Tag Archives: chateau

Gustave Courbet and the Romantics: Chateau de Chillon

18 May

The rain had been falling incessantly these past few days and it truly makes me feel as if I were a heroine in a Gothic novel, roaming the dark corridors of some castle dressed in a long Regency white gown, or exploring the dusty old chambers with a candle in my hand, admiring the old portraits and hearing echoes of music reverberate in the spiderwebs.

Gustave Courbet, Chateau de Chillon, 1873

I thought of a painting which befitted the mood of this strange and gloomy spring weather and the Gothic-novel mood that I am in right now: Chateau de Chillon by Gustave Courbet. To paint a castle seems like an oddly romantical choice of motif for a Realist painter, and yet Courbet painted many different versions of this scene in the 1870s. That was during his time spend in Switzerland on a self-imposed exile to avoid bankruptcy, near the end of his life; he died on the last day of 1877. Courbet’s Realism wasn’t only about portraying reality exactly as it was, it was more about being directly inspired by the world around him, by the things he saw with his own eyes and not things conjured by his imagination. All sorts of romantic scenarios and fantasies are born in my mind as I gaze at this castle, but to Courbet it was simply a delightful scene that he saw and decided to capture on canvas. In this case, it is on the viewer to add a dreamy context to the scene, while the painter stayed rather objective.

Chateau de Chillon is a Medieval island-castle situated on the lake Geneva in Switzerland. Its rich history and sublime beauty made it a popular tourist destination in the nineteenth century as well as today. Aesthetically it is very happily situated: just imagine gliding down the lake’s smooth surface and seeing this sight: an old castle with many towers and dungeons, where every stone tells a story and literally so: (upon visiting the castle, Lord Byron carved his name on one of the pillars in the dungeon, and he did the same thing in Greece, talking about arrogance), situated on the shore of the glistening lake, with the Alps in the background…

My favourite Courbet’s rendition of the castle is the one above, perhaps because it was the first one I have seen, but also because out of all the versions it looks the least picturesque and it is the most expressive and vivid; the brushstrokes seem less fine and everything is more pronounced, more wild; the water of the lake is hitting the shore in maddening waves, the brown stone on the shore looks tangible and rough, the thin bare trees are carried away by the wild wind, Alps in the background have a serious stoic face of someone old and righteous, the dark troubled clouds are a dazzling play of white and grey, a storm is coming and the rains will once again wash the old stones of Chateau de Chillon which have seen and heard things unimaginable.

Gustave Courbet, The Château de Chillon, 1874

Gustave Courbet, The Château de Chillon, c. 187477

Now, as I am taking more time to gaze at other versions, I am also loving the one right one, from 1874-77, because of its subtle lyrical beauty. The castle seems very accurately portrayed here and looks like something out of a romantic fairy-tale and less like a place with a dark history, and also, the lake looks ethereal and you can even see the reflection of the castle in the water. This version is musical and gentle, calm and idyllic. Still, Courbet wasn’t the first artist who discovered the castle’s charms; more than half a century before Courbet, the Romantics travelled the continent and explored interesting places. Castles, ruins overgrown with ivy and all sorts of abandoned places captures the imagination of the Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary. The three visited the castle in Visiting the castle, especially its dungeons inspired Lord Byron to write “The Prisoner of Chillon”, first published in 1816, and observations of the castle appear in the travel narrative called History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni” written by Percy and Mary Shelley and published in 1817. Here are some fascinating passages from Mary’s letters:

On my return, after breakfast, we sailed for Clarens, determining first to see the three mouths of the Rhone, and then the castle of Chillon; the day was fine, and the water calm. We passed from the blue waters of the lake over the stream of the Rhone, which is rapid even at a great distance from its confluence with the lake; the turbid waters mixed with those of the lake, but mixed with them unwillingly. (…)

Map of two trips described in “History of a Six Weeks’ Tour”, from 1814 and 1816

Mary continues with descriptions of darker aspects of the castle:

We passed on to the Castle of Chillon, and visited its dungeons and towers. These prisons are excavated below the lake; the principal dungeon is supported by seven columns, whose branching capitals support the roof. Close to the very walls, the lake is 800 feet deep; iron rings are fastened to these columns, and on them were engraven a multitude of names, partly those of visitors, and partly doubtless of the prisoners, of whom now no memory remains, and who thus beguiled a solitude which they have long ceased to feel. One date was as ancient as 1 670. At the commencement of the Reformation, and indeed long after that period, this dungeon was the receptacle of those who shook, or who denied the systeA of idolatry, from the effects of which mankind is even now slowly emerging.

Close to this long and lofty dungeon was a narrow cell, and beyond it one larger and far more lofty and dark, supported upon two unornamented arches. Across one of these arches was a beam, now black and rotten, on which prisoners were hung in secret. I never saw a monument more terrible of that cold and inhuman tyranny, which it has been the delight of man to exercise over man. It was indeed one of those many tremendous fulfilments which render the “pernicies humani generis” of the great Tacitus, so solemn and irrefragable a prophecy. The gendarme, who conducted us over this castle, told us that there was an opening to the lake, by means of a secret spring, connected with which the whole dungeon might be filled with water before the prisoners could possibly escape!

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