Larger than Life

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
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The 1855 Exposition Universelle, Paris' answer to London's Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851, was the art event of the decade in France. Examples of contemporary art movements and schools from 28 countries—as long as they met Napoleon III's criteria for being "pleasant and undemanding"—were to be included. Count Emilien de Nieuwerkerke—the Second Empire's most powerful art official—accepted 11 of 14 paintings Courbet submitted. But three rejections, which included The Painter's Studio and A Burial at Ornans, were three too many. "They have made it clear that at any cost my tendencies in art must be stopped," the artist wrote to Bruyas. I am "the sole judge of my painting," he had told de Nieuwerkerke. "By studying tradition I had managed to free myself of it...I alone, of all the French artists of my time, [have] the power to represent and translate in an original way both my personality and my society." When the count replied that Courbet was "quite proud," the artist shot back: "I am amazed that you are only noticing that now. Sir, I am the proudest and most arrogant man in France."

To show his contempt, Courbet mounted an exhibition of his own next door to the Exposition. "It is an incredibly audacious act," Champfleury wrote approvingly to novelist George Sand. "It is the subversion of all institutions associated with the jury; it is a direct appeal to the public; it is liberty." After Delacroix visited Courbet's Pavilion of Realism (as the rebellious artist titled it), he called The Painter's Studio "a masterpiece; I simply could not tear myself away from the sight of it." Baudelaire reported that the exhibition opened "with all the violence of an armed revolt," and another critic called Courbet "the apostle of ugliness." But the painter's impact was immediate. The young James Whistler, recently arrived from the United States to study art in Paris, told an artist friend that Courbet was his new hero, announcing, "C'est un grand homme!" ("He is a great man!").

By the 1860s, through exhibitions in galleries in France and as far away as Boston, Courbet's work was selling well. Dealers in France vied to exhibit his still lifes and landscapes. And his poignant hunting scenes, featuring wounded animals, also found a following in Germany. Despite his continued opposition to Napoleon III, Courbet was nominated to receive the French Legion of Honor in 1870, an attempt, perhaps, to shore up the emperor's prestige on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War. Although Courbet had once hoped for the award, his "republican convictions," he now said, prevented him from accepting it. "Honor does not lie in a title or a ribbon; it lies in actions and the motives for actions," he wrote. "I honor myself by remaining faithful to my lifelong principles; if I betrayed them, I should desert honor to wear its mark."

Courbet's gesture impressed political insurgents. In 1871, after Napoleon III was defeated by the Germans, Parisian revolutionaries known as the Commune began reorganizing the city along socialist lines; Courbet joined the movement. He was put in charge of the city's art museums and successfully protected them from looters. He declared, however, that the Vendôme Column, a monument to Napoleon Bonaparte and an emblem of French imperialism, was devoid of artistic value and should be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere. The column was toppled on May 16, 1871. When the Commune was crushed and the Third Republic established a few weeks later, Courbet was held responsible for the column's destruction, even though the Commune had officially decided its fate before the artist's appointment and had executed the decree after his resignation. Arrested in June 1871, Courbet was fined and later sentenced to six months in prison, but he became ill while incarcerated and was sent to a clinic to recuperate. Ever defiant, he bragged to his sisters and friends that his troubles had increased both his sales and his prices. Some artists, jealous of his success and angered by his boasting, lashed out. "Courbet must be excluded from the Salons," contended the painter Ernest Meissonier. "Henceforth, he must be dead to us."

In 1873, the Third Republic wanted to reinstall the column and Courbet was ordered to pay all reconstruction costs. Lacking the estimated hundreds of thousands of francs it would cost and facing the possible seizure of his lands and paintings, he fled to Switzerland, where he spent the last four years of his life in exile, drowning himself in alcohol and hoping for a pardon. In May 1877, the government decreed that the artist owed his country 323,000 francs (about $1.3 million today), payable in yearly installments of 10,000 francs for the next 32 years. Courbet died on December 31, 1877, the day before the first installment was due. He was 58. The cause of death was edema, presumably the result of his excessive drinking. In 1919, his remains were transferred from Switzerland to the same cemetery in Ornans that he had once painted with such bravado and conviction.

New York-based author and art historian Avis Berman wrote about Edward Hopper in the July 2007 issue of Smithsonian.


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