There used to be an oak tree in Flagey, not far from the edge of the village. It stood on the road between this district and Chassagne, until it was claimed by lightning in the mid-20th century. It was said that no fewer than seven men could hold hands around it! Painted in 1864, it held special significance for the village’s inhabitants, as it was closely linked with Courbet. And it is the only portrait of a tree among the painter’s work!
Ornans, a source of inspiration
Gustave Courbet produced this painting during one of his stays in Ornans. The oak in question stood in the village of Flagey, where the family farm was located. With this tree, the painter is therefore paying tribute to his childhood and his youth.
An unusual work
Landscape painting emerged in its own right in the early 19th century with artists such as Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. Nevertheless, it was in the middle of the century that the landscape movement was really able to throw off its shackles, with the Barbizon school. Many painters including Théodore Rousseau and Charles Daubigny came to this village near Fontainebleau forest, to express their feelings through the portrayal of rocks, caves and natural features. However, the tree motif is an unusual one. Courbet, who worked alongside them from time to time, shared this novel view of nature but went further still. He individualised this majestic oak, making it the main subject of the picture to create a genuine “portrait of a tree”.
A clear political message
In the mid-19th century, a heated quarrel divided public opinion concerning the exact site of the Gallic battle of Alesia. Was it Alaise, in Doubs, or Alise Sainte-Reine, in Côte-d’Or? During this debate, Napoleon III officially supported the Burgundian position, namely Alise-Sainte-Reine. Courbet therefore chose to add the following subtitle to his work: Chêne de Vercingétorix, camp de César près d’Alésia (The Vercingetorix Oak, Caesar’s camp near Alesia), to clearly display his position vis-a-vis the ruling authorities. By simply adding this title, Courbet made a clear distinction between Vercingetorix and Julius Caesar, namely democracy versus imperialism, displaying his rejection of the Second Empire represented by Napoleon III.