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à la ceinture de cuir (The Man With the Leather Belt), in which pictorial style plays a surprisingly subtle game with historical reference.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.