Courbet Reconsidered

The World and I, Apr. 1989, pp. 206-13.

“Courbet Reconsidered”

By Jason Edward Kaufman

In the democratization of French society which took place in the mid-nineteenth-century, Gustave Courbet (1819-77) led the assault on elitist aesthetics. As Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) had displaced the sentimental and decadent pomp of the Rococo court with a robust, high-minded Republican style, so Courbet, sixty years later, invaded the state-run art establishment, opposing its artificiality with his coarse brand of Realism.

Raised in Ornans, a village near Switzerland, Courbet came from a wealthy, bourgeois family. After brief artistic training with former students of Baron Gros and David, in 1839 the twenty-year-old arrived in Paris. Instead of enrolling at the Ècole des Beaux-Arts, where he would have continued his Neoclassical education, he copied Dutch, Flemish, Venetian, and Spanish pictures in the museums. The freely-brushed, earthy realism of these schools set the tone for his own mature style.

His career falls mainly between the ephemeral revolutions of 1848 and 1871. In the intervening Second Empire, Courbet was one of the most controversial figures in the Paris artworld. Not merely an artist, but a political force for Republicanism, Courbet’s subject matter and the style of its depiction effected an all-out assault on the conservative standards of the imperial regime and its state-run Academy.

The Academy controlled both the instruction and exhibition of art in France. It sanctioned only mythological, biblical, or French history painting, and approved of highly finished, classicizing compositions. The Academy’s Neoclassicism linked the imperial government with the great monarchic civilizations of the past. Naturally, some critics disdained this program and its aesthetic canon. As early as 1824, Stendhal had complained, “What do I care about antique bas-relief! Let us try to do good modern
painting [my emphasis].” In 1851, François Sabatier remarked: “The grand style is wrong, not that it is not very grand, but because it is Greek, and in France, in the nineteenth century, Frenchmen are alive and the Greeks are dead.”

By the 1830s, artists such as Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), Camille Corot (1796-1875), François Millet (1814-75) and the Barbizon school, and Honoré Daumier (1808-79) had tentatively established an alternative to heroic narrative themes. They painted ordinary people and landscapes — genre subjects. Corot, for example, had resolved “to reproduce as conscientiously as possible what I see before me,” and Millet had devoted himself to imparting the dignity of French peasantry within a society transformed by industrialization.

Courbet chose to paint the provincial villagers and the rugged landscape of his native Franche-Comté region. Unlike his predecessors, however, Courbet painted these commonplace subjects on a scale appropriate to history paintings, indicating his belief that the people, not archaic gods, are the true subject of modern art. As he stated, “My sympathies are with the people, I must speak to them directly, take my science from them, and they must provide me with a living.” (1849)

Discarding the outworn Neoclassical language in favor of a contemporary one, Courbet challenged the Academy’s symbolic affirmation of imperial authority. His aggrandized provincial subjects were ringing political statements that were instantly recognized by his conservative opponents as manifestly subversive. There were never any doubts as to his political leanings: “I am not only a socialist, but a democrat and a republican as well,” he swore, “…in a word, a supporter of the whole revolution, and above all, a Realist. That is to say, a sincere lover of genuine truth.”

Since his art was based on individual experience, not convention, Courbet employed brash brushwork that emphasized personal execution, physicality, and immediacy. Academic considerations regarding finish were completely ignored. Eyewitnesses claimed he worked with his knife, rags, fingers, sponges, brushes, whatever was handy. According to the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary, Courbet even invented a special palette knife. Théophile Gautier, in 1847, said Courbet’s painting is “worked over with an impasto thick as mortar, on a canvas worn bare and coarsely grained.”

Courbet himself was caricatured as a rude peasant in tattered clothes with wooden shoes, holding a palette from which waxy paint dripped, and wielding a gardener’s trowel (instead of the palette knife). The degree to which this image was fiction can perhaps be gauged from the eyewitness account in the obituary that ran in The New York Times (January 17, 1878): “He was slouchy, dirty, and negligent in regard to his person, and looked as if he never cleaned his nails or combed his hair… Personally he was an extremely vulgar man, extremely coarse, extremely rude, and yet had a large fund of kindness about him.”

Had it not been for the revolution of 1848, Courbet would never have had the impact he did. That year, the Salon was unjuried and Courbet was able to show ten paintings. The following year, a jury was reinstated, but drawn from the ranks of painters rather than exclusively Academicians. Courbet showed eleven paintings, of which After Dinner at Ornans (1848-49) was bought by the Republican state. The liberal jury further awarded him a medal that entitled him to show at subsequent Salons.

After Dinner at Ornans was the first of a series of monumentalized provincial subjects that Courbet hurled against the Academicians. More than six by eight feet, the canvas depicts three life-sized peasants seated at a table being entertained by a standing figure playing the violin. At the Salon of 1850 he showed The Stonebreakers (1849, destroyed in World War II), another aggrandized plebian theme which depicted two workers, one old and one young, engaged in the pleasureless drudgery of manual labor. Replete with all the telling details necessary to the task, the picture represented the life of toil and poverty that was the lot of an entire landless class. This was Courbet’s version of history painting. As he later declared, “Above all, the art of painting can consist only of the representation of objects which are visible and tangible for the artist….I hold artists of one century basically incapable of reproducing the aspects of a past or future century,” he stated. “For this reason I reject history painting when it is applied to the past. History painting is essentially contemporary.” (1855)

Also at the Salon of 1850, he exhibited A Burial at Ornans (1850), a twenty-foot long, gloomy frieze that portrays an anonymous burial in the country painted on a scale exceeding the format of most major history paintings commissioned by the state. El Greco (1541-1614) had created a similar frieze of mourners in The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1583), but the Spanish Baroque master complemented the mundane gathering with a dazzling, hallucinatory firmament. Courbet’s scene lacked pageantry, sentiment, and religiosity. It was attacked by many as mere copying of nature, unrefined by higher ideals.

Before the Salon of 1852, Courbet’s next public affront, The Young Ladies of the Village Giving Alms to a Cowheard in a Valley of Ornans (1851), was bought by Charles de Morny, organizer of the December 1851 coup d’état that overthrew the Second Republic and installed his half-brother Louis-Napoleon as Emperor. Despite its official patron, the painting was castigated for its stiff, doll-like figures, for the gruff personages whose peasant birth was thinly disguised by their Parisian dresses, and for its flawed perspective.

Courbet was well aware of his role as the heretical independent, single-handedly taking on the government. “It is a serious responsibility to first provide the example of liberty and personality in art,” he said. His arrogance fueled the controversy that surrounded his work. When The Meeting or `Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’ (1854) was shown at the Salon of 1855, its subject was caricatured in a cartoon showing the artist’s supporter Alfred Bruyas and his companion kneeling, rather than standing, before Courbet; a caption read, “Realist Imitation of the Adoration of the Magi.” The artist’s self-assurance and enthusiasm are again evident in The Homecoming (1854), a symbolic self-portrait as an unencumbered, joyful, free-wandering artist.

At the Exposition Universelle of 1855, Courbet elected to bring his work to the public regardless of the Academy’s judgment. With the backing of Bruyas, Courbet constructed a “Pavillon du rèalisme” in which he displayed forty of his canvasses that the increasingly conservative jury had rejected from the Salon. Included were the colossal A Burial at Ornans and a comparably enormous new work, The Painter’s Studio, A Real Allegory Summarizing a Seven-year Phase of My Artistic Life (1855). The “seven-year phase” was the period since the 1848 revolution.

The Painter’s Studio is a veritable Manifesto of Realism: to the left, the disenfranchised proletariat; to the right, the bourgeoisie, including friends, collectors, and intellectuals such as Baudelaire, Bruyas, and Champfleury. In the middle, the artist himself is depicted at the easel, painting a landscape. A nude model looks over his shoulder and a young boy watches from the side. The scene has been deciphered as a political allegory in which each of the lower-class figures on the left signifies one of Napoleon III’s ministers, with the Emperor himself represented by an old man with some hunting dogs. Courbet has turned the economic tables on the imperial retinue and boldly claims his artmaking as the central agent of political transformation.

Since his one-man show was regarded as vulgar self-promotion, it was poorly attended. However, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) visited the Pavillon, and wrote in his journals: “I discovered a masterpiece in his rejected picture…. They have refused one of the most extraordinary works of our time.”

The jury for the Salon of 1857 was composed solely of Academicians, and the rules were changed to allow open entry only to members of the Institut de France or recipients of the Légion d’honneur. Courbet was permitted to submit mostly animal paintings inspired by recent hunting trips in Germany. But, one work, The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer) (1856-57), kept up his reputation for heresy: two unposed, thick-bodied Parisian ladies, in marked contrast to the ideal Salon types, have flopped down in the shade to escape the afternoon heat. The nearest has removed her billowy dress and uses it as a beach towel, revealing her layered undergarments. As they lie languorously, the leafy canopy and tree trunks suggest a four-post bed, alluding perhaps to some sexual avocation of these demoiselles.

As a Venus, a nymph, or an allegorical figure of some sort, the nude was a perennial theme of high art; sex was not. Courbet nevertheless made the naked female body the protagonist of erotic paintings. His Venus and Psyche (1864, destroyed) was refused at the Salon of 1865 on grounds of its indecency. The Sleepers (1866), a provocative depiction of entwined lesbian lovers, was commissioned by Khalil Bey, a former Turkish diplomat and leading collector in Paris, who may have requested an update of another work in his collection, Ingres’ Turkish Bath (1852-63). When the Courbet picture was displayed in a dealer’s window in 1872 it was duly noted by the police in their growing dossier on the artist. Also painted for Bey was the notorious The Origin of the World (1866) — a documentary view of a woman’s genitalia — the fate of which picture in public would have been a foregone conclusion.

Less inadmissible as subjects of high art than were his aggrandized depictions of uncouth peasants or erotic paintings of women, Courbet’s landscape paintings found a ready market, both in the Salon and in exhibitions in the provinces, in Germany, and the low countries. Landscape subjects account for nearly two thirds of Courbet’s total output. He regularly made a pilgrimage to the Franche-Comté where he depicted such locales as The Source of the Loue (several versions, 1864-5), a remarkable precinct where the river emerges from an opening in solid rock, and The Oak at Flagey (1864), a venerable tree near Courbet’s family property, said to mark the battlefield where Caesar defeated the Gallic chieftain, Vercingetorix.

Woodland hunting scenes and animal pictures became favorites following his trips to Germany in the late 1850s. In the 1860s, he visited Trouville and Deauville where he met James Abbott MacNeil Whistler (1834-1903) and Claude Monet (1840-1926), and painted seascapes on the channel, far from Second Empire society. At the Salon of 1870, Courbet showed two large seascapes from the Normandy coast at Étretat. He was nominated for the Légion d’honneur, but summarily refused on grounds of his principled opposition to imperial government.

The war with Prussia ended with the defeat of Napoleon III, and the Republic was proclaimed in September. In October 1870, Courbet addressed an optimistic open letter to the soldiers and artists of Germany urging a brotherhood between peace-loving French and Germans, an abolition of frontiers, and a United States of Europe. As President of the newly formed government’s Arts Commission, Courbet’s duties included protecting the monuments and artworks of Paris from destruction of war. In that capacity he proposed that the Napoleonic Vendôme Column be dismantled and removed to Les Invalides.

In March 1871, Courbet was named head of the Commune’s Federation of Artists, and in April he was elected representative from the sixth arrondissement. In May, the Commune arranged to have the Vendôme Column toppled, apparently against the wishes of Courbet. At the end of the month, the Commune fell to imperial troops. Cartoons proliferated showing Courbet, in the pose of his “Stonebreaker,” hammering apart the column. As a contemporary charcoal self-portrait (1871) shows, the artist shaved in order not to be recognized by the police who were actively pursuing him. He was arrested in June.

