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Disdain for Belgium is so commonplace in Paris that the very mention of “les belges” can cause a smirk. A small but ambitious exhibition at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art demonstrated that, far from sharing this prejudice, Gustave Courbet had an attachment to Belgium, where his work was admired and imitated. In 1866, the painter wrote to the Belgian merchant Arthur Stevens: “I consider Belgium my country” (quoted in the exhibition catalogue, 11). He might have visited Belgium as early as 1840; he was there in 1844 and 1847, and he made four or five more trips between 1851 and 1861. In 1847 Courbet wrote to his family that he was in Belgium, “a very agreeable country,” where, he boasted, “I am received like a prince, which is not surprising for I move among counts, barons, princes, etc.” (11) In the Brussels Salon of 1851, The Stonebreakers (1849, destroyed) and The Cellist (1847) were a sensation, winning acclaim and stirring controversy. This was the first of a number of exhibitions of his work in Belgium where, in 1868, Courbet was named an honorary member of the Société libre des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles and, in the following year, awarded a medal at the Brussels Exposition générale des Beaux-Arts.
This unfamiliar aspect of Courbet’s career was explored on the first of two floors, devoted to works from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Paintings by Courbet mingled with others by Belgians—whether the disciple Louis Dubois or mid-century practitioners of a sentimental, native strain of Realism known as miserabilisme (22). There were some strong Courbets. These included a Landscape at Ornans (ca. 1855), which was well chosen for the exhibition banner. Here, sunlight falls on a tiny pair of women with parasols, bringing to outcroppings and green slopes a palpable presence that belies the modest dimensions of the canvas. In Courbet’s hands, river foam could be no less tangible than rock, as in a robust version of The Source of the Loue (1864). Courbet’s ability to forcefully model rounded contours of flesh made him one of art history’s great painters of noses and brows. Among the examples on display was Portrait of Madame Léon Fontaine, née Laure Janné (1856–57). The documentary material included some very large reproductions of photographs of the artist, including one in which he poses while supposedly painting en plein air—brush in hand but painting supplies suspiciously absent. Outside the galleries hung enlarged reproductions of caricatures, which, in their preoccupation with Courbet’s outsized vanity and beard, offered mocking Parisian counterparts to the cult of the man abroad.
A lower floor, drawing from U.S. collections, featured additional canvases by Courbet. Portrait of Monsieur Nodler, the Younger (1865) offered yet another striking example of facial structure. A mildly erotic Woman with Mirror (ca. 1860), well received in Belgium, was exhibited for the first time in the United States. A fresh, wave-tossed The Sailboat (Seascape) of 1873 showed that in the twilight of his career Courbet still had salt. These and others by Courbet hung with works by American artists, some of which reflect, to varying degrees, admiration for the French painter.
Like Courbet’s figural paintings, this double-decker show had an oddly additive aspect. The overarching theme seems to have been international infatuation with Courbet’s art. This would suggest the efficacy of the artist’s strategic manipulation of his public image—the subject of a rich, sprawling catalogue essay by Claude Cernuschi. A wall label recounting the purchase and triumphant display in 1866 of The Quarry (1856–57) by the Boston artists of the Allston Club, presided over by the American Courbet-enthusiast William Morris Hunt, provided an example of transatlantic fervor. Yet, relevance to the art of Courbet was not consistently in evidence. On the American floor, affinities adduced in the wall labels sometimes seemed forced. Thus, a small panel on which John La Farge represented a filmy, delicate woman reclining in a white dress (Female Figure in White. Landscape Background; Mid-Day (1863)) is an orange to the apple reproduced as kin in the wall label: the ground-hugging, somnolently sexy painting exhibited by Courbet in the Paris Salon of 1857, The Young Ladies of the Banks of the Seine (Summer).
The hanging on the upper floor set into relief distinctions between Courbet and the Belgians. The Height of Beez Near Namur (1861) by Dubois provided a case in point. Dubois softens the contrasts that bring vigor to Courbet’s topography. Evidently an attempt to work the palette knife in Courbet’s manner, the painting lacks the master’s match between the substance of pigment and the materiality of rock and foliage, demonstrating how difficult it was to imitate the manner that Courbet himself imitated in some of the landscapes in the show. Such lack of address is a virtue in Dubois’s intriguing Roulette (1860), in which an awkward clustering of heads heightens the sense of unease projected by a scene of strained entertainment. It has some of the up-close and impersonal aspect that made A Burial at Ornans (1849–50) marvelously obtrusive in its former body-level hanging in the Louvre.
Comparison to Courbet also brought salience to how rooted the Belgians were in genre. Courbet invested paintings that are ostensibly genre scenes (The Stonebreakers, for example) with—in addition to imposing size—a psychological blankness suggestive of still life. We are persuasively told that The Sick Musician (1852) by Alfred Stevens was inspired by Courbet’s Rembrandtesque The Cellist of 1847 (15). At the same time, the Belgian’s depressed, idle cellist attended by a nun has a downbeat, anecdotal character that separates it from Courbet and aligns it with the examples of miserabilisme elsewhere in the gallery. In those, poverty is presented not as visually arresting fact—as in Courbet’s Stonebreakers—but as inducement to sympathy. Charles de Groux’s The Paupers’ Bench (1854)—a work admired by Vincent van Gogh—is a touching scene of melancholy and piety among the poor in a crowded church. Regardless of the round-headed format, it is no more a religious painting than is another view of the pious poor, Pilgrims Praying to Our Lady of the Afflicted; or, Our Lady of Mercy by Gustave Léonard de Jonghe, exhibited in the Brussels Salon of 1854. Measuring nearly six feet in height, this scene of desperate piety, with its crutches and beseeching eyes, joins The Paupers’ Bench in a long line of secular views of Christian faith capped by Paul Gauguin’s Breton peasants of the late 1880s. In Brussels, Morning (1848) by Joseph Stevens (the brother of Alfred and Arthur), neediness among the lowly is extended to mongrels competing over a bone while, in the background, a woman looks through garbage and another sits in the dawn gloom. These works provided an opportunity to view a side of Belgian Realism remote from the art of Courbet. That they are little known outside of Belgium made their inclusion all the more welcome.
Against Courbet’s affection for Belgium can be set the contempt of a member of his circle for the nation that the artist considered “my country.” During an extended stay in Brussels (1864–66) at the end of his life, Baudelaire collected material for a denunciation of all that is Belgian, with Pauvre Belgique! (Poor Belgium!) and La Belgique déshabillée (Belgium undressed) as the principal working titles. In the notes for this unfinished project he darkly framed the welcome that Courbet received in Brussels, identifying the philosophy of Belgian painters with that of “our friend Courbet, the self-centered poisoner.”1
Jonathan P. Ribner
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University
1 “Philosophie des peintres belges. Philosophie de notre ami Courbet, l’empoisonneur intéressé (Ne peindre que ce qu’on voit! Donc vous ne peindrez que ce que je vois)” (Charles Baudelaire, Fusées, Mon coeur mis à nu, La Belgique déshabillée, suivi de Amoenitates Belgicae, ed., André Guyaux, Paris: Gallimard, 1986, 251). I am grateful to Jeffrey Mehlman for advice regarding the translation.
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