For at least 50 years, a 19th-century landscape by Realist painter Gustave Courbet lay forgotten in a basement at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. When the painting was found in 2016, the school was not certain the dirty and unframed canvas was even authentic. Now, seven years later, “La Source du Lison” (1864) — a verified Courbet original — is on display at the university’s Arthur Ross Gallery in an exhibition titled At the Source: A Courbet Landscape Rediscovered.
The work depicts the source of the Lison River, a cascading waterfall Courbet painted at least three times throughout his career. The rocky enclave is located near the artist’s hometown of Ornans, France. Courbet’s rural village became a focal point of his work: He painted scenes of rural peasants in their daily lives, attracting the ire of the art world elite, who launched classist attacks at the artist’s work and derided it as ugly. After participating in the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, Courbet was exiled and died in Switzerland in 1877.
“La Source du Lison,” painted 13 years earlier, wound up in the hands of a wealthy American dentist living in France, Thomas W. Evans. (Historians do not know exactly how Evans acquired the work, but an inventory log makes clear that he owned the painting when he died.)
Evans died in 1897 and left most of his money and objects to a namesake museum and society in his native Philadelphia. Fifteen years later, his new society collaborated with the University of Pennsylvania to build a museum and dental school. Construction was completed three years later.
There are no records or photographs proving that “La Source du Lison” ever hung in Evans’s dental museum. The small institution shuttered in 1967 and its collection was placed in storage. Decades later, some of the museum’s works were sold and others were incorporated into the university’s general art museum. While other artworks began new lives, Courbet’s landscape was forgotten.
Then, during a 2016 construction project, the Arthur Ross Gallery’s chief curator Lynn Marsden-Atlass came across a box in the old dental school’s basement. Inside was Courbet’s unframed canvas, now largely obscured with dirt. Part of the artist’s signature was still visible.
“I had a hunch, but no proof,” Marsden-Atlass told Penn Today.
Conservator Barbara Ventresco cleaned the painting, and the museum then took it to the Institut Gustave Courbet in Ornans, where it was officially authenticated in April 2022.
Marsden-Atlass told Hyperallergic that the discovery was “extremely rare.”
“Especially since it was painted 152 years ago, and is one of only three confirmed Courbet paintings of the ‘Source of the Lison’ (1864),” she added.
One of the other Lison paintings is included in the university’s exhibition, as are a pair of different Courbet landscapes, a contemporaneous painting by German artist Julius Friedrich Ludwig Runge, and a 19th-century imitation of a Courbet. The show also includes the inventory report that proved “La Source du Lison” was in Thomas W. Evan’s possession at the time of his death, the only clue in the painting’s lost history.