Dear Death by Victoria Jones
“A Cherokee legend tells that the deer won its antlers against a cheating rabbit when the two raced to decide which animal of the forest was fastest. “
The Death of the Stag, 1867 by Gustave Courbet
As an artist, art historian and nature lover I am fascinated by the natural world and the relationship between mankind and the world, particularly expressed in art and culture. I am inspired by rural landscapes, enjoying noticing wildlife, plants, trees and atmospheric effects, all of which feed into my creative practice and, more broadly, sense of wellbeing. Like many others, paintings of Nature are admired as a means of escape into its wonders, particularly if they capture the ephemeral, such as fleeting animal or setting sun. Scenes that bring to light the fragility and threat to Nature are also often invested with socio-moral, spiritual and religious meaning. Depictions of hunting, with a targeted wild animal and natural habitat, often winter woodlands, emphasis man’s intrusion into the animal world. This could be seen as a site of fear, persecution and decline; a traumaland of man’s creating. Dwelling on such art, with its complex art historical and symbolic significances, enables interesting consideration of experiences of trauma, and their link with Nature, religion and imagination.
Gustave Courbet (1817-1871) invested great energy, skill and meaning into his last large-scale masterpiece, The Death or Kill of the Deer, L’Hallali du Cerf in French (1867). Causing great scandal when exhibited in the French Salon and academies of 1869, the grand scale (355 by 505 cm) and Realism of this hunting scene was conventionally reserved for elevated subject matter of history and religion. Courbet had become renown for this approach, exemplified in his earlier masterpieces A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) and The Artist’s Studio (1855). All these paintings brought much attention to the artist’s uncanny ability to confront the viewer with scenes from a real, uncompromising world and its complex symbolism.
Courbet captured the intensity of a hunt in depicting the chased deer in its final throes of life. Collapsed on the snowy ground, its legs are splayed and reveal dark wounds where its genitals have already been savaged by the hounds. Symbolically, the hound has sexual associations with masculine promiscuity and dominance, possibly due to their trained appetite and ability to pick up the scent of their prey and enjoy their chase and capture. Here, as the hounds close in on the kill their evident arousal invests this work with what Michael Fried calls a ‘frenzied sexuality’. The violence, drama and climax of the scene invites parallels with male dominance and euphoria in their conquests, martial and sexual. This is further emphasized by the mounted character on rearing horse, resembling military portraits and the Turkish sadist in The Massacre at Chios (1824) by Eugène Delacroix.
The stag raises it head in anguish, with gaping open mouth and terrified wide eye that cannot fail to illicit pity. Its heavy antlers weigh down, presented as the physical as well as symbolic burden for this targeted beast. These boney branches grow and fall away naturally as the adult male ages, but are the trophies mortally acquired by hunters for their walls. Great strength and balance is needed to wield their crown, as it were, adding to its majesty. Indeed, the freedom and prowess of the stag in its natural habitat gives it monarchical symbolism. Politically interpreted, this painting could be a celebration of the death of France’s ancien regime and conventions of monarchical hierarchy. Given Napoleon III was ruling as self-proclaimed Emperor of the French (1851-70), the implication could be a vision to take down this ruler.
In this natural history painting, this king of the forest surrenders following an exhausting chase. One rabid hound is plunging its fangs into its muscular chest as another bites at its hind leg, while others look on with blood-thirsty anticipation or exhaustion. The rear of the pack is running through the wood to join, enhancing the instantaneousness of this scene at the high-point of the hunt. There is a complete sense of victimization and anguish. This presents an uncomfortable sight to behold, even more so as an aggrandized work of art.
The symbolism of the deer is varied and subjective to many cultures. Undeniably it is an impressive animal that has thrived as a native specifies across the world. Physically it possesses great strength, agility and grace, able to move quietly and swiftly on relatively spindly legs. Their knowledge of the landscape, surviving in all weathers and from it natural produce as a herbivore associate it with wisdom, passivity, luck and innocence. The liberty and supremacy it enjoys in its natural habitat captivates ones imagination, and as such has been invested with significance by many. The Christian Bible acknowledges the animal’s advantages, stating He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights. (Psalms 18:33).
