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The most substantial exhibition devoted to Gustave Courbