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The Proudest and Most Arrogant Man in France’

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 five years later, created, or adapted to his use, the persona of the boisterous, belligerent, subversive, shit-kicking provincial; and like a television personality he got stuck with his public image, which then became indistinguishable from his true nature. Courbet was a great painter, but also a serious publicity act. He was a pioneer in self-marketing he sold photographs of his pictures to help spread his fame; he issued press releases when a painting of his sold for a large amount of money; he planned the first permanent exhibition center devoted to the work of a single artist: himself. In the Franco-Prussian war he even managed to get a cannon named after him—whereupon he wrote to a newspaper caricaturist giving details of the “schedule and route” of “Le Courbet,” asking him to “cover it for one of the newspapers at your disposal.”

For all his Proudhonism and anti-establishment beliefs, his genuine desire to cleanse the mucky stables of French art, there was more than a touch of Yevtushenkoism about him, of the approved rebel calculating how far he can go, and knowing how to turn outrage to his own advantage. When Return From the Conference was refused for the Salon in 1863 (by no means his first rejection), Courbet comments with perhaps more complacency than is appropriate, “I painted the picture so it would be refused. I have succeeded. That way it will bring me some money.” He was skilled at, or at least noisily involved in, the politicking which surrounded both the acceptance and the hanging of pictures at the Salon; he wanted to be accepted and refused at the same time.

He also wanted to accept and refuse, most notoriously with the Légion d’honneur. He needed to be decorated so that he could be publicly offended by the decoration. He nearly got his way in 1861, until Napoleon III irritatingly struck his name from the list, and had to wait until 1870 for the desired insult to arrive. He turned it down—in a letter to the newspapers, naturally—with high Gallic pomp: “Honor is neither in a title nor in a ribbon, it is in actions and the motivations for those actions. Respect for oneself and for one’s ideas constitutes the greater part of it. I do myself honour by staying true to my lifelong principles [etc., etc.].” It’s worth comparing the case of Daumier, who had been offered the Légion d’honneur earlier that year, and refused it discreetly. When Courbet upbraided him, Daumier, the quiet republican, replied, “I have done what I thought I ought to do. I am glad I did, but that is no business of the public’s.” Courbet shrugged his shoulders and commented, “We’ll never make anything of Daumier. He’s a dreamer.”

The ego and self-belief revealed in the letters are, of course, no more than a confirmation of what the work proclaims. Courbet’s self-portraits are painted with an attentive sensuality verging on erotic love, while the pose he arranges himself in is often deliberately Christlike. (Proudhon was not shy of the comparison either; witness his remark, “If I find twelve weavers, I am sure of conquering the world.”) In The Meeting Courbet’s friend and patron Alfred Bruyas is depicted as only slightly less deferential than his own servant Calas. Bruyas has just removed his hat to greet Courbet, whereas Courbet’s hat is in his hand because that is how he chooses to walk; Bruyas lowers his eyes in greeting, whereas Courbet cocks his head and points his beard like an implement of interrogation. To make a further point, the artist carries a stick twice as big as that of his patron. There is no doubt at all about what is happening: the artist is auditioning his patron for suitability rather than the other way round. How far we have come from the days when the patron or donor of a painting was depicted kneeling shoulder to shoulder with the saints, and the painter might at best disguise himself among the peasantry on the sidelines.

Or take L’Atelier (1854–1855), the “Real Allegory Determining a Phase of Seven Years of my Artistic Life”: friends and patrons to the right, wider and lower world to the left, artist with attendant nude model in the middle. Courbet called it “the moral and physical history of my atelier,” as well as, naturally enough, “the most surprising picture imaginable.” He delighted in its riddling quality: the critics would “have their work cut out,” the picture would “keep people guessing.” And still it does. Who are these figures, placed in inert uncommunicating groups, and clearly other than a plausible cross section of visitors to Courbet’s studio? Where does the light come from? Why is there a model present if he is painting a landscape—and why is he painting it in his studio? And so on. But however we try to solve, or over-solve the mystery—is it a political cartoon? does it have Masonic embellishments? (if in doubt, wheel on the Masons)—there is no disputing the intense focus of the picture: the figure of Courbet himself at work. It seems a relatively small physical area to bear the weight of such an enormous picture; but the depiction of the master aiming his brush is clearly thought powerful enough to do the job.

It’s helpful to see L’Atelier hung in the Musée d’Orsay directly opposite Courbet’s earlier great painting Burial at Ornans. The latter is in design a grand frieze, tightly framed, with the ripple and dip of the mourners echoed in the distant cliffs above; then the painting is abruptly cut off at the top, with only a low strip of sky allowed, enough just to accommodate and set off the raised crucifix. This severity and close focus point up the comparative sprawliness of L’Atelier, and especially the fact that two fifths of the painting lies above the line-up of human figures, taking up a vast area of scumble and mud. Structurally, L’Atelier might remind us of a medieval triptych: heaven and hell on either side, with the vast empyrean above. And in the middle, what have we got? Christ with Mary? God with Eve? Well, Courbet with a model, at any rate, sitting there, reinventing the world. And perhaps this helps answer the question of why Courbet is painting a landscape in his studio rather than en plein air: because he is doing more than reproducing the known, established world, he is creating it himself. From now on, the painting says, it is the artist who creates the world rather than God. (“I paint like le bon Dieu,” Courbet once said to Francis Wey.) Read like this, L’Atelier is either a colossal blasphemy or a supreme claim for the importance of art, depending on your viewpoint. Or both.

We are dealing not just with an ego and a career, but with a mission. Baudelaire wrote that Courbet’s 1855 debut, at the show he organized himself after both L’Atelier and the Burial had been turned down for the Universal Exhibition, took place “with all the violence of an armed revolt.” And from then on, the painter’s life and the future of French art are deemed to be indistinguishable. “I am winning my liberty. I am saving the independence of art,” he writes, as if the second statement were merely an elaboration of the first. After the “dragging-down” from its pedestal of painting based on “ideas and stereotypes,” after the “great burial” of academic and Romantic art (the stock symbols of Romanticism—guitar, dagger, hat with feather—lie discarded in the foreground of L’Atelier), Courbet outlined the new art in his 1861 open letter to the young artists of Paris. His main demands were contemporaneity of theme (artists were not to paint the past or the future), individuality of manner, concreteness, realism (he once praised one of his own stag paintings for being “mathematically precise” with not “an ounce of idealism” in it), and beauty. This beauty was to be found in nature, and carried “within itself” its own artistic expression, which the painter had no right to alter or amplify: “Beauty provided by nature is superior to all artists’ compositions.”

This profession de foi is generally believed to have been written by Courbet’s friend Jules Castagnary. Courbet seems to have fancied himself as a theoretician, but he had a practical rather than abstract cast of mind. In any case, we should always trust the painting rather than the trumpeting manifesto. The call for concrete realism doesn’t rule out allegory or suggestiveness, as in L’Atelier. Equally, the bellicose public aesthetic doesn’t prepare us for either the delicacy or the sheer romping variety of Courbet’s work: from the Bellini-esque early portrait of his sister Juliette to those confrontational seascapes which at their best have a power beyond realism, to the complex and torpidly erotic Demoiselles au bord de la Seine. Courbet was accused of beating “the tom-tom of publicity” with the latter picture (no doubt he was), but now that its history as provocation has passed, it remains a tensely compelling image. The scene is set in shade, yet gives off oppressive heat; the seemingly languid atmosphere is denied by bright, almost gaudy coloration; while the prone woman’s sleepy, half-open eye contrasts with the frank gaze we are allowed to bring to her and her companion. This gaze of ours is also intrusively close, since the picture is framed with forceful tightness; the lush trees sit preternaturally low over the recumbent figures, and the spray of leaves in the bottom right-hand corner binds in this image of sultry enclosure. There is a further loose structural rope thrown round the picture too. The boatman who has rowed these women down the Seine to this quiet spot has slipped away, leaving his hat abandoned in the boat moored at the back of the painting. Where has he gone? Presumably he has padded out of the frame in a soft semicircle and is now standing where we are, slyly observing his two pouting passengers. If the boatman does not actually merge with the spectator, he certainly stands close by, complicit and greedy-eyed, pressing back into the picture.

Just as there are weighted absences in several of Courbet’s greatest pictures—the owner of the hat in Les Demoiselles, the out-of-shot corpse beneath the spectator’s feet in Burial at Ornans, Mme. Proudhon in the pellucid homage to the philosopher—so there are powerful silences in Courbet’s letters. Of course, the survival of correspondence is a haphazard and unrepresentative process, but even so it is hard to think of a major painter who shows less interest in, or appreciation of, the work of others. No thrilled accounts of seeing a great painting for the first time, no encouragement of contemporaries (except to be like Courbet). The world divides into “the ancients,” i.e., those unfortunate enough to have been born before him, and “the moderns,” i.e., himself. He socialized with Boudin, was financially generous to Monet, has a good but brief word to say for Corot, and cites Titian only as a point of comparison with his own work. The only person, or perhaps persona, before whom Courbet quails is Victor Hugo, the one Frenchman even he would have to admit was more famous, and to whom he writes uneasily ingratiating letters.

Despite working for years in the glare of this withering ego, Petra Chu has retained her equilibrium impressively. Her edition of the letters is surely definitive, excellently edited, and translated so well that scarcely an anachronism gets through (I snagged on “mind-set,” though). She might have had to grit her teeth a little, too, in the face of cockily Proudhonish assertions such as “Women should concern themselves only with cabbage soup and housekeeping,” or the attemptedly gallant aphorism “It is the ladies’ task to correct, with their feelings, the speculative rationality of men among themselves.” Courbet was a socialist (pre-Marxian, admittedly) who dabbled in the stock market and was keenly acquisitive of land; similarly, for all his millenarian convictions, his attitude to women was pungently that of his time and class: brothels, mistresses, and unreflecting laddishness. He intermittently declares that his art leaves him no time for marriage, and just as intermittently tries to get married. In 1872 he settled on a young girl from his native Franche-Comté, grandly declared that he and his family were not bothered by “the social differences” between them, and blithely continued, in his letter to a go-between:

It is impossible that Mlle Léontine, despite the stupid advice she may receive from the peasants, may not accept the brilliant position I am offering her. She will be indisputably the most envied woman in France and she could be reborn another three times without ever coming across a position like this one. Because I could choose a wife from all of French society without ever being refused.

Mysteriously Mlle. Léontine declined to become the most envied woman in France, and left Courbet huffing and puffing about the rustic rival he had lost out to, and about “village sweetie pies” in general, who have “an intellectual worth about equal to that of their cows, without being worth the money.”

Even funnier is Courbet’s reaction a decade earlier to the news that his mistress—coincidentally another Mlle. Léontine—has been deceiving him. As an artist and thinker he believes that “marriage must be free,” a declaration he finds compatible with the idea that “woman…must be subject and faithful to man.” So even the sympathetic may chuckle when the bohemian turns bourgeois, the utopian turns Outraged of Ornans. He rages over rumpled sheets and rebukingly charts his growing suspicions to Mlle. Léontine: “Another evening my head was cold. You gave me the nightcap, but it didn’t fit anymore, the person who had slept there the night before had a smaller head than mine and had tightened it by five or six holes. With you I was only ever jealous of my personal dignity…” He certainly seems to have lost it here; perhaps it was pointedly, historically galling at this time for a painter to be sexually ousted by a photographer.

Under the Second Empire Courbet fought a noisy, obstreperous, and admirable campaign for the democratization of art, in its funding, administration, and teaching. The irony was that when he obtained what he wanted, when he finally held artistic power during the Siege and under the Commune, it led to his undoing. The destruction of the Vendôme Column and his part in it, the turning-point in Courbet’s public life, are foreshadowed in these letters in odd moments of haunting prolepsis. In 1848, writing to his family, he reassures them that he is “not getting very involved in politics,” but that he will be “always be ready to lend a hand to destroy what is ill established.” The next year he tells Francis Wey, “I have always felt that if the law took it into its head to accuse me of murder, I would definitely be guillotined, even if I were not guilty.” And the next year: “If I had to make a choice among countries, I admit that I would not choose my own.” Two decades later Courbet was the instigator of the campaign to demolish the “ill-established” Vendôme Column, a symbol of Napoleonic imperialism; the law accused him, and though perhaps not technically guilty (certainly less guilty than some, since he wasn’t a delegate to the Commune at the relevant time), he was sentenced to six months in prison, later topped up with a ruinous indemnity of 286,549 francs and 78 centimes; whereupon the prospect of further imprisonment for debt forced him to make his choice among countries. He opted for Switzerland.

Courbet accepted moral responsibility for the destruction of the Column; but neither this, nor his reminder that during the Siege and the Commune he had saved many national art treasures from possible loss, cut any ice. He seems not to have understood the extent to which by 1871 he had become a perfect target for the incoming government. A charismatic public figure, professional provoker of the established order, socialist, anticlerical, Communard delegate, a man who raised artistic independence to a political creed, who could write of Napoleon III, “He is a punishment that I do not deserve,” whose closing line in his call to the artists of Paris in April 1871 had been “Farewell old world and its diplomacy”—what more apt and exemplary victim for the “old world” when it returned to power? And when a state decides to persecute an individual for reasons of public policy—we are not too far away from the Rushdie case here—the state has more than the normal advantages of money and organization; it also has the formidable advantage of time. The individual may get tired and depressed, feel his talent being affected, his years running out; whereas the state rarely gets tired and imagines itself immortal. The French state in particular can be unforgiving after wars, especially civil ones.

By 1876 Courbet is still uncomprehending about what has happened, or rather why. “Was it,” he asks senators and deputies in an open letter, “to punish me for having refused the decoration under the empire that I must carry a cross of a different kind?” This is perhaps no more than a turn of phrase, though an interesting one from the painter who called one of his self-portraits Christ with Pipe. If the French state didn’t crucify Courbet, it certainly did its best to break him: his property was requisitioned, his pictures stolen, his assets sold, his family spied upon. He continued to paint, and to fight his corner, from Switzerland; occasionally he would summon up all the old boastfulness: “At this moment I have more than a hundred commissions. I owe it to the Commune … The Commune would have me be a millionaire.” But his last years—cut off from family and friends, increasingly obsessed with those who had betrayed and denounced him—were sad and stressful. Eventually, worn down, he agreed to a negotiated deal with the French government according to which he promised to pay off the cost of rebuilding the Vendôme Column over thirty-two years. “I must go to Geneva to get a passport at the consulate,” he wrote optimistically in May 1877; but renewed turmoil in France kept him an exile until his death that December.

If you sit at one of the café tables on the Place Humblot in Ornans today and look back across the clear, shallow, fast-flowing Loue, you will notice on the side of Courbet’s maison natale the faded letters of the word BRASSERIE. This is apposite. Alfred Stevens told Edmond de Goncourt that the painter’s consumption of beer was “terrifying”: thirty bocks in an evening, while he also preferred to lengthen his absinthe not with water but with white wine. On various occasions Courbet’s friend Etienne Baudry sent sixty-two-liter barrels of brandy to the exile (Courbet’s sister sent only “splendid socks,” to which he replied with gifts of a sewing machine for her and a pepper-grinder for his father). Alcoholic abuse resulted in dropsy, causing the painter’s body to swell to enormous proportions. The fearsome new technique of “tapping” produced twenty liters of water, marginally more effective than the older system (steam-bath plus purging), which had rendered “eighteen liters from the anus.” It seems grimly fitting that there is something extravagant and terrifying about Courbet’s death, as there is about his life and his art.

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