Indeed, the feet of the deer are particularly important to its abilities, enabling it to cover all terrain, including uneven, boggy and frosty land. In Courbet’s painting you are made aware of how hardy the stag is to exist and run in a snow covered land. Taken down, it no longer stands with poise on its cloven feet, destabilized and demoted from its superior reign. It is worth noting that it is the deer’s footprints that enable hunters to detect their whereabouts, along with the hounds then picking up their scent.
With its domineering standing stance the deer’s antlers enhance its presence and height further. Growing up beyond its body, bringing it closer to the sky above, this has religious or spiritual significance as if making it sacred as a messenger from Heaven or otherworld. As this boney crown falls away and regrows over the deer’s life there is a sense of regeneration, hope and resilience. Such meaning lent itself to many religions, cultures, myths and legends, making the antlered deer a complex symbol.
The stag’s superiority as king of the forest presented it as the protector of all other creatures, and thus for many a lucky talisman. In ancient mythology the deer is linked to Apollo or the God of Light, and with this religious links to their God(s). It is associated with devotional longing in Christianity with the first words in Psalm XLII: “As a thirsty deer longs for water, so do I long for God.” By implication the deer symbolizes God’s care of his men who practice pious devotion. There is the legend of Saint Eustace, a Roman general who saw the light of Christ and heard the voice of God when he looked into the eye of a magnificent and enormous deer. Becoming a Christian and giving up hunting, the deer could therefore be a symbol of passivism, and invariably prompts an affinity with peaceful nature.
In Buddhism, the deer symbolizes harmony, happiness, peace and longevity. The deer is depicted on the Buddhist wheel of transformation upon a lotus (Dharmachakra), which stands as a symbol of creation, sovereignty and protection, and stands as an emblem of establishments that transmitted Buddha’s teaching. In one of this former lives, Buddha was a golden deer that spoke to men, similar to the animals Christian messenger symbolism. Similarly, for the wixaritarie people who inhabit central Mexico and are more commonly known as huicholes, the deer is an animal that translates the language of the gods for men, and becomes the first shaman. For the native tribes of North America, the deer was a totem representing sensitivity, intuition and gentleness. A Cherokee legend tells that the deer won its antlers against a cheating rabbit when the two raced to decide which animal of the forest was fastest. Here again the implication of its crown is as a trophy and associated with fairness and reward. In China, the deer is a sign of good luck, happiness, longevity, and fortune. In fact, the Chinese word for deer (lu) is the homonym of the Chinese word for abundance and also synonymous with the Chinese word for income.
In more contemporary and fantastical culture the deer is associated with magic. It evokes a sense of familial love, protection and resilience built through loss. This is the message in Bambi, the classic Disney film (1942), telling the story of an orphaned deer’s struggles through life. Later J. K. Rowling gave Harry Potter (similarly an orphan) a deer as his family’s Patronus, a defensive spell to ward off evil.
Associations with paternal protection (familial and Mother Nature) are interesting in the light that the deer was sacred to the feisty goddess Artemis, from Greek mythology. It is clear that the deer’s natural energy, instinct and superiority invest it with symbolism of intuition and independence, advocating trust in gut instinct to fight or flee. In Courbet’s painting, the implication could be that the people (and republic) have lost the fight, or that mankind’s instincts for balanced relations within society and with the natural world are struggling.
