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC): 22, color repro.
- The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): no. 10.
- Seligman, Germain. Merchants of Art, 1880-1960: Eighty Years of Professional Collecting. New York, 1961: pl. 116.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, ed. Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 152, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 323, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: no 33.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:418, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 26, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 82, repro.
- Nochlin, Linda. "Gustave Courbet: A Study in Style and Society." Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1963. New York, 1976: 162-163.
- Fernier, Robert. La Vie et l'oeuvre de Gustave Courbet, catalogue raisonné. Peintures, 1819-1865. Paris, 1977: 218, no. 393, repro.
- Callen, Anthea. Courbet. London, 1980: 87, pl. 55.
- Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875. New York, 1980: 238, fig. 118, Hamburger Kunsthalle version. (Third ed. rev. New York, 2007: 205, fig. 10.4, NGA painting)
- Maurer, Emil. "'Die Quelle der Loue.' Zu einem Gemälde im Kunsthaus Zürich." In 15 Aufsätze zur Geschichter der Malerei. Basel, Boston, and Stuttgart, 1982: 161-168.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 445, no. 641, color repro.
- Courthion, Pierre. L'opera completa di Courbet. Milan, 1985: no. 374, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 102, repro.
- Courthion, Pierre. Courbet. Paris, 1987: no. 374, repro.
- Faunce, Sarah and Linda Nochlin, eds. Courbet Rediscovered. Exh. cat. The Brooklyn Museum, 1988: 14, 61, 153-156, no. 48, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington. London, 1992: 183, repro. (Not in 1995 rev. ed.).
- Laurillard-Cuinet, Hélène. Empreintes de Gustave Courbet. Ornans, 1997: 7, color repro.
- Eitner, Lorenz. French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 118-126, color repro.