Larger than Life

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
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In the autumn of 1839, after two years in Besançon, Courbet journeyed to Paris, where he began studying with Baron Charles von Steuben, a history painter who was a regular exhibitor at the Salon. Courbet's more valuable education, however, came from observing and copying Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish paintings in the Louvre.

His first submission to the Salon, in 1841, was rejected, and it wasn't until three years later, in 1844, that he would finally have a painting, Self-Portrait With Black Dog, selected for inclusion. "I have finally been accepted to the Exhibition, which gives me the greatest pleasure," he wrote to his parents. "It is not the painting that I would most have wanted to have accepted but no matter....They have done me the honor of giving me a very beautiful location....a place reserved for the best paintings in the Exhibition."

In 1844 Courbet began work on one of his most acclaimed self-portraits, The Wounded Man (p. 3), in which he cast himself as a martyred hero. The portrait, which exudes a sense of vulnerable sexuality, is one of Courbet's early explorations of erotic lassitude, which would become a recurring theme. In Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine of 1856-57 (opposite), for instance, two women—one dozing, one daydreaming—are captured in careless abandon. The sleeping woman's disarrayed petticoats are visible, and moralists of the time were offended by Courbet's representation of the natural indecorousness of sleep. One critic called the work "frightful." In 1866 Courbet outdid even himself with Sleep, an explicit study of two nude women asleep in each other's arms. When the picture was shown in 1872, the commotion surrounding it was so intense that it was noted in a police report, which became part of a dossier the government was keeping on the artist. Courbet, a critic observed, "does democratic and social painting—God knows at what cost."

In 1848 Courbet moved into a studio at 32 rue Hautefeuille on the Left Bank and started hanging out in a neighborhood beer house called the Andler Keller. His companions—many of whom became portrait subjects—included the poet Charles Baudelaire, art critic Champfleury (for many years, his champion in the press) and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. They encouraged Courbet's ambitions to make unidealized pictures of everyday life on the same scale and with the same seriousness as history paintings (large-scale narrative renderings of scenes from morally edifying classical and Christian history, mythology and literature). By the early 1850s, Courbet was enjoying the patronage of a wealthy collector named Alfred Bruyas, which gave him the independence and means to paint what he wanted.

Few artists have been more sensitive to, or affected by, political and social changes than Courbet. His ascent as a painter was tied to the Revolution of 1848, which led to the abdication of King Louis-Philippe in February of that year. The succeeding Second Republic, a liberal provisional government, adopted two key democratic reforms—the right of all men to vote and to work. In support of these rights, Courbet produced a number of paintings of men and women laboring at their crafts and trades. In this more tolerant political climate, some of the Salon's requirements were eliminated, and Courbet was able to show ten paintings—a breakthrough for him—in the 1848 exhibition. The following year, one of his genre scenes of Ornans won a gold medal, exempting him from having to submit his work to future Salon juries.

Starting in the early 1840s, Courbet lived with one of his models, Virginie Binet, for about a decade; in 1847 they had a child, Désiré-Alfred Emile. But when the couple separated in the winter of 1851-52, Binet and the boy moved away from Paris, and both mistress and son, who died in 1872, seem to have disappeared from the artist's life. After Binet, Courbet avoided lasting entanglements. "I am as inclined to get married," he had written his family in 1845, "as I am to hang myself." Instead, he was ever in the process of forming, hoping for or dissolving romantic attachments. In 1872, while back in Ornans, Courbet, then in his early 50s, wrote a friend about meeting a young woman of the sort that he "had been seeking for twenty years" and of his hopes of persuading her to live with him. Puzzled that she preferred marriage with her village sweetheart to his offer of "the brilliant position" that would make her "indisputably the most envied woman in France," he asked the friend, who was acting as a go-between, to find out if her answer was given with her full knowledge.

Courbet's status as a gold-medal winner allowed A Burial at Ornans (which was inspired by the funeral of his great-uncle in the local cemetery) to be shown at the 1851 Salon, despite the critics who derided its frieze-like composition, subject matter and monumentality (21 by 10 feet). Some 40 mourners, pallbearers and clergy—actual townspeople of Ornans—appear in the stark scene. This provided a radically different visual experience for sophisticated Parisians, for whom rustics and their customs were more likely to be the butt of jokes than the subjects of serious art. One writer suggested that Courbet had merely reproduced "the first thing that comes along," while another compared the work to "a badly done daguerreotype." But François Sabatier, a critic and translator, understood Courbet's achievement. "M. Courbet has made a place for the manner of a cannon ball which lodges itself in a wall," he wrote. "Despite the recriminations, the disdain, and the insults which have assailed it, despite even its flaws, A Burial at Ornans will be classed...among the most remarkable works of our time."

In December 1851, Louis Napoleon (a nephew of the French emperor and the elected president of the Second Republic) staged a coup d'état and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. Under his authoritarian rule, artistic freedom was limited and an atmosphere of repression prevailed—the press was censored, citizens were put under surveillance and the national legislature was stripped of its power. Courbet's tender study of his three sisters giving alms to a peasant girl, Young Ladies of the Village, was attacked by critics for the threat to the class system that it appeared to provoke. "It is impossible to tell you all the insults my painting of this year has won me," he wrote to his parents, "but I don't care, for when I am no longer controversial I will no longer be important."

Courbet drew even more ire in 1853 with The Bathers, a posterior view of a generously proportioned woman and her clothed servant in a forest. Critics were appalled; the naked bather reminded one of them of "a rough-hewn tree-trunk." The romantic painter Eugène Delacroix wrote in his journal: "What a picture! What a subject! The commonness and the uselessness of the thought are abominable."

Courbet's most complex work, The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life (1855), represented his experiences and relationships since 1848, the year that marked such a turning point in his career. On the left of the painting are victims of social injustice—the poor and the suffering. On the right stand friends from the worlds of art, literature and politics: Bruyas, Baudelaire, Champfleury and Proudhon are identifiable figures. In the center is Courbet himself, working on a landscape of his beloved Franche-Comté. A nude model looks over his shoulder and a child gazes raptly at the painting in progress. Courbet portrays the studio as a gathering place for the whole of society, with the artist—not the monarch or the state—the linchpin that keeps the world in rightful balance.


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