Near Ornans, in a narrow gorge shaded by luxuriant vegetation, the Brème stream flows gently along. This place, known as the Puits-Noir, was one of Courbet's favourite sites in an area he knew intimately. During the 1855 Universal Exhibition, when he presented The Stream at the Puits Noir, Valley of the Loue (Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art), the painting brought him his first real success as a landscape artist. Then, between 1860 and 1865, Courbet produced a large number of variations, one of which was this Black Stream, bought by the Superintendent of Fine Art for Napoleon III's personal collection.
The reason these images of Puits-Noir are so appealing is that they give an impression of entering a haven of peace. The steep-sided ravine is a kind of virgin "jungle". The brooding mystery that reigns there is further accentuated by the absence of any human or animal presence.
Although these scenes contain no narrative or picturesque element, they are not completely without a feeling of nostalgia. Courbet adds a more personal dimension to the vision he shares with the painters of Barbizon of a haven in nature. This painter, so provocative at the Salons, was the same man who enjoyed walking alone, hidden deep within the forests of his childhood. In absolute counterpoint to the infinite horizons of his seascapes, the Puits-Noir satisfies the painter's taste for dark, closed spaces, where he could withdraw into himself. This impression is further confirmed in a letter Courbet sent to his patron Alfred Bruvas in 1866. He describes the studio copy of The Black Stream that he was just finishing as a "superb landscape of deep solitude produced within the valleys of my native land ".