Metropolitan Museum of Art/Hatje Cantz, 480 pp., $85.00
L’Origine du monde: Histoire d’un tableau de Gustave Courbet
In 1854 Gustave Courbet sent his patron and friend the rich philanthropist Alfred Bruyas a self-portrait, accompanying it with a letter:
It is the portrait of a fanatic, an ascetic. It is the portrait of a man who, disillusioned by the nonsense that made up his education, seeks to live by his own principles. I have done a good many self-portraits in my life, as my attitude gradually changed. One could say that I have written my autobiography.
This statement was somewhat premature (he was only forty-five at the time), but it is true that he was fascinated by his own appearance and some twenty self-portraits are extant. In the 1860s, when Emile Zola was trying to sum up Courbet’s achievement, he wrote that he saw him as “simply a personality.” Certainly Courbet made much of his own personality, and the revolution that he effected owed more than a little to the vividness of his presence and to the myth that he very soon succeeded in building up around himself.
In fact, at the time Courbet was sure of his principles and of the way he felt he must manipulate his career. In the restless political climate of the decades following the Revolution and right through until the 1870s, Courbet’s views were consistently as far to the left as it was possible to be. In a letter to the writer Francis Wey and his wife in 1850 he declared himself thus:
I must lead the life of a savage…. The people have my sympathy. I must turn to them directly,…and they must provide me with a living …so that their judgement won’t be influenced by gratitude. They are right. I am eager to learn and to that end I will be so outrageous that I’ll give everyone the power to tell me the cruelest truths.
The publication of Courbet’s collected letters in 1992, edited and translated by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, put an end to the popularly held view of Courbet as a somewhat boorish provincial who had taken Paris by storm with his pictorial genius. Now Chu has published an interpretative study of his art, The Most Arrogant Man in France (the title is from a quote by Courbet himself), with the subtitle “Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture.” The letters and the book, taken together, make a splendid diptych and, along with T.J. Clark’s pioneering Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic of 1973, will surely become essential for all future Courbet studies.
The title of Chu’s book is self-explanatory, but in the exploration of her theme, she inevitably casts light on the artist’s character. Courbet was certainly arrogant to the highest degree. But he was intelligent and literate, albeit in a slightly quirky way. He had a sound if somewhat selective education in his native Franche-Comté; his letters from boarding school in Besançon to his parents back in Ornans criticize gaps in …
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