The present work boasts an important and fascinating provenance: its first owner was Prosper Teste, the mayor of Ornans and a friend of Courbet, and the painting has remained with his family ever since. As the mayor of Ornans, Teste is prominently featured in Courbet's celebrated L'Enterrement à Ornans
(Burial at Ornans
; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; figs. 1 & 2) of 1849-50, standing in the centre of the composition in front of the women in profile. The friendship between the Courbets and the Testes is reflected by the fact that in the same painting, Courbet’s mother, Sylvie, takes care of the mayor’s daughter on the far right.
The Puits Noir is a secluded spot outside Ornans where the Brème stream meanders gently through a narrow and luxuriantly verdant rocky gorge (fig. 3). It was among Courbet's favourite places to paint, and was the subject of the work which truly launched his career as a landscape painter: Le Ruisseau du Puits-Noir, vallée de la Loue
, exhibited at the Exposition Universelle
in 1855 (now in the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.). Courbet went on to paint several further Puits-Noir compositions during his productive 'campaign' in Franche-Comté of 1864-65, praising his donkey Gérôme for diligently helping him carry his artist's materials down to the gorge (in a letter of 6 April 1866; see Letters of Gustave Courbet
, translated & edited by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, 1992, p. 277). The present work predates by a year the one purchased in 1865 for Napoléon III by the comte de Nieuwerkerke, which now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay (fig. 4).
Courbet’s painting shows a hidden, womb-like landscape, atemporal, steeped in mystery and devoid of all human and animal presence. But Courbet adds to the fecund vision of nature removed from encroaching industrialisation expressed by his contemporaries in Barbizon. As for Cézanne painting the Mont Saint-Victoire in his native Provence, so for Courbet the Puits Noir of his native Franche-Comté held a deeply personal meaning, transporting him back to his roots and to his youth in Ornans. Unlike his wide open seascapes of the same period, with their infinite horizons, the present work is introspective, intimate, personal.