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The riddle of 'The Sluice Gate at Optevoz'
Charles-François Daubigny, The Sluice Gate at Optevoz, c. 1855. Oil on canvas, 63,5 x 84,5 cm© Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Neue Pinakothek Munich.

MUNICH.- The exhibition focuses on the recently restored painting ‘The Sluice Gate at Optevoz’, acquired over a hundred years ago as a work by Gustave Courbet, and its surprising and unusual history. The painting of a rugged, rocky landscape with a simple lock shows a small patch of rural France far removed from the urban bustle of Paris . The hamlet of Optevoz is located in southwest France , some forty kilometres east of Lyon .

Stylistically the painting can be related to two artists. The sober treatment of the landscape and the impasto of the rocks and water recall Courbet; as does the somewhat sombre, melancholy mood and, of course, the formerly prominent signature. Acquired by the Neue Pinakothek in 1909, the painting has long been accepted as an integral part of the Courbet canon. The motif and the composition, on the other hand, are closely linked to the work of Charles-François Daubigny, particularly to the large version of his ‘Sluice Gate at Optevoz’, now in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen , which was exhibited at the 1855 Paris Salon.

First Doubts
Doubts about the authenticity of the early Courbet landscape first surfaced in the 1990s, when a closer examination of the painting revealed a second signature in addition to the clearly legible one of Courbet. On the lower right, visible only in an infrared reflectogram, the picture bears the signature of Daubigny. The artist painted several versions of the motif in the 1850s – whereas there is no hard evidence that Courbet ever actually visited the area. The discovery of the second signature raised the question of authorship. Was the painting really by Courbet, or was there a second painter? More recent examination showed that the brooding, sombre mood of the landscape was not part of the original conception of the work, but the result of a later intervention. The Courbet signature belongs to that later layer of overpainting.

Thanks to the support of Fondation BNP Paribas and BNP Paribas Deutschland, work on the restoration of the painting could resume in 2011. In a time-consuming process, carried out under high magnification with the aid of a stereo microscope, a paintings conservator painstakingly removed all the overpainting from the original paint surface. In the process further discoveries were made, among them slips of a Paris daily newspaper listing the latest stock market prices that had been used as tension strips during the relining of the canvas before it was overpainted. The few legible fragments of these pages provided important clues that allowed to date the relining and overpainting of the work. Among the companies listed were enterprises that had not started trading at the stock exchange until the 1880s and 90s. It became clear that the painting could not have been reworked before 1894 – long after Courbet’s death in 1877. Are we thus dealing with a real Daubigny, posthumously transmogrified into a fake Courbet?

Intriguing Provenance
The painting is one of the French nineteenth-century works in the collection of the Neue Pinakothek whose acquisition is linked to Hugo von Tschudi (1851–1911). In the mere two years he served as the director of the Munich collections before his untimely death in 1911, he successfully steered a course of greater openness towards French modern art. Among the works he acquired – or prompted enlightened patrons to acquire for the museum – are celebrated masterpieces such as Manet’s ‘Luncheon in the Studio’, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘The Sluice Gate at Optevoz’. Moreover, the painting was bought from a highly reputable collection in Paris , namely that of the renowned critic, writer and collector Théodore Duret, one of the first advocates of Impressionism and personally acquainted with Courbet since 1862. Who would doubt a painting bought by one of the most astute connoisseurs from a collection that seemed to stand for utmost authenticity?

In addition to the newly restored painting, the exhibition presents other works by Daubigny from French and German collections that shed light on the artistic context in which it was created. The large version of ‘Écluse dans la vallée d’Optevoz’ from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen and two further versions of the motif from the collections of the Louvre and the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe invite visitors to compare the Munich painting with those securely attributed to Daubigny. The views of the lock are complemented by another large landscape by Daubigny, ‘La grande vallée d’Optevoz’ from the Palace of Compiègne , which further underlines the significance of the artist as one of the pioneers of naturalism in French landscape painting. Also on show are some of Daubigny’s early etchings as well as early photographs of the area around Optevoz by the painter and photographer François-Auguste Ravier that document the way the artists of the Barbizon School explored remote areas of rural France as part of their quest for unspoilt nature far from the madding crowds of metropolitan life.

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