A trial found him responsible for the destruction of the Vendôme Column, and he was fined and sentenced to six months in jail, the latter portion of which he spent ill in a clinic. His Self-portrait at Ste.-Pélagie (ca. 1872, actually painted after his release) shows the artist self-absorbed, melancholic, sitting on a table near a barred window in his murky cell. While at the nursing home at Neuilly, he painted a series of sanguine-colored still-lifes of fruits that convey something of his relief to be out of Ste.-Pélagie prison. These paintings were refused at the Salon for political reasons.

The new government ruled that Courbet was personally liable for the costs of reconstructing the column. To avoid losing all his property and possibly landing in debtor’s prison, in July 1873 he fled to Switzerland where, despite drinking heavily, he continued to paint, creating images of trout on fishing lines struggling to return to the water, the fortress-like Château de Chillon on lake Geneva a few miles from his lodgings, and the wall of mountains barring him from France. After the order in May 1876 that he pay an impossibly huge sum, without hope of return, Courbet died in exile, December 31, 1877.

Every exhibition is, in a sense, a reconsideration of its topic. In the case of “Courbet Reconsidered,” the show organized by The Brooklyn Museum and currently on view at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts through April 30, the topic is indeed worthy of reappraisal. Courbet, one of the nineteenth century’s most controversial and influential French masters, remains one of the least well understood. Museum exhibitions have focused on the more comfortable work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists rather than on this rebellious figure to whom all modern art is profoundly indebted.

Unfortunately, many of Courbet’s crucial works were not permitted to travel from Europe. Nevertheless, the eighty-seven paintings and twelve drawings loaned by more than fifty public and private collections in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan — the most complete selection shown in the United States for almost thirty years — certainly afford sufficient material for us to reconsider Courbet.

Regrettably, this exhibition by no means does so admirably. On the one hand, the catalogue texts do include an informative account of “Courbet’s Reception in America before 1900” by Douglas Edelson, and a convincing essay by Claudette Mainzer revealing whose funeral is actually depicted in Courbet’s famous painting, A Burial at Ornans. On the other hand, after expressing her frustration that scholars have beaten her to the explication of Courbet’s colossal The Painter’s Studio, Linda Nochlin launches a straining interpretation that ends with her chastising Courbet for male chauvinism. The essay by Michael Fried, titled “Courbet’s `Femininity’,” seeks to demonstrate that all of Courbet’s pictures (female nudes included) are subliminal self-portraits of the artist in the act of painting. Fried’s essay is the most ludicrous contribution to a museum publication in this critic’s experience. But, the shortcomings of the catalogue must not disturb our reconsideration of Courbet’s work.

His example is important today because an artistic revolution is imminent. The late-twentieth-century parallel to nineteenth-century French Academicism is modernism, the prevalence of which has left the artworld destitute of relevant ideas. New content must be restored and expressed in a contemporary language. Artists need to invent contemporary figures that convey ideas germane to our modern civilization. The new language must be readily intelligible to the modern audience, which is attuned not to classical antiquity, but to popular culture — i.e., mass-produced commodities, periodic literature, movies, sports, music, politics, and the corporate community. It is with symbols drawn from these fields that modern artists must construct their themes. There must be a new art that deals with the pressing issues of our times and which proposes solutions by means of an articulate and contemporary form of expression. This is what Courbet championed, and this is what Western civilization needs today.

The exhibition “Courbet Reconsidered” is on view at The Brooklyn Museum
From November 4, 1988 through January 16, 1989. It has been funded by IBM and several U.S. and French agencies. The catalogue is distributed by Yale University Press. The exhibition continues at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts through April 30. For further information call (612) 870-3046.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

This article appeared in The World and I, Apr. 1989, pp. 206-13.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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