The huntsmen closing in on the felled stag starkly bring to light the fight between these two dominant creatures. The two figures on the right force viewers to acknowledge man’s partaking in such inhumane activity. A man stands with raised whip in one hand and restrained hound in the other, further adding to the dynamism of the scene and man’s power within it. He carries a French horn, denoting his role as the drill commanding his canine troops. He is Cusenier Jules, a resident of Ornans, while the man on horseback is Felix Gaudy, of Vuillafans. While not a commissioned portrait, Courbet was clearly playing to his patronage from the rural bourgeoisie. This inclusion suggests an affinity with his local and hunting community, and furthermore possibly his republican leanings.
The artist’s known enjoyment of hunting and invitation for all viewers to be part of this exclusive activity through depicting it suggests his egalitarian attitude and political independence. He called himself a “republican by birth” but did not take up arms during the 1848 Revolution, adhering to his pacifist beliefs, and in 1870 he publicly refused the Legion of Honor. Such challenging of state authority and its status quo is suggested in his Realism, with unidealised style, mundane or natural subject matter and uncomfortable messages of humanity and mortality. Interestingly, Courbet thus has an affinity with the deer, given its symbolism of independence, defiance and passivity.
Yet, this and many other deer paintings by Courbet suggest his hunting experience, possibly aiming to share the unique thrill and wonder of the finale of hunting a majestic stag. Self-proclaimed the “proudest and most arrogant man in France,” this scene, his last large-scale painting, could be asserting his mastery of the beast; that is, the hierarchical conventions of France. He is not behooven to the Academie’s expectation for large historical painting, romanticized style or noble reserve, and by extension his resistance to elitism and imperialism.
Courbet was commercially minded and tapped into an international market for representations of popular leisure activities, as evident not only in his scenes of hunting, but also the countryside and seaside. He was aware of such lucrative themes for Edwin Landseer, John Constable, J. M. W. Turner and Francis Daubigny. Interesting links can be made with: Constable’s Cenotaph to the Memory of Joseph Reynolds (1833) and Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen (1850). These both depict a majestic stag, almost as a portrait of the animal, alive and at one with its natural, unpopulated and unthreatening setting. This is in stark contrast to the dying beast set upon by hunters and their hounds in a snowy terrain. Possibly Courbet was aiming to explore the uncomfortable reality of hunting and by extension of human vices of brutality, destruction, excess and superiority. The scene implies the victorious strength of mankind over nature, while also evoking great pathos and questions over power, virtue and hierarchy. The hunted deer, chased and mercilessly killed, symbolizes trauma; the inhumane behavior of mankind that implicates upon their treatment and experiences of animals and each other. There is a sense of despair and despondency, and brings to mind moments of irreversible and deluded vice, such as murder and rape.
‘Contested Terrain: Gustave Courbet’s Hunting Scenes’ is a highly recommended article by Shao-Chien Tseng (The Art Bulletin, 2008). The individualistic and identifiable characters added realism to this painting and forces similar viewers of the exhibited work to contemplate this dramatic moment. No longer such an exclusive prerogative of the royal and noble, hunting still held popularity and glamour. The increased numbers and possibly declining standards of this activity caused growing unease about the affectations of bourgeois chasseurs, and ethical distaste, with the rising Société Protectrice des Animaux (founded in 1845). Throughout time, but increasingly with developments in mid-nineteenth century scientific and religious thinking, natural history was a means of interpreting society metaphorically. Courbet’s vision of animals in relation to the human condition would have been influenced by contemporary writings by fellow socialist and hunting enthusiast Alphonse Toussenel and republican historian Jules Michelet. The former wrote on The Spirit of Animals and asserted that the stag embodied loyalty. Taking animals and humans as alike and manifestations of the divine message, his and it seems Courbet’s attitudes towards hunting are complex. Toussenel saw hunting as a heroic activity and man’s natural right, but criticized contemporary practice as debased middle-class pastime, commercial and industrial, too full of carnage and without mercy. Such issues of the animals’ suffering, hunts brutality and class status are evident in Courbet’s dramatic painting, yet left ambivalent. This was possibly due to his desire not to offend his patrons and admirers, such as the noblemen depicted and bourgeoisie among his art and hunting communities.
