Letters of Gustave Courbet
edited and translated by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu
University of Chicago Press, 726 pp., $55.00
Last year at the Musée Courbet in Ornans there was an exhibition of the “erotic” work of André Masson. It was mostly grim stuff: juvenile, facile, and often plain nasty, reminding us that dredging the male subconscious can bring up dead dogs and rusty torture equipment. But for those who trudged through the gallery there was an unexpected reward at the far end. Alone and unsignaled was Courbet’s rarely seen The Origin of the World: the splayed female nude, from breast to mid-thigh, painted for the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey, and which latterly hung in Jacques Lacan’s country house. Despite decades of subsequent erotica and pornography it is still extraordinarily potent. Edmond de Goncourt, who found “ce Jordaens moderne” too vulgar for his taste, his nudes “untrue,” and who after attending a joint private view in 1867 of Courbet’s tribadic Le Sommeil and Ingres’s Bain antique (both painted for Khalil Bey) dismissed the two painters as idiots populaires, was won round by The Origin of the World. He saw it for the first time in 1889, ten years after Courbet’s death, and offered “honorable amends” to one who could render flesh as well as Correggio. It is painted with a lush delicacy, and the effect is intimidatingly realistic. No, it’s not like that, it’s like this, the painting seems to declare. And the fact that it continues to make this declaration when surrounded by twentieth-century erotica, that it is capable of rebuking the future as well as its own past and present, is a sign of how alive Courbet’s work remains.
He was always a great rebuker, a setter-right in both art and life. No, it’s not like that, it’s like this: the head-on sky-billowed seascape, the cocky self-portrait, the dense female flesh, the dying animal in the snow, all are imbued with a corrective as well as a descriptive zeal. He is an in-your-face realist painter, aesthetically assertive. “Shout loud and walk straight” was apparently a Courbet family maxim, and throughout his letters, which cover the whole of his adult life, he shouts loud and listens contentedly to the echo. He calls himself “the proudest and most arrogant man in France” (1853). By 1861, “I have the entire artistic youth looking at me and at the moment I am their commander-in-chief.” By 1867, “I have astounded the whole world…. I triumph not only over the moderns but over the old masters as well.” “The attention I get is tremendous” (1872). “On my side I have all of democracy, all women of all nations, all foreign painters” (1873). He cannot go stag-hunting in the hills outside Frankfurt without reporting that his exploits “aroused the envy of all Germany.”
Though much of this arrogance seems natural, it was also tailored to the market. Courbet, who was born in Ornans in the Franche-Comté in 1819, came to Paris at the age of twenty, and had his first picture accepted by the Salon …