Gustave Courbet

AVANT-GARDE REALISM IN FRANCE: COURBET

In 1845, The art critic, Théophile Thoré (who “discovered” the Dutch artist, Jan Vermeer) complained that French art was “…without system, without direction, and abandoned to individual fantasy.” According to another critic, Eugène Fromentin, “…We revolve in a viscous circle. Public taste is injured; that of the painters is no less; and we vainly seek to know which of the two should seek to elevate the other. Sometimes we say that the opinion ought to act as the quality of the work and elevate it; and again, according to a new idea, it must be the works themselves that must act upon opinion and convert it by good example.” Echoing the complaints of other observers, the famous Salon artist and Academic teacher, Thomas Couture, stated, “Alas, we have fallen low…Art has become small and commercial.” The social changes across Europe combined with the lack of purpose within the art world itself combined to give art a new goal, that of social critic and social revolutionary, as artists began to take notice of the neglected peasant, laborer, and the inherent morality of the “timeless” countryside. This new approach, focusing on “low” subjects was called Realism.

For the Realists, art had to be “sincere.” By “sincere,” the artists and writers meant that art had to be of its own time in content, as opposed to imaginary scenes of events that never happened. To sincerity, one can add “authentic.” Art had to be real. Realism can be broken down into two phases in France. The first phase was diverse, including the censored and outspoken political cartoonist and painter, Honoré Daumier, the cautious Socialist, Jean François Millet and his careful social landscapes and the radical lesbian Socialist, Rosa Bonheur and her patriotic celebrations of Second Empire prosperity. Realism developed out of literary Naturalism and became more radical after the Revolution of 1848 with the art of Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877).

In the beginning of his career, Courbet’s sympathies were with the petit bourgeoisie, the small town dwellers outside of Paris in provinces considered “provincial” by the Parisians. Courbet came from a small town in the undefined middle of the country, called Ornans, and migrated to the sophisticated urban milieu of Paris, where he stressed his “country bumpkin” origins. As a wily outsider artist, with little training, Courbet took what were deficiencies—his accent and his relative lack of training—and transformed them into virtues—only an “outsider” could reform the Academy. The academic artists and their traditional ways were being tested by social and political changes, which were bringing new ideas and new people into the capital, and Courbet was a harbinger of challenges to come.

After a decade of being on the fringes of the closed and rarified world of the Salons, Courbet witnessed, from the safety of the sidelines, the fall of the regime of Louis Philippe and the Revolution of 1848. This Revolution was the moment that Louis Napoléon had been waiting for and the nephew of the Emperor Napoléon returned from exile in London to establish himself as the new head of government. But the Revolution was an opportunity for Courbet as well, because this was the year that the artist changed his entire approach to art. When Courbet arrived in Paris, Romanticism was breathing its last and a nascent realism devoted itself to accurate genre paintings. At first Courbet did not seem inclined to follow the example of Honoré Daumier and use the possibilities of painting contemporary life in order to critique the government.

According to the art historian, Petra Chu, in The Most Arrogant Man in France (2007), Courbet took advantage of the presence of journalism and the spread of newspapers to generate publicity for himself and his art, which was very mainstream. He also made himself a virtual presence through a series of self-portraits that were acceptable and inoffensive. It might seem as if Courbet had built his career backwards: he had a persona, an established identity, he had supporters, but the artist was a man in search of a purpose and a style. However, the inoffensive late Romanticism of his art proved to be a good training ground for the shift in style that would be responsible for his sensational success.

The breakthrough for Courbet came in 1847 when he visited Holland in search of the newly discovered Dutch paintings of the Seventeenth century. The Dutch artists provided an important precedent, and, indeed, the only possible precedent, for an art of the middle class. Painting outside of Holland was classical, devoted to Europeans courts, but the Netherlands was a new country, independent of the domination of the Spanish crown. The Dutch ruled themselves in republic free of class and devoid of aristocrats. Adventurous sailors and tenacious traders, they became prosperous, forming the first European middle class, who created an identity through art. It is perhaps less important to know what the Dutch artists actually intended than to understand what the French artists made of the art.

