By Carter B. Horsley
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
was a defiant artist who challenged conventions. His oeuvre defies
easy categorization. Although he was an important Realist, he
dabbled in many genres and perhaps spread his considerable talents
At his best, Courbet is a stunning
artist whose few masterpieces are indelible and immensely powerful
and quite disparate.
His youthful self-portrait
of 1845, "The Desperate Man," is a small oil that measures
17 3/4 by 21 5/8 inches but it is monumental in its impact. It
is one of those works that seem to come out of nowhere and with
few if any peers. It makes one conjure gigantic sculptures of
the inmates at Bedlam - something that Rodin or Michelangelo might
attempt. It is frenzy and desperation and immediacy. It begs the
viewer for resolution, involvement, commitment.
It is visceral - a quality
that can be found in many of his best works.
It is comforting then to see
nearby in the same gallery of this exhibition at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art an another self-portrait done four years later in
which the artist is smoking a pipe and obviously not only relaxed
and calm, but assured and rather arrogant. With his red lips,
uncombed hair and rosy cheeks and cocked pose, it is a sensuous
portrait that is reminiscent of the great portrait at the Borghese
Gallery in Rome of a man in a large red hat holding his right
hand to his chest that was for many years attributed to Giorgione
and is, in fact, definitively Giorgionesque. One can see Rembrandt
and Velasquez contemplating this portrait with fascination and
it is a prelude to Courbet's later works that harken to the great
masters of the Italian Renaissance almost as if Courbet is throwing
Courbet grew up in Ornans,
a village in eastern France, and he created a sensation at the
Salon of 1850-1 with paintings in which he rendered scenes from
daily village life in a realistic style but on a large scale that
used to be associated with history paintings. One of the larger
works from this period in the show is "The Preparation of
the Dead Girl," an oil on canvas that measures 77 by 99 inches.
In her review of the exhibition, Roberta Smith wrote in the February
29, 2008 edition of The New York Times that this unfinished
painting is "an astounding work of accidental Modernism."
"Courbet left this image of female community incomplete,
painting over many of the forms with white, as if to rethink its
color scheme. But the white imposes its own unity, coursing through
the painting in subtly shifting shades like a common cause or
shared feeling, softening its interactions, binding them together,"
she wrote. Perhaps, but it really is not a great painting whereas
some unfinished sketches by Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot are
spectacular. (See an example by Cassatt in The City Review article of a 1997 American Paintings
auction at Sotheby's
and an example by Morisot in The
City Review article of a 2000 auction at Sotheby's.)
Courbet may not have been an
"action" painter, but he really hurls his paints. "Young
Ladies of the Village" is a large and wonderful landscape
scene with figures that has an exceptional quality of light and
is a very strong composition.
Courbet is rather unsettling
in his shifting styles. "Young Ladies on the Banks of the
Seine," for example, is rather strange. The lovely canopy
of leaves at the top abruptly stops short at the left top corner.
The "young ladies" are a little ungainly and disarmingly
distracted. The Metropolitan Museum has a great portrait of a
woman beside flowers by Degas that makes this pale greatly by
Ms. Smith's article provides
the following brilliant commentary:
"In it two reclining subjects
form a pile of frothy garments, seemingly boneless female flesh,
assorted flowers and moral lassitude set on a grassy riverside.
The overt, possibly lesbian, eroticism that shocked viewers at
the 1857 Salon remains palpable. So does the ebullient, amost
taunting, hash of traditions, of public park with boudoir, of
still life and figure painting, and most of all the way this hash
is crowded from behind by a rough, strangely vertical plane of
azure water. The whole lot might almost slide off the canvas,
landing in a heap at our feet."
Was Courbet enchanted with
these ladies, or contemptuous? Was he recalling past reveries
of Renaissance picnics? The museum's press release notes that
this work "was explicitly contemporary in its subject - suburban
leisure - and its depictionof the fashions of the Second Empire,
though the questionable morality of these women scandalized the
Courbet's greatest works, however,
are his landscapes, especially his marine landscapes.
The brushwork in many of his
dense forest scenes is remarkable and assumes an organic presence
in such works as "The Stream of the Puits-Noirs, Valley of
the Loue," and "The Shaded Stream at the Puits-Noir."
As luxuriantly rich as the
forest scenes are, they not prepare one for the onslaught of his
marine works. "The Wave" is a tumultuous work of enormous
power and freedom. These paintings are not as tidy as the great
marines that Winslow Homer would produce a few years later. These
are raw and rough and it is easy to understand why the Impressionists
were very impressed with Courbet. Details? We don't need no stinkin'
Courbet also painted nudes
and one imagines he had passing visions of Titianesque and Fragonardesque
women dancing through his head.
"Sleep" and "Woman
with a Parrot" are sensational paintings that are among the
greatest nudes ever painted, or sculpted. One can imagine one
of Ingres's Odalisques wishing she could get some Courbet sleep
and one can imagine the lady sprawled at the side of a bed in
Delacroix's "Death of Sardanopolis" having her last
thoughts of Courbet's parrot.
The exhibition was organized
by the Metropolitan and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux
and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the Communauté
d'agglomération de Montpellier/Musée Fabre, Montpellier.
The museum provides the following
commentary about Courbet in the exhibition's wall texts:
"Courbet's career was
punctuated by a succession of scandals, which were usually cultivated
by the artist and always welcomed. After a public fight with the
all-powerful superintendent of fine arts, compte Nieuwerkerke,
several of his works were refused display in the great Salon and
Universal Exposition of 1855. Courbet countered with his own Pavilion
of Realism, audaciously built within sight of the official Salon....The
accompanying exhibition catalogue included his 'Realist Manifesto,'
in which he declared his aim 'to be in a position to translate
the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according
to my own estimation.' The press had a field day, and Courbet
immediately become the most controversial artist in France. A
new generation of painters, among them Manet, Monet, Fantin-Latour,
Degas and Whistler, were drawn to Courbet's outsize personality
and his realism. As a painter of landscapes, he developed a radical
vision, expressed in tightly focused views of his native France-Comté
as well as his 'landscapes of the sea,' which profoundly influenced
the next generation of artists, especially Cézanne. In
1870, he rejected the coveted award of the Legion of Honor, proclaiming
his freedom and independence from any form of government. His
involvement with the short-lived, socialist government, the Paris
Commune of 1871, led to imprisonment and, ultimately, self-imposed
exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877."