Monday, June 29, 2009


Gustave Courbet's Self-Portrait, 1849

Painter, provocateur, risk taker and revolutionary, Gustave Courbet might well have said, "I offend, therefore I am." Arguably modern art's original enfant terrible, he had a lust for controversy that makes the careers of more recent shockmeisters like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Robert Mapplethorpe seem almost conventional. As a rebellious teenager from a small town in eastern France, Courbet disregarded his parents' desire for him to study law and vowed, he wrote, "to lead the life of a savage" and free himself from governments. He did not mellow with age, disdaining royal honors, turning out confrontational, even salacious canvases and attacking established social values when others of his generation were settling into lives cushioned with awards and pensions.
Courbet arrived in Paris in 1839 at the age of 20 intent on studying art. Significantly, considering his later assault on the dominance and rigidity of the official art establishment, he did not enroll in the government-sanctioned Academy of Fine Arts. Instead he took classes in private studios, sketched at museums and sought advice and instruction from painters who believed in his future. Writing to his parents in 1846 about the difficulty of making a name for himself and gaining acceptance, he said his goal was "to change the public's taste and way of seeing." Doing so, he acknowledged, was "no small task, for it means no more and no less than overturning what exists and replacing it."
His dedication to the portrayal of ordinary life would decisively shape the sensibilities of Manet, Monet and Renoir a generation later. And Cézanne, who praised the older artist for his "unlimited talent," would embrace and build on Courbet's contention that brushwork and paint texture should be emphasized, not concealed. In addition, by holding his own shows and marketing his work directly to the public, Courbet set the stage for the Impressionists in another way. After their paintings were repeatedly rejected by the Paris Salon (the French government's all-important annual art exhibition), Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Cézanne organized their own groundbreaking show in 1874. It was at that exhibition that a critic derisively dubbed the group "Impressionists." Who knows, wrote art critic Clement Greenberg in 1949, "but that without Courbet the impressionist movement would have begun a decade or so later than it did?"
Criticised for deliberately adopting a cult of ugliness and for attacking the established social standards, he was also praised by such social reformers as his friend the social theorist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who saw in The Stonebreakers a visual condemnation of capitalism and its potential for greed. When Courbet's work was rejected for the Paris International Exhibition in 1855, he took the novel approach of opening his own pavilion.
Still at the centre of political activity in the 1870s, he was arrested and imprisoned in 1871 when the Commune he supported fell. The following year he was released, and he moved to Switzerland, spending the remainder of his life in exile and painting the rough Swiss terrain in new, experimental ways.
(Contributed by Gifford, Katya in

The Beach at Trouville at Low Tide
Oil on canvas, 1865
Public collection
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Low Tide at Trouville is one of the seascapes that Courbet painted on his visit to the Normandy coast in the summer and autumn of 1865. We know from a letter that he wrote to his parents that the vastness of the sea had made a strong impression on Courbet as early as 1841. In another letter to his patron and friend Alfred Bruyas in 1866, Courbet records his joy of a summer holiday at Trouville and the paintings he produced there : "twenty fine autumn skies - each one more extraordinary and free than the last".
For much of his career Courbet focused on realistic rural landscapes. In painting this new subject, the sea, Courbet adjusted his style. Low Tide at Trouville is very harmonious in terms of colour. Indeed the skill of the artist lies in the atmospheric rendering of the seascape with minimal means.
The key of Courbet's palette was salmon pink and it can be seen in the centre of the painting where the horizon lies. From that he moved to softer pinks, blues and greys for the sky, sand tones and browns for the sand. The caricaturist G. Randon commented enthusiastically about the painting: "As God has created the sky and the earth from nothing, so has Courbet drawn his seascapes from nothing or almost nothing: with three colours from his palette, three brushstrokes - as he knows how to do it - and there is an infinite sea and sky
(© 2008 National Museums Liverpool)
Gustave Courbet died on New years Eve, 1877.

Self Portrait
Oil on canvas, 1848-1849
Musée Fabre, Montpellier
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In 1854 Gustave Courbet sent his patron and friend the rich philanthropist Alfred Bruyas a self-portrait, accompanying it with a letter:
It is the portrait of a fanatic, an ascetic. It is the portrait of a man who, disillusioned by the nonsense that made up his education, seeks to live by his own principles. I have done a good many self-portraits in my life, as my attitude gradually changed. One could say that I have written my autobiography.
This statement was somewhat premature (he was only forty-five at the time), but it is true that he was fascinated by his own appearance and some twenty self-portraits are extant. In the 1860s, when Emile Zola was trying to sum up Courbet's achievement, he wrote that he saw him as "simply a personality." Certainly Courbet made much of his own personality, and the revolution that he effected owed more than a little to the vividness of his presence and to the myth that he very soon succeeded in building up around himself.
In fact, at the time Courbet was sure of his principles and of the way he felt he must manipulate his career. In the restless political climate of the decades following the Revolution and right through until the 1870s, Courbet's views were consistently as far to the left as it was possible to be. In a letter to the writer Francis Wey and his wife in 1850 he declared himself thus:
I must lead the life of a savage.... The people have my sympathy. I must turn to them directly,...and they must provide me with a living that their judgement won't be influenced by gratitude. They are right. I am eager to learn and to that end I will be so outrageous that I'll give everyone the power to tell me the cruelest truths.
(Copyright © 1963-2009, NYREV, Inc.)

