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La source de la Loue (The Source of the Loue)

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819–1877). La Source de la Loue (The Source of the Loue), ca. 1864. Oil on canvas, 42 1/4 x 54 1/8 inches (107.3 x 137.5 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund, 1959 (1959:1).

Exploring Art and the Senses

Featuring Gustave Courbet's La Source de la Loue (The Source of the Loue), ca. 1864

Conceptual Basis

During the nineteenth century, when French paintings often depicted romanticized scenes of daily life, artist Gustave Courbet chose to paint “observed realities,” making bold statements on society with his artwork. Criticized for painting peasants and workers, Courbet captured life including scenes from his home region, Ornans, France. One of the area’s natural wonders is the source of the Loue River, which flows through Ornans. Courbet was fascinated by the geologic structure of this caved grotto. In La Source de la Loue, ca. 1864, Courbet painted this special place realistically, adding textural features intended to awaken the viewer’s senses. This lesson explores the way art can be experienced through the senses and how the senses can inspire artmaking.

Featured Work

Gustave Courbet
(French, 1819–1877)
La Source de la Loue (The Source of the Loue), ca. 1864
Oil on canvas
42 1/4 x 54 1/8 inches (107.3 x 137.5 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund, 1959

Lesson Objectives

  • Become familiar with the artist Gustave Courbet and the Realism movement in France.
  • Use the sense of touch to explore an environment.    
  • Create an artwork based on sensory experiences.
  • Study the geological aspects of a cave as seen in La Source de la Loue, ca. 1864.
  • Support the understanding of basic art elements and principles.


  • Canvas paper
  • Acrylic or tempera paint and paintbrushes
  • Materials for creating texture such as sand, dirt, and rocks
  • Additional collage material (optional)
  • Palette knife (optional)

Background Information for Teachers

About the Artist

French artist Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) was the leading advocate of Realism in France. During the nineteenth century, French paintings often depicted romanticized scenes of life. Courbet, in contrast, was committed to painting “observed realities,” choosing to make bold statements on society with his artwork. Courbet was criticized early in his career for painting peasants, workers, and everyday domestic scenes on large canvases that explored the reality of life in France. This was deemed controversial by French society since traditionally large canvases were meant for biblical or historical subjects only. 

About the Art

A native of Ornans, France, located in a region called the Franche-Comté, Courbet often included scenes from his home region in his paintings. The Franche-Comté is an area filled with natural curiosities; in fact, the area’s Jura Mountains were the origin of the term Jurassic, which was coined in the early nineteenth century to refer to the period during which dinosaurs lived. One of the area’s natural wonders is the source of the Loue River, which flows through Ornans. The Loue is subterranean and emerges from immense grottos, which Courbet often depicted in his paintings. Courbet was fascinated by the geologic forces inherent in the site, believing that the forces are more mysterious because they originate underground.

Courbet made as many as one hundred and fifty views of the source of the Loue River. The Albright-Knox’s painting is one of the few that is completely free of any indications of human presence. This painting only depicts stone, water, and the shadowy darkness of the cave. Courbet often used a palette knife to scrape paint onto the canvas. That technique was used in this painting to enhance the rockiness of the cave wall and the force of the cascading water. The result is a dark painting that also reveals the artist’s response to the power and mystery of nature. 

Vocabulary for Students

Realism: creating art that appears real

texture: physical feel or appearance of a touchable sensation on a surface area

Sensory Exploration: Imagination Activities and Texture Touch Boxes

Connecting a discussion about art to an activity can deepen classroom learning. Through imagination and sensory experience, this activity can build your students’ understanding. 

Texture is a dominant element in Gustave Courbet’s La Source de la Loue, ca. 1864. Through thickly applied paint, Courbet created visual texture as seen in the rock formations and water currents in the grotto. In a realistically rendered painting, one gets a feeling that he or she is standing in the scene. Imagining standing along the water, gazing into the dark cave, can serve as the beginning of an exciting exploration for your students. 

Activity 1

Through observation, students can imagine what they would experience through different senses if they were inside of a painting. When viewing Courbet’s cave, ask students to describe what they see. Once all observations have been made, ask them to put themselves into the painting. If standing in the rapids, what would they hear? See? Smell? What would they feel? Is the water cold or warm? Then ask them to pretend to walk up to the rocks: if they touched them, how would they feel?

Activity 2

Pretending to be in the artwork engaging with surroundings can build students’ awareness of the elements of the artwork, or feelings evoked from the scenery. Ask your students to pretend that they are explorers about to enter Courbet’s cave. Make a list of things they will need and describe why they are necessary.

Activity 3

While imagining senses can be beneficial to examining an artwork, creating physical environments for students to experience can further their understanding of a sense or sensation. Building texture boxes can engage students in learning texture through feel. This activity connects texture and senses with the cave in Courbet’s painting. Materials that you will need for this activity include:

  • Small- to medium-sized boxes with a hole in each lid big enough for a hand to fit through
  • Objects that provide examples of a variety of textures (e.g., metal objects, fabrics, cotton, gummy bears, cooked spaghetti, grapes, damp sponges, crunch leaves, tin foil, etc.)
  • Glue and/or tape

This activity can be done with a variety of age groups. For younger students, pre-assemble the texture boxes using combinations of different textures. You can attach objects to the sides and bottom of the box. For the activity, divide your class into groups. Give each group a box and tell them to imagine it is a cave. Ask them to touch all of the items in the cave and make notes about how they feel. When exploring the boxes, have groups create a list of adjectives based on what textures they feel. As a group, students can collaborate and create a story about their trip into the cave based on what textures they felt. Each student can draw something that his or her group found in the cave. This drawing can be literal or imaginative. Older students can work in groups to assemble their own boxes using objects they find on their own. Groups can swap boxes with one another and complete the same activities listed above. 

Artmaking Activity

Most people have a special place where they like to be. Courbet’s was the landscape around his hometown of Ornans, which included the source of the Loue River. Ask your students to brainstorm places they like to visit. The places can be somewhere outdoors, at home, in school, or another location. Have students write out different adjectives, or sensory words, about this place and how they make them feel. For this artmaking activity, students will create artworks that represent their special places. These can be realistic artworks that re-create the places or abstract artworks that capture the elements of the places. You can tailor the art making lesson depending on grade level. 

For realistic artworks, have students bring in pictures of their special places. They can create paintings of their scenes. To capture the texture created in Courbet’s painting, instruct students on how they can create visual texture through brush strokes. They can also build up paint or add sand and different materials in their paint to create additional texture in areas of their paintings. 

For abstract artworks, have students collect different items, pictures, or thoughts about their spaces. For example, if a student’s special place is in their grandparents’ garden, flowers, rocks, or dirt from the garden can be used as materials for their abstract collage. Focusing on the feelings or senses the students have when in their places, have them each create a collage using the collected materials.

Lesson Tips

  • This lesson can be connected to ecology in a Science lesson. Studying plants and animals that live in caves—including how they adapt to the darkness of caves—can lead to discussions to promote cross-curriculum learning. A geology connection can include studying aspects of cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites.
  • Have students experiment with using a palette knife with acrylic paint to create texture in their painting. 

Optional Reflections and Lesson Wrap-Up

  • Ask each student to write an essay using their place as a setting. This writing piece can be a narrative about how the student feels when they are in their special place. 
  • Create a special space in the classroom for students to experience for a few minutes in the day, such as a reading nook with a comfortable chair. 

Teacher Example

Painting of waves crashing on the beach
Example of finished artwork based on lesson plan. Artwork by School Program Coordinator Kelly Macagnone.


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