Portraying the moment when the caught deer will be killed by the trained hounds starkly distilled this supposedly refined activity, giving it a mood of melancholy and deflation. Courbet once again confronts the viewers’ ideals, forcing sobering contemplation of man’s morality. As a symbol of power and prowess, the hunted stag and hunting are being exposed as questionable, and by extension that of the whole concept of hierarchical ruling. Courbet is possibly expressing his regret that France is not free, like the deer, symbolic of liberty, instead both being destroyed by man’s self-aggrandizing.
The work presents a complex, ambivalent and subjective sense of surrender yet also defiance. This was Courbet’s final major painting over a turbulent career that was declining in critical and economic fortune. His animal and landscape images were relied upon to compensate for this. Yet Death of a Stag, as Courbet conceived of the project in 1865, exerted ‘great artistic importance’ and profoundly impacted upon his reputation. The artist could be relating himself to the hunted, struggling animal, not allowed to naturally thrive, while on the other hand, as a keen hunter asserting his heroic superiority. Courbet’s driven intend in painting this large work over the winter of 1866-67 undeniably has extensive significance and symbolic potential.
As with any interpretation of an artwork, it is subjective to the artist who produced it and to each individual viewing it. The deer has varied symbolism depending on its context and cultural associations. In its natural world, it is free and thus a symbol of liberty. The transformative journey of the deer through the ages is that as it matures it experiences trauma, being hunted as prey to feed and hide mankind, and then continued unnecessarily as an outdoor sport with trophy antlered-heads. The transformation of the deer’s persecution from necessity to excess could suggest the brutality and estrangement of mankind. As a dreamworld this painting could be a dystopian take on the decline of civilization and misaligned relation of man with nature, and thus the vulnerability of the planet’s world.
Painted in an era of great political change and instability, with revolutions and communism, and rising scientific and humanitarian ideology, the transformation and trauma of modern society was apparent. Parallels can be made with our 21st century concerns of international relations, terrorism, global trade, climate change, deforestation and intense animal farming. Despite the prominence of animal rights, hunting is still a popular pastime, with not only deer suffering, but more broadly pheasants, foxes, badgers, and even rhinosaurus and elephants.
As an animal and nature lover, I find hunting distressing and symbolic of man’s desperate and destructive relationship with the natural environment. Given the development of civilization with advanced comfort and entertainment, the pursuit and killing of any animal is unnecessary and manifesting misguided supremacy. There is an intense need to change our use of the Earth’s resources; its species and elements. My enjoyment of the countryside through daily walks gives we great appreciation of the land’s wildlife and wonder. Yet I worry for its exhaustion battling hunters, and more inadvertently rising population with habitat destruction, intense farming, global warming, declining biological diversity and man’s deluded autonomy and superiority. My art historical interpretation of Courbet’s painting has empathy for the stag, but also those who were trying to activate positive change and foresight of the increasing threat and decline to the natural balance.
Like the stag with its heavy crown of antlers, we must walk strong, free, graceful and proud, to be at one with Nature as all equally important species on this Earth.
Dr Vicky Jones
“I am an artist and art historian with a passion for nature, colour, cultures and heritage. My interest in the natural world, folklore, spirituality, symbolism and dreams has grown from a young age, having inherited a love of art from my mother and grandmother (both painters) and history from my father.
My work in academia, studying History of Art to PhD at the University of Birmingham, has given me a breadth and depth of knowledge in the field. Specialist subjects include C18th Georgian Britain, Industrialisation, European culture and revolutions, C19-20th British artists and modern Masters. With a Diploma in Curating and Collections Management I have worked at various national and regional museums and art galleries. Highlights include handling works by Picasso, David Hockney, Monet, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, the PreRaphaelites and Edward Lear. I have taught and tutored Art History and practical Art, enjoying facilitating others to engage with art for their well-being.”