Daring Intransigence

Daring Intransigence

Gustave Courbet’s blunt pictorial style and taciturn sensibility prefigured the ambivalence and photographic exactitude of modern painting.


It’s the early 1840s, and a young painter, having arrived in Paris from Ornans, a town in eastern France, just a few years before, takes his first tentative steps as an artist in a manner unconventional for the day. Yes, he has tried his hand at producing the usual copies of masterpieces in the Louvre, as well as paintings of other subjects, but his real fascination is with self-portraiture–as if he could feel his way toward finding a style for himself only by experimenting with ways to see himself, something the paintings show he’s far from settled on.

This painter is not yet Gustave Courbet, for he’s still in the process of inventing himself, and very much confused about it. It’s as if becoming an artist were something like preparing for a costume party. At times, when the painter lets himself indulge in a flyblown Romanticism, the results are down­right ridiculous, as with Le Sculpteur (whose swooning, distended anatomy seems half stretched out on an espalier) and Le Guitarrero, both from 1845. Oddly, such early Ro­­mantic self-portraits seem to be the preferred cover illustrations for books about the realist master–including the catalog for the first full-scale Courbet retrospective in thirty years, which I saw at the Grand Palais in Paris (October 13-January 28) and which is now at the Met (February 27-May 18); from there it’s on to the Musée Fabre, Montpellier (June 14-September 28). The exhibition has been curated by Laurence des Cars and Dominique de Font-Réaulx of the Musée d’Orsay, the Met’s Gary Tin­terow and Michel Hilaire of the Musée Fabre. If Courbet were no more than the ham actor in the corny ghost story we see in Portrait de l’artist, dit Le Désespéré (Self-Portrait, known as The Desperate Man; 1844-45), then he would never have become the subject of a great exhibition such as this one.

When the young artist could bring himself to forget about all the playacting, things were better, occasionally even very good indeed, as with L’Homme à la ceinture de cuir (The Man With the Leather Belt), in which pictorial style plays a surprisingly subtle game with historical reference. Some commentators have seen it as modeled on Veláz­quez, others on Rembrandt, others on Titian; this last reference must have been the one Courbet had foremost in mind, for in 1855 he exhibited the work under the title Portrait de l’auteur, étude des Vénitiens. None of these citations seem quite wrong, or for that matter entirely right; it’s a picture so fused with tradition that its varied elements can hardly be disentangled. Still–though the painting is so good one hardly wants to complain–it’s somehow not an expression of its own time, nor can we believe it tells us anything of the man it depicts except his profound investment in the history of his art and its many techniques.

In 1848 something changes and Courbet be­­comes Courbet–a fateful year, and not just for art. Later he would claim that he’d participated in the uprising against the government of King Louis Phillippe (which led to the establishment of the Second Republic), though at the time he was writing letters to his parents assiduously assuring them of the opposite. Commenting on one of these letters, T.J. Clark–whose 1973 book on Courbet, Image of the People, remains a cornerstone of the social history of art–spoke of a “paralysis of will,” but I wonder how candid Clark’s own letters home were when he was mixing it up with the Situationists in the ’60s. There are things one’s parents should be spared of knowing. Be that as it may, in politics as in painting, Courbet needed time to settle on a role to play. But there’s something different about a remarkable self-portrait Courbet painted that year called L’Homme à la pipe. Even the relatively under­stated historicism of L’Homme à la ceinture de cuir has here been reined in, and the costume drama of the earlier self-­portraits is barely a memory–though this is still the work of a man who has immersed himself in the Venetian, Spanish and Dutch masters, taking from them above all their grasp of the essential, their compact force. The artist is depicted as though from below, and his head tilted back a bit so that his deep-set eyes are shroud­ed in shadow, black holes under heavy lids. These unseen eyes communicate something nevertheless: a sort of disdain. But that’s all; otherwise there is something profoundly un­communicative about this self-portrait.