After Dinner at Ornans, 1849
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Courbet gained fame with a series of large "manifesto" paintings. An After-Dinner at Ornans shows his father and three family friends in the kitchen of one of them, Urbain Cuenot; another friend, Alphonse Promayet, entertains the small group on his fiddle. The picture is large (77 x 101 inches) and was attacked as a blown-up genre painting, which is exactly what it is; but it is genre made monumental (the only truly valid parallel is with the monolithic seventeenth-century peasant pictures of the Le Nain family). The figures, boldly rendered in heavy chiaroscuro, have an extraordinary gravitas, and surely owe a lot to Spanish seventeenth-century painting; in Paris at this time there was great enthusiasm for Spanish culture. The depiction of the third friend, Marlet, seen from the back and slightly angled into shallow depth, is counteracted by the position of the hunting dog asleep under his chair. This figure looks straight ahead to Cézanne's late card players of the 1890s.
((Copyright © 1963-2009, NYREV, Inc.)

Stone-Breakers, (1849)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Many of Courbet's paintings focus on everyday people and places in daily French life. Courbet painted these ordinary people in an attempt to portray the French people as a political entity. In this way Courbet's republicanism showed through in his work. Courbet truthfully portrayed ordinary people and places, leaving out the glamour that most French painters at that time added to their works. Because of this, Courbet became known as the leader of the Realist movement.
The Stone Breakers, painted in 1849, depicts two ordinary peasant workers. Courbet painted without any apparent sentiment; instead, he let the image of the two men, one too young for hard labor and the other too old, express the feelings of hardship and exhaustion that he was trying to portray. Courbet shows sympathy for the workers and disgust for the upper class by painting these men with a dignity all their own.
(From Bohemianism and Counter-Culture)
An exhibition organised by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Musée d’Orsay with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Communauté d’agglomération de Montpellier / Musée Fabre was held at at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008, which featured 120 paintings, about 30 graphic works and some 60 photographs in an area of 1500 square metres. Since 1977 (when the last major monograph exhibition on Courbet was held in Paris) extensive research in France and abroad has enabled Galeries nationales du Grand Palais to re-evaluate Courbet's (1819-1857) oeuvre in the context of the art of 1840-1860. The exhibition will be an opportunity for a new generation to discover the work of a painter who was a major figure in the history of nineteenth-century art in all its breadth and diversity.
The exhibition is divided into eight sections:
1. Inventing Courbet: Youthful Self Portraits
For the first time, this section brings together an important set of self portraits painted or drawn between 1840 and 1855. In a romantic vein, the artists put himself at the centre of his work giving his self portraits an importance that reminds us of Rembrandt.

Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, 1854
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Thicket of Deer at the Stream of Plaisir-Fountaine
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

The Cellist, Self Portrait
Oil on canvas, 1847
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Self Portrait with a Black Dog
Oil on canvas, 1842
Musée du Petit Palais, Paris
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

2. From Private Life to History. Throughout his life Courbet remained true to his family origins and his native land. They inspired his first great canvases which asserted his talent as an artist.

The Houses of the Chateau d'Ornans
Oil on canvas, c.1853
Private collection
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

La Ferme De Bonnevaux
Oil on canvas
20 x 24 inches (50.8 x 61 cm)
Private collection
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

The Quarry
Oil on canvas, 1857
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

3. The Manifestoes. This section focuses on the Burial at Ornans and The Artist's Studio, exceptionally transferred from the Musee d'Orsay to the Grand Palais; it brings out the coherence of Courbet's artistic ambitions in the early 1850s and the mise en scène of those ambitions by the painter himself.

4. Landscapes. The landscape section is arranged around two fine series on the grottoes along the Loue River and the waves on the Normandy coast, including the most important versions. This theme offers a pertinent examination of parallels with contemporary photography – especially the work of Le Gray, Le Secq and Giroux.

A Bay with Cliffs
Oil on canvas, c.1869
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford
Image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Cliffs at Etretat, After the Storm, 1870
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

5. The Modern Temptation. During the 1860s, Courbet, then at the peak of his fame, was a key reference for the rising generation of New Painting and early Impressionism; the work of these young painters stimulated Courbet in return, particularly in his portraits and modern subjects.

6. The Nude: Flouting Tradition. The female nude was a major stake for Courbet who painted his first nudes in the 1840s. His presentation of Bathers in 1853 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier) gave him a chance to assert his faithfulness to tradition and his desire for a realist renewal. Around The Origin of the World (1866, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), this section brings together all his major canvases in this genre from Sleeping Bacchante (1844-45, UNICEF foundation, Cologne) to Woman with a Parrot (1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

7. The Artist as a Melancholic Hunter. Courbet’s works on a hunting theme have often been overlooked by art historians. And yet they are an important part of history painting, highlighted in the exhibition by a display of large pictures – The Death of the Stag (1866, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Besançon), Stags Fighting (1861, Musée Départemental Gustave Courbet, Ornans) – surrounded by all the key works on this theme.

8. Personal Experience of History: Courbet and the Commune. Courbet’s relations with politics were complex. He took action for the first time during the siege of Paris and the Commune, when he was the president of the Artists’ Federation. He paid dearly for his political commitment, particularly for his part in pulling down the Vendôme column. Thrown into prison, in poor health and forced into exile in Switzerland from 1873, Courbet as an artist was thereafter a survivor. Except for his self-portrait at Sainte Pélagie (1861, Musée Départemental Gustave Courbet, Ornans), he did not deal directly with events he had witnessed or taken part in. The gloomy series of still lifes painted between 1871 and 1873 was an outlet for his distress.

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