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The Born Rebel Artist

Gustave Courbet

Catalog of the exhibition by Sylvain Amic, Kathryn Calley Galitz, Laurence des Cars, Dominique de Font-Réaulx, Thomas Galifot, Michel Hilaire, Dominique Lobstein, Bruno Mottin, and Bertrand Tillier
an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, October 13, 2007–January 28, 2008; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 27–May 18, 2008; and the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France, June 14–September 28, 2008.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Hatje Cantz, 480 pp., $85.00

L’Origine du monde: Histoire d’un tableau de Gustave Courbet

by Thierry Savatier
Paris: Bartillat, 275 pp., $20.00 (paper)


by Linda Nochlin
Thames and Hudson, 224 pp., $29.95 (paper)

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,1 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 the curriculum and the shortcomings of some of his teachers. He was a born rebel and remained one until his death in exile. He was totally self-centered yet capable of warmth and affection toward his family.2

As his career progressed he indulged in much litigation. He could be duplicitous but could also show loyalty to friends and generosity to younger artists; he lent money to Monet. Yet the contradictions in his behavior and personality do not indicate a complex character but rather simply reveal a monumental self-absorption. His vainglory was so open as to be candid. He could be a liar on such a scale as to be quite engaging. Discussing the itinerant Irishwoman suckling a baby who appears in his great Atelier of 1855 he claimed to have seen her on the streets of London. Apart from the fact that there is no documentary evidence to support a London visit, he also claimed to have had an interesting conversation there with Hogarth, who had, of course, been dead for over forty years.

Courbet reached Paris in 1839. Nine years later he moved into a studio in the rue Hautefeuille, a few paces away from the Brasserie Andler in the Latin Quarter, which became almost a second home to him. The Andler was perhaps the most famous meeting place of the day for writers of all sorts in the city. By far the most distinguished of the habitués was Baudelaire, who was to be important for Courbet in the 1840s despite the incompatability of their characters. At the Andler Courbet also encountered, among a host of others, Théophile Gautier, Champfleury (a pseudonym),3 Jules Castagnary, and Alfred Murger, who are relevant to the painter in different ways.

Gautier, a confirmed Romantic, was perhaps the most celebrated art critic of his time. Courbet flirted with him by post, perhaps hoping to be mentioned in a review; there was no response. Gautier subsequently wrote unfavorably about Courbet’s art. Courbet, however, had long since realized that unfavorable reviews could be just as helpful in attracting public attention as those that flattered. Champfleury, a realist novelist and art critic, was initially the most enthusiastic champion of Courbet’s art, until they quarreled. Castagnary stepped into his shoes and remained staunch to the very end. Murger’s somewhat vapid Scénes de la vie de Bohème (1852) gives us an insight into the sort of life Courbet and his friends were leading; it was a roman à clef and Courbet knew personally the prototypes for its principal characters.

But the two most important influences on Courbet’s thought were surely Max Buchon (a friend since school days), an author of rural novels and a confirmed, even fanatical, republican (a position that forced him into exile in Belgium for a considerable period), and above all Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the philosopher and revolutionary thinker, most famous perhaps for his statement of 1840, “Qu’est-ce que propriété?” (“What is property? Property is theft”), which shot him to notoriety and made a strong impression on Courbet. Together they planned a book on the visual arts.

Throughout his life Courbet seems to have preferred the company of writers to that of other painters. One of the few disappointments of the Letters is that he almost never discusses any art other than his own, which he deals with almost entirely in financial terms; money is one of the leitmotifs of his correspondence. He recognized the achievements of Delacroix, whom he viewed with a certain grudging admiration, touched by envy. He knew Corot and was aware of the landscapes of the Barbizon School—he sometimes set up an easel there himself. He acknowledged Millet by lifting a pose from him. In 1856 he worked next to Whistler in Trouville, at the time a newly fashionable resort on the Normandy coast.

But basically he felt more at home with lesser artists who presented him with no challenge. He didn’t read all that much but was aware of what was going on around him in the world of letters. In an early stage of his career he had produced some pictures based on famous books, probably hoping the subject matter would impress the jury of the Salon. However, as Chu demonstrates time and again, it was the popular press that he studied most devoutly; after his death in Switzerland in 1877 a large cupboard in his rooms was found stuffed with newspapers.

The Courbet exhibition on view at the Grand Palais in Paris came as close to being definitive as seems possible. (Most but not all of the pictures will be on show beginning this month at the Metropolitan Museum, which also displays several paintings not in the Paris exhibition.) Of all French nineteenth-century artists Courbet was the most physical in his handling of paint, and his distinctive artistic presence filled the galleries in an almost palpable fashion. Wandering through them one was struck by the variety of ways he uses paint, stroking it, smudging it with rags, occasionally even using his bare hands to manipulate it. It seems that he treated paint as if he were touching human flesh, caressing it, kneading it, at times even assaulting it; and this is true not only of the nudes and figure pieces but even of many of the still lifes, the flower pieces, and the more verdant landscapes.

Courbet was a productive artist and the exhibition is very large. Despite the consistency of his political views and his adherence to Realism, his iconography expanded as did his treatment of it, so that his aesthetics shifted somewhat, too. The exhibition’s organizers, while they adhere roughly to chronology, have broken the display down into successive sections dealing with separate themes—“From Intimacy to History” or “The Manifestos”—like chapters in a book, and a similar sequence is to be followed in New York.

The first section deals predictably and rightly with Courbet’s early self-portraits. Before he visited Amsterdam in 1844 Courbet had already fallen under the spell of Rembrandt’s self-portraits and the visit confirmed him in his devotion to the Dutchman, who was perhaps his closest visual attachment in the early years of his career. Certainly the example of Rembrandt is overt in several of the first self-portraits, and his ghost hovers over the series as a whole. A comparison is revealing. Although Rembrandt often showed himself in different forms of costume, sometimes exotic, his eyes always hold the viewer’s own: as he looks into a mirror he also looks at us, and we sense him looking down into his own psyche, searching for ways to further penetrate his identity in order to seek new aspects of his character and hence expand his art.

Courbet’s self-portraits, on the other hand, are pure theater. His eyes seldom lock with ours; rather he enacts for us a series of impersonations. The two portraits of himself with his black cocker spaniel, both of 1842, are still overtly Rembrandtesque: in the first he presents himself as cultivated and slightly aloof; in the second, he looks positively princely, and so in a sense he was. Social distinctions in the provinces were every bit as complex as those in big cities. The Courbets were the first family of Ornans and very much aware of that fact.

Other, slightly later self-portraits show Courbet as disheveled and dreaming, one even as wounded; these suggest Romantic conceptions of the misunderstood artist, neglected and abused. In by far the most dramatic depiction of himself, known as Despair (1844–1845), he stares past us wild-eyed and distraught, tearing at his hair.4 The portrait that closes this sequence is the most straightforward and one of the least known. It was painted in 1852, a year after the sensation caused by the Burial at Ornans at the Salon of 1851. This time Courbet strikes us as slightly defiant, proud of his new notoriety and of his physical beauty. Taken together these portraits tell the story of one of the world’s great love affairs, that of Courbet with himself.

  1. 1

    University of Chicago Press; see Julian Barnes’s fine review in these pages, “The New York Review, October 22, 1992.

  2. 2

    In the last stages of his life, he did however develop a black hatred toward his eldest sister Zoë.

  3. 3

    His real name was Jules-François-Félix Fleury-Husson.

  4. 4

    This is the image that was chosen for the traditional banners that Paris sports to advertise major exhibitions. It would have pleased Courbet to be presiding over hundreds of thousands Parisians as they roamed through the streets of the capital. And the fact that this relatively small picture survives magnificently the test of being blown up to twenty or thirty times the size of the original testifies to its power and the beauty of its paint effects. It will be seen in the exhibition and on posters in New York.

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