Gustave Eugène Castan (1823-1892)
Oil on canvas, signed
133 x 198 cm.
Among one of the great nineteenth century Swiss landscape painters, Gustave Eugène Castan's work reflected his deep admiration of the renowned French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) as well as his early mentor from Geneva, Alexandre Calame (1810-64). Although initially attracted by the Alps, Castan then began to specialise in portraying gentler landscapes, painting rivers and other rustic views. Among them were a series of woodland scenes, of which the present and unusually large painting, dated from about 1880, is exemplary. In addition to oils, Castan worked as a print-maker, providing illustrations for a number of contemporary publications.He also devoted much of his time to the promotion of artistic causes and having served as a cavalry officer pursued an interest in the history of arms and armour.
Castan was born in Geneva on 23rd December 1823 and died at Crozant on 29th July 1892. He was the son of Elizabeth Rillet-Bandol and Alphonse Castan, who died while Gustave was still young. After attending the Collège in Geneva, Castan studied literature at the Geneva Académie, 1840-42 under Rodolphe Töpffer. As a student he showed a particular aptitude for drawing and thus after leaving the Académie, in 1843 he joined the studio of the landscape artist Alexandre Calame, then the most important painter in Geneva. During 1844-5, Calame took his pupils to Italy, particularly to Rome and its surrounding countryside. From there they travelled to the upper regions of Berne, notably to study the glacier L'Aar. During 1842-5 Castan and his fellow students formed a group known as the Brunswick (as recorded in an album "Les Causeries du Brunswick"). The light and terrain of the alpine landscape exerted a strong influence upon Castan's earlier paintings. And thus inspired by the mountains, he proceeded to fill his canvases with dramatic scenes of peaks and ravines, boulders and torrents as well as wooded hillsides.
Through his friendship with the French artist Alexandre-Eugène de Castelnau (1827-94), Castan learnt of the flourishing French school of landscape painting. As a result he left Calame's studio and in 1848-9 accompanied Castelnau to Paris, where he fell under the spell of François-Louis Français (1814-97) and more especially of Corot. Corot soon came to represent his idyll, whose sensitive treatment of light, form and distance was achieved through tonal values rather than colour and drawing. Castan was also influenced by the work of Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), who was a friend of Corot and was admired by Claude Monet, and thus formed a link between the Impressionists and their predecessors of the Barbizon School. To this extent, in a review of the Paris Salon 1864, the critic of "Moniteur des Arts" described Castan as 'La Daubigny Suisse'.
In 1857 Castan visited the Paris Salon with Corot, whose friend Camille Bernier encouraged the younger artist to travel to Brittany, Finistère and Normandy. In addition Castan worked in the Berry region where he encountered the novelist George Sands. During the 1850's he also painted in the Dauphiné region, where he met and befriended the painter Auguste François Ravier (1814-95) from Lyon. Later he and Ravier worked in the Morestel, achieving a synthesis between the Barbizon and Lyon School of painting.
From about the 1860's Castan began painting a number of wooded rural scenes, often as here, portraying a pair of figures such as the wood gatherers dwarfed by nature as the sunlight shines through the abundant foliage. Its subject and handling compares with such pieces as Chasseur en Sous-Bois, M. Sarasin dans sa propriété du Château-des-Bois (illus. "Dictionnaire Biographique de l'Art Suisse", p. 202). This admirable work also relates to his portrayal of his friend George Sand, Sous-bois à Gargilesse avec George Sand assise au pied d'un arbre of 1874, (Château de Nohant). The present painting appears to be one of his largest known works, its quality and size undoubtedly indicating that it was an exhibited piece. Castan was a frequent contributor to the Paris Salon where he showed from 1855 to 1882. He also participated in the Exposition Internationale in Vienna, 1873 and the Jubiläumsausstellung in Munich 1888.
In his capacity as a lithographer and etcher, Castan contributed illustrations of landscapes to Esquisses d'atelier (Geneva, 1853) and to such journals as Album de la Suisse Romane. He was frequently a juror for exhibitions in Switzerland, serving on the committee of the Kunstverein Suisse and participated in the foundation of the Société des Peintres et Sculpteurs Suisses in 1865, where he later acted as President. Castan also served as a cavalry officer and was called up by Général Dufour in 1856. This gave him the opportunity to portray such scenes around Neuchâtel as the mobilisation of troops and the railway, which came to the notice of the press. A man of many talents, while serving as a cavalry officer he became particularly interested in armour, which eventually led to his appointment as Deputy Curator of arms and armour at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva. Castan is however chiefly remembered for his outstanding romantic yet highly naturalistic landscapes, which were widely acclaimed during his lifetime and still continue to attract the same critical success. Today one can admire his work in a number of Swiss collections including the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva, the Kunstmuseum at Bâle, the Kunstmuseum at Berne and the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire at Neuchâtel.