This refusal to communicate will be the most radical element of Courbet’s art, however fitfully it appears. Its first emergence in L’Homme à la pipe is important because this same taciturn sensibility will preside over the great painting Courbet would commence working on the following year, Un Enterrement à Ornans (which unfortunately did not make the trip from the Grand Palais to the Met). Today, it is hard to understand the scandal this painting caused when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1850-51, why it was seen as a shocking political manifesto–this vast, somber frieze of serious, rather ordinary mourners and churchmen packed together in an austere landscape, with the crucifix raised above them and the still-empty grave at their feet while the casket itself is nearly lost in the crowd. What could be more solemn, more reverent, more human? What could be less provocative than a picture of people just standing around waiting, and what could be further from the muckraking melodrama of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, which had been shown in the Salon of 1819, or from the clear confrontation of aggressors and victims in Goya’s Third of May, 1808 (1814)–paintings in which it should be clear that something dramatic enough to have political implications is going on?

Un Enterrement is political in a different way from those earlier paintings–it is political in a new way, one that makes it modern, as the works of Géricault or even of Goya are not. Its politics are first of all the politics of style, of both its own blunt pictorial style and the unpolished style of the people it depicts. “Here is democracy in art,” declared Courbet’s supporters, but for the influential critic and poet Théophile Gautier, who had seen much promise in Courbet’s earlier efforts, “The resulting im­­pression is difficult to sort out: You don’t know whether to cry or laugh. Did the artist mean to make a caricature or a serious painting?” It wasn’t just that Courbet was painting an ordinary event and ordinary people on the grand scale that had once been reserved for saints, kings and heroes; it was that his refusal to idealize them even the least bit made them seem ridiculously ugly to contemporary Parisian eyes. What rankled, perhaps, was that Courbet made it impossible to tell whether he agreed with the taste that found the provincial bourgeoisie ugly–a deadpan presentation not unlike that which, a century later, would leave people wondering whether by painting the American flag Jasper Johns was being patriotic or cynical. When Max Kozloff asks in 1962, “Are we supposed to regard our popular signboard culture with greater fondness or insight now that we have [James] Ro­­senquist? Or is he exhorting us to revile it?” he sounds like Gautier wondering if he should cry or laugh over these awful-looking­ people, and echoes Gautier’s bewilderment at why, standing before such a canvas, “the spectator floats in uncertainty.”

The puzzlement occasioned by Un Enterrement, like that aroused by Pop Art in the 1960s, has long since worn off, leaving universal admiration in its wake; but other paintings of Courbet’s early maturity maintain an evergreen strangeness. Prime among these is surely Les Baigneuses (The Bathers; 1853), with its clash­ing elements of blunt realism and ostentatious stylization. Painted with incredible force and energy, its central nude, seen from behind, is enormous, the folds of her abundant flesh depicted with ardent attention. To some viewers of the day it must have been simply as if Courbet was shoving a massive ass in the public’s face; a cartoon by the famous caricaturist and photographer Nadar, published in Le Journal pour rire, shows a bemused viewer asking, “But now that M. Cour­bet has let us see his moon, what the devil will he be able to show us next year?” Far more enigmatic are the emphatic and highly theatrical gesticulations of the nude and her clothed companion–gestures to all appearances completely alien to the realism that otherwise presides over the paint­ing. And there is something about the placement of the two figures in the landscape, as well, that’s disquieting, a sense that they are not quite anchored in the space, that for all their immense physical presence they could easily float away. Few of those who had defended Un Enterrement were willing to follow Courbet here. Even Delacroix, the idol of the most advanced younger painters, recording in his diary his amazement at the painting’s “vigor and depth,” was nonetheless dumbfounded: “What is abominable is the vulgarity and point­lessness of the idea; and anyway, if only if that idea, such as it is, were clear!” One hundred fifty years later, this nagging sense of incomprehensibility has not left the painting–and it’s what makes Les Baigneuses one of the most transfixing and memorable of Courbet’s works.

But still today, some might see in a painting such as this the beginning of Courbet’s decline–for many art historians believe (though no painter to whom I’ve ever spoken about it does) that a decline set in at some point. “In the 1860s tradition went dead in his hand,” Clark mourned, not without satisfaction. For some, like Swiss scholar Oskar Bätschmann, the turning point might have come in 1857, when Courbet started showing hunting scenes at the Salon, following the notable success in this genre of the Eng­lish painter Landseer. By offending public morals with a sensational but nearly uncollectible piece like Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine (été) (The Young Ladies of the Banks of the Seine [Summer]; 1856-57)–showing a couple of hookers cooling off in the shade of a tree–but pleasing the crowd with inoffensive pictures of stags and hounds, he could have both notoriety and sales, but at the price that such Faustian bargains are always said to entail. Yet look beyond the “manifestos,” the clamorous masterpieces of the first half of the 1850s, and not only the ones I’ve mentioned but others just as remarkable and familiar–Les Demoiselles de village (The Young Girls of the Village; 1852), say, or La Rencontre, ou Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (The Meeting, or Good Day, M. Courbet; 1854). Beyond these you’ll find room after room of landscapes, nudes and, yes, animal and hunting pictures; and the notion that Courbet lost his soul by painting them is laughable. Take away everything Cour­bet painted through 1855 and you’d still be faced with one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century–though, as he was earlier, an artist whose extreme unevenness was the price of his daring.