What the French artists needed was a way out of academic subject matter and a way in which to address the reality of their own lives, from an objective perspective. What the French artists saw in Dutch were paintings of contemporary life, a kind of realism of the ordinary. Without an overt narrative, the Dutch artists captured frozen moments in time, enriched by carefully observed detail, which created a portrait of a particular group of people at a specific point in time. What was especially compelling to the French artists was the sheer ordinariness of the everyday lives of simple people who were unremarkable and unpretentious. Above all, for the French artists, Dutch art was an alternative to Romanticism and a doorway to a new form of Realism.

Courbet used the occasion of the Salon of 1848 to present a summation and a closure to his outmoded Romanticism, and by the time of the Salon of 1849, Courbet was ready to take advantage of his next opportunity: this Salon was juried by his peers—artists who knew him and how understood that he was a good painter. If this salon had been juried by the gatekeepers of the Academy, the painter would have been a modest footnote in art history with his mild romantic paintings. But Courbet’s previous paintings did not prepare the Salon audiences for the work that took the Salon of 1849 by storm: After Dinner at Ornans. Based upon Dutch painting, the genre scene was dark in tone and ordinary in content. It was not the sight of country folk listening to music that was impactful, but the artistic tactics, read as political after the Revolution, caused a sensation.

The strategy of Courbet was to celebrate the everyday world of the inconsequential petit bourgeois, not in small sized genre paintings but in large sized canvases, heretofore reserved for history paintings. That said, the content was neutral enough for Courbet to win himself an award of being hors concours or out of combat. Although technically, this honor meant that his art could not be excluded from the Salon, some of his later works, judged to be pornographic, were refused. But his status allowed, the admission of paintings that were more overtly political in the next Salon. In the Salon of 1850 (which actually took place in 1851), life sized paintings, such as the The Funeral at Ornans, The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, and The Stonebreakers (destroyed during the bombing of Dresden), asserted the social importance and historical significance of the petit bourgeois class and the sans coulottes. Unlike the middle class elites, these classes had lost all the revolutions of the past four decades, especially the one of 1848.

It would be incorrect to think of Courbet as a “peasant painter,” such as Millet or Jules Bastien-Lepage. The Parisian audience of the Salon was more accepting of traditional labor, especially if the images were sentimentalized, like Jules Breton. The Salon goers liked the images of peasants toiling, where they belonged, in the country, consumed with timeless labor. Instead of maintaining the traditional myth of the countryside as a classless society where all lived in harmony with nature, Courbet revealed the social changes that had transformed the provinces. As a painter of the lower middle class in a small village, Courbet used his own family as models for the newly empowered and newly upwardly mobile petit bourgeois. The Courbet family was typical of the kind of people who had marginally gained from the social changes, wanted no further disruptions, and were, therefore, conservative and apolitical.

But, as T. J. Clark pointed out in his book of 1999, Image of the People, the sophisticated city dwellers were distressed at the sight of the pretentions of the villagers who played at being “upper class.” Although the Dutch of the Seventeenth century had lovingly and unsparingly depicted the lower middle classes, the precedent mattered not to the offended Parisians. Courbet was acknowledged as a great painter but his paintings were condemned as “ugly,” that is, the people he rendered were unattractive and badly dressed. Funeral, a long horizontal painting, crowed with mourning villagers in black and white, was an unlikely combination of a Roman sarcophagus and a Dutch group portrait. Devoid of drama, the sheer boredom of the content was broken only by the open grave at the bottom of the canvas. Perhaps most offensive to the audience was the lack of story and the absence of the opportunity to identify with any of the characters in his paintings. The man and the young boy in The Stonebreakers are in profile to the viewer and no narrative is offered. Instead of eliciting sympathy, the artist presented blunt facts of social deprivation and the toll of unending labor.

