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(Cheryl Carlin)

Larger than Life

Whether denouncing France's art establishment or challenging Napoleon III, Gustave Courbet never held back

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Painter, provocateur, risk taker and revolutionary, Gustave Courbet might well have said, "I offend, therefore I am." Arguably modern art's original enfant terrible, he had a lust for controversy that makes the careers of more recent shockmeisters like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Robert Mapplethorpe seem almost conventional. As a rebellious teenager from a small town in eastern France, Courbet disregarded his parents' desire for him to study law and vowed, he wrote, "to lead the life of a savage" and free himself from governments. He did not mellow with age, disdaining royal honors, turning out confrontational, even salacious canvases and attacking established social values when others of his generation were settling into lives cushioned with awards and pensions.

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Courbet arrived in Paris in 1839 at the age of 20 intent on studying art. Significantly, considering his later assault on the dominance and rigidity of the official art establishment, he did not enroll in the government-sanctioned Academy of Fine Arts. Instead he took classes in private studios, sketched at museums and sought advice and instruction from painters who believed in his future. Writing to his parents in 1846 about the difficulty of making a name for himself and gaining acceptance, he said his goal was "to change the public's taste and way of seeing." Doing so, he acknowledged, was "no small task, for it means no more and no less than overturning what exists and replacing it."

As the standard-bearer of a new "realism," which he defined as the representation of familiar things as they are, he would become one of the most innovative and influential painters of mid-19th-century France. His dedication to the portrayal of ordinary life would decisively shape the sensibilities of Manet, Monet and Renoir a generation later. And Cézanne, who praised the older artist for his "unlimited talent," would embrace and build on Courbet's contention that brushwork and paint texture should be emphasized, not concealed. In addition, by holding his own shows and marketing his work directly to the public, Courbet set the stage for the Impressionists in another way. After their paintings were repeatedly rejected by the Paris Salon (the French government's all-important annual art exhibition), Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Cézanne organized their own groundbreaking show in 1874. It was at that exhibition that a critic derisively dubbed the group "Impressionists." Who knows, wrote art critic Clement Greenberg in 1949, "but that without Courbet the impressionist movement would have begun a decade or so later than it did?"

Courbet worked in every genre, from portraiture, multi-figural scenes and still lifes to landscapes, seascapes and nudes. He did so with a surpassing concern for accurate depiction, even when that meant portraying impoverished women or laborers engaged in backbreaking tasks—a radical approach at a time when his peers were painting fanciful scenes of rural life, stories drawn from mythology and celebrations of aristocratic society. Courbet's women were fleshy, often stout. His laborers appeared tired, their clothes torn and dirty. "Painting is an essentially concrete art," he wrote in a letter to prospective students in 1861, "and can consist only of the representation of things both real and existing."

He also developed the technique of using a palette knife—and even his thumb—to apply and shape paint. This radical method—now commonplace—horrified conservative viewers accustomed to seeing glossy paint smoothed onto the surface of a picture and was ridiculed by many critics. The sensuous rendering and eroticism of the women in Courbet's canvases further scandalized the bourgeoisie.

These once-controversial paintings are part of a major retrospective of Courbet's work now at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 18). The exhibition, which opened last year at the Grand Palais in Paris and will continue on to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, features more than 130 paintings and drawings. Nearly all of Courbet's important canvases have been included, except A Burial at Ornans (p. 86) and The Painter's Studio (above)—the two masterpieces on which his early reputation rests—because they were deemed too large and too fragile to travel.

A fresh—and revelatory—dimension of the exhibition is its concentration on the face that Courbet presented to the world. A series of arresting self-portraits from the 1840s and early 1850s advertise him as an alluring young man in the Byronic mode, with long hair and liquid brown eyes. One of them, The Desperate Man, has never been seen in the United States. In it, Courbet portrays himself in a state of frenzy, confronting the viewer with a mesmerizing stare. Few artists since Caravaggio could have brought off a portrait so emotionally extreme, composed of equal parts aggression and startling charm.

The early self-portraits, says the Met's Kathryn Calley Galitz, one of the show's curators, "disclose that Courbet was emphatically responding to Romanticism, which makes his later shift to Realism even more significant." These images also record a youthful slenderness that would prove fleeting. Courbet's appetite for eating and drinking was as gargantuan as his hunger for fame. ("I want all or nothing," he wrote to his parents in 1845; "...within five years I must have a reputation in Paris.") As he put on weight, he came to resemble nothing so much as what he was—an intellectual, political and artistic battering ram.

Courbet's acquaintances in Paris were under the impression—craftily abetted by the artist himself—that he was an ignorant peasant who had stumbled into art. In truth, Jean Désiré-Gustave Courbet, though provincial, was an educated man from an affluent family. He was born in 1819 in Ornans, in the mountainous Franche-Comté region near the Swiss border, to Régis and Sylvie Oudot Courbet. Régis was a prosperous landowner, but anti-monarchical sentiments infused the household. (Sylvie's father had fought in the French Revolution.) Gustave's younger sisters—Zoé, Zélie and Juliette—served as ready models for their brother to draw and paint. Courbet loved the countryside where he grew up, and even after he moved to Paris he returned nearly every year to hunt, fish and derive inspiration.

At age 18, Courbet was sent to college in Besançon, the capital city of the Franche-Comté. Homesick for Ornans, he complained to his parents about cold rooms and bad food. He also resented wasting time in courses in which he had no interest. In the end, his parents agreed to let him live outside the college and take classes at a local art academy.

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