And he was still one of the most difficult artists too. Hard as it may be to see now, during the Second Empire under Napoleon III, when public commissions and state purchases were the measure of artistic success, cultivating a private market was part of Courbet’s political intransigence, a way of maintaining his independence of a government he despised. But in the paintings Courbet produced for the market, the difficulty is much more internalized than in the contentious showpieces he made for the salons. Some of these were undoubtedly mere “potboilers,” as Bätschmann calls them. But if anything, among Courbet’s later pictures, it is the ones deliberately made to court controversy that were the potboilers, like the anticlerical satire Le Retour de la conférence (The Return From the Conference; 1863)–a painting that no longer survives but appears to have been an aggrandized cartoon of the sort that perhaps Goya could have turned into something haunt­ing and poignant, lending the idiocy of the priesthood a sort of metaphysical intensity. Courbet’s subtlety was not of this sort.

Animalier painting may have been good business, but Courbet was born to paint animals, and not just because he was an avid huntsman or even because it enabled him to avoid some of the anatomical eccentricities that always threatened to undermine his more ambitious figure paint­ings (and that were sometimes the making of them)–at least when the figures had to do much more than stand around. Dominique de Font-Réaulx is not wrong in saying that Courbet’s hunting scenes “form the strang­­est as well as the most original part of his output.” There is a brute energy to Courbet’s engagement with the act of painting, a sense of conflict and a relish in it that finds its truest expression in his paintings of the hunt, which allowed him to depict a full range of emotion, both human and animal, from fear, excitement, exhaustion and agony to the pen­siveness of a breather after the chase. This last is the subject of a curiously melancholy picture, La Curée, chasse au chev­reuil dans les forêts du Grand Jura (The Quarry, a Deer Hunt in the Forests of the Grand Jura; 1856), which has something of the enigmatic quality of, dare I say, Giorgione’s Tempest; it has been re­­marked of Courbet’s painting that it contains a “suggestion of allegory” but one that cannot be read, and this is part of what it shares with the Venetian masterpiece. The art­ist stands at the center of his composition, leaning back against a tree, lost in thought, with an elusive, perhaps sardonic smile playing across his face. But he is also lost in the shadow of the tree, and it’s almost as if the boy who blows idly on a horn, the two hounds that seem ready for a face-off, and the hanging carcass of a buck whose face is the thing that comes closest to addressing the viewer in this paint­ing–yet without any trace of anthropomor­phizing–were nothing but so many apparitions in a dream he’s having.

In 1871 Courbet’s involvement in politics reached its zenith with his participation in the Paris Commune–a series of events that barely register in his art, for the simple reason that he had more urgent things to do than paint during those dramatic months. But the fall of the commune led to a brief imprisonment (retrospectively depicted in Portrait de l’artiste à Sainte-Pélagie [1872-73], in which his wistful gaze out the barred window oddly echoes his expression in La Curée, fifteen years earlier) and in 1873 to an unhappy, mostly unproductive exile in Swit­zerland that lasted until his death in 1877. Shortly before leaving France, in 1872, Cour­bet made two versions of an almost agonized painting of a trout caught on a hook, paintings that are the ne plus ultra of the identification with the expiring animal that one glimpses in La Curée. This identification is just another instance of what seems to have been a special fascination with some instinctive or autonomic animal essence of existence that emerges in its purest form where consciousness slips away, as in sleep or dying, and that can be seen from his recurrent paintings of people asleep or unconscious–mostly women but also himself, as in the early self-portrait, later revised, known as L’Homme blessé (The Wounded Man; 1844-54). For Courbet, it seems, this moment of expiration is not only that of ultimate weakness or loss; there also remains an intense life there, but coiled up in itself. Even the distractedness registered by so many of the faces in Un Enterrement reflects something like this waning of consciousness that so fascinated him.