Equally disconcerting to the Parisians were the “primitive” techniques employed by the artist, who based his compositional devices upon popular images. The images d’Epinal were widely circulated in the French countryside, made by untrained printers for an unsophisticated reader. The Stonebreakers deliberately failed to integrate the bleak figures into the un-scenic background. The same disregard for the convention of Renaissance perspective was present in Funeral, where the bleak landscape of Ornans stretched out behind the isocephalic composition, like a backdrop in a theater. But these paintings were at least well-organized compared to the deliberate disorder of The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, which was a clutter of stolid peasants and their equally unremarkable animals. None of these paintings accounts for spatial distances and all ignore academic conventions. Using popular imagery, Courbet succeeded in discarding outmoded training and insisted on the artist’s liberation from tradition.

To back up these unconventional techniques and subjects, Courbet and his supportive critic, Champfleury (Jules Husson), co-wrote their “Realist Manifesto” as the catalogue for his independent exhibition of 1855. Excluded from the Second Empire extravaganza, the Exposition Universalle, Courbet set up his own Pavilion of Realism in opposition to the “official” artists, Delacroix and Ingres. “I have simply wished to base upon a thorough knowledge of tradition, the reasoned and independent feeling of my own individuality,” he said. The Manifesto was a statement against Romanticism and idealism, against exoticism and fantasy, and elitist politics. It was a statement for the ordinary and everyday, for what was apprehensible to the senses alone, even if what was real was unaesthetic to the Salon sensibilities. “To be able to translate the customs, idea, the appearances of my epoch…in a word to create living art, that is my goal,” he stated. Courbet was very modern in the way in which he built his artistic career. First, he created a persona, created a series of artistic scandals, and, finally, in a rare move, he set up his own independent exhibition in 1855. Although the show could hardly be called a financial success, Courbet had asserted himself against the forcible artistic controls of the Second Empire.

For five years, Courbet painted what he preached but in 1854, he once again summed up a phase in his career, with a painting, titled An Allegory of the Last Seven Years of My Life. That The Artist’s Studio was subtitled as an “allegory,” was a signal that Courbet had abandoned optical realism. The Artist’s Studio was a testament to his success in the art world, a masterful exhibition of egoism, a confounding statement about his political concerns, and the beginning of a new phase of his career as an Insider Artist. The Artist’s Studio featured Courbet himself in the center, painting a bright and natural landscape. He is surrounded by allegorical figures: “the nude,” a female model and “the innocent eye,” two small boys. Other allegorical figures are arranged on the left, while on the right, he gathered together his friends and patrons. The iconography of this work is complex, signaling the artist’s next career move.

As the artist acquired more important patrons, his subject matter became less confrontational and more conservative, veering often towards pornography. The lesbian theme of The Sleepers was part of the discourse of la bohème, but outside of the demimonde, the works that were sexually explicit, such as Woman with a Parrot and the very private, The Origin of the World brought Courbet into conflict with the Salon and the public and his friends. By 1858, Courbet had serious disagreements with early supporters, his patron, Albert Bruyas and his best critic, Champfleury, over his suggestive paintings. Meanwhile aristocratic patrons in Germany were demanding princely themes, such the hunt. For many of his former supporters, it seemed that Courbet had lost his way.

Courbet’s political conscience reasserted itself in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 with his involvement with the short-lived and ill-fated Commune. In the post-war confusion, radical socialists, or the “Reds,” attempted to seize power and bring about some kind of social equality, but the new French government, the Third Republic, defeated the Communards in a long and bloody massacre. Courbet was one of the many sympathizers who were punished after order was restored. Given that thousands were slaughtered, Courbet, who had had the bright idea of toppling the Vendôme Column, got off easy. He was put on trial for the felling of the Vendôme Column and the government made an example of him in its reassertion of authority. Forced to pay the expenses for repairing the Column, the politically naïve Courbet spent the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland, painting for aristocrats, finally abandoning his Realist subject matter. In one of his last works, he painted a Trout, which was helplessly caught on a hook. Less of a hunting picture and more of an autobiography, Trout summed up those last years before Courbet’s time ran out.

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