Self portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843–1845 (Private collection)
I recently listened to a book on CD of The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that gave the World Impressionism, by Ross King. One of the principal artists featured in that book was Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, born on June 10, 1819. Courbet broke with the traditions of Romanticism; his style of painting life as he observed it, warts and all, became known as Realism. His career took off with After Dinner at Ornans, the gold medal winner at the Salon of 1849. Until the rule was changed in 1857, this medal conferred the distinction that the artist no longer had to submit paintings to a jury before they were exhibited at the Salon. This was a huge edge. The Salon was the main way for an artist to sell his present work or receive future commissions. Paintings submitted to the jury that were not accepted were returned to the artist with a big, red R, for “refused” stamped on the back. Imagine trying to flog a painting wearing that brand. It gives new meaning to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Ornans, Courbet’s birthplace, was the setting for one of his most important paintings, A Burial at Ornans. Courbet said that the painting also represented the burial of Romanticism. The scene is the village gathering for the burial of Courbet’s grandfather. The people represented are not beautiful or dramatic; the man who died was not a great figure in classical history. They were all just ordinary folks. The painting was derided as a celebration of ugliness when it was presented at the Salon of 1850 – 51. Today, this immense canvas (10 feet by 22 feet) is on display at the musée d’Orsay, in Paris and it always has a crowd gathered around it when I’m there.Courbet also engaged in a number of scandalous canvases. Another of his works at the d’Orsay is L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) (1866). It features a full view of female genitalia. It wasn’t displayed until 1988 – too scandalous even for the French! I remember being rather startled when I came across it for the first time. Landscape, bowl of fruit, pretty flowers, genitals…genitals?!
Courbet liked to shake up received political ideas just as much as artistic ones. He staunchly opposed Napoleon III. During the Commune of 1871 that ousted the Emperor, Courbet was appointed the head of all Parisian art museums and he protected them from looters. Since an entire wing of the Louvre was burned, it was no mean feat to protect what were perceived to be symbols of monarchy and oppression from angry mobs. He got into significant difficulty when he proposed that the column topped with a statue of Napoleon I be removed from the Place Vendôme and relocated inside Les Invalides, where the army museum is housed. When a mob pulled it down and destroyed the statue on top, Courbet was held responsible for inciting looting. When the Commune passed and Courbet’s enemies were in power, he was held to a comment that he had made that he would rebuild the statue at his own expense. He was jailed and fined. After his release, he hid in Switzerland to avoid the financial penalty, eventually working out a deal to pay the massive cost over a period of thirty years. He died the day before the first payment was due, on December 31, 1877. Today, the Vendôme column is back, clad in the original bronze plates, with a new statue of Napoleon I on top, but Courbet didn’t foot the bill.
Today’s saying, les gens qui prient perdent du temps, (lay jawn key pree paird due tehm) is a Courbet quotation that means “people who pray waste time.” It’s easy to see how he ran afoul of the authorities of the day with such a hostile, anti-religious opinion. Read more about his generation in The Judgement of Paris.
- l’Origine du l’Origine Du Monde (greg.org)
- Is This The Missing Half Of Art History’s Naughtiest Painting? (huffingtonpost.com)