Courbet’s landscapes, too, more surpris­ing­ly, can contain traces of this inwardly turned life–but again, and this is what makes the fact so strange, without any sign of an­thro­pomorphization or idealization. It is im­­possible to generalize about this part of Cour­bet’s production, for while he limited himself for the most part to scenes of his native region, the Franche-Comté, he painted a greater variety of landscape motifs, and paint­ed them in a greater variety of ways, than any of his immediate precursors or successors. In a more fruitfully indirect way than in his early self-portraits, these landscapes amount to an insistence on the issue of the artist’s identity, for they reassert the image of the artist that paintings like Un Enterrement had helped him establish, that of the stubborn pro­vincial who’d conquered Paris without being corrupted by it, a man alert to every topographical and social detail of his home territory. The idea of landscape painting clearly meant much to Courbet, for in great summation of his early maturity, L’Ate­lier du peintre, allégorie réelle determinant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique (The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life; 1855)–unfortunately still at home in the Mu­­sée d’Orsay rather than at the Met–is precisely a landscape he shows himself painting. Yet there is a certain type of landscape painting that seems most particularly Courbet’s own: it is immersive–there is no visible horizon, so that the viewer feels contained within the terrain (indeed, almost pressed into it) rather than able to observe it at a distance–and synecdochical. Above all, it is a landscape in which the most powerful energy comes from something unseen, shrouded in darkness–not unlike the hidden life of the body that’s sometimes manifested in his figure paint­ings. Works like the various versions of La Source de la Loue (The Source of the Loue), painted in 1864, or Le Puits-Noir, around 1860-65, have a peculiar way of feel­ing at once absolutely present and complete­ly withdrawn, immediately at hand and yet fugitive and ungraspable. They are densely material, tactile, up-front and in your face–but they are also built around massively absorptive black holes that seem to contain infinite distance.

Source, origin: the very title of these paint­ings about the place where water ­passes from its latency within the earth to visibility recalls that of what is now Courbet’s most notorious painting–though then nearly unknown. L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World; 1866) is another immersive and synecdochical painting. It is a female nude but one in which, as Flaubert’s friend the writer and photographer Maxime du Camp coyly described it, “by some inconceivable for­get­fulness, the artist, who copied his model from nature, had neglected to represent the feet, the legs, the thighs, the stomach, the hips, the chest, the hands, the arms, the shoulders, the neck, and the head.” Commissioned by a pri­vate collector, this is a work that never could have been exhibited in its time and was not seen in public until it was shown at the Brook­lyn Museum in 1988, more than 120 years after its making–another sign of the painter’s having sold his soul to commerce, some might say. If so, the price was well worth it.

Call it a piece of glorified pornography–but if technique can be transcendent, then the common or garden-variety crotch shot is well and truly glorified in this painting, in which the rendering of human flesh is of a refinement that Edmond de Goncourt was right in comparing to Correggio’s. The pornographic photos of the day, exhibited alongside the painting to contextualize it, serve above all to highlight the vast gulf that separates Courbet’s art from its ostensible analogues or sources (and the same is true of the nineteenth-century topographic photo­graphs likewise juxtaposed against his landscapes). To a great extent, the assimilation into painting of a photographic way of seeing would have to wait for Courbet’s successor, Manet, to begin in earnest. In any case, that this most extreme example of what would later be called the objectification of women by the male gaze is strangely tied to the way Courbet viewed his native landscape is to some extent confirmed by the title of the painting that was commissioned as a discreet cover-up for L’Origine by the last private owner, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: following the same general contours as Courbet’s painting but in a much-abstracted manner, André Masson’s masking panel was titled Terre érotique (Erotic Earth; 1955).

To notice the connection between L’Origine du monde and La Source de la Loue is not to forget the vast difference between them, which is not only a difference in subject but above all a difference in manner of painting. The immense if prurient tenderness of the one, its evocation of a surpassing softness, could hardly be mistaken for the vigorous, sometimes raw paint-handling of the other. This is the most remarkable thing about Courbet: he was almost a painter without a style; he had formulas, to be sure, but he never had one formula. There were many painters in him, though he was rarely, after those first clumsy efforts, a pasticheur. Tradition came alive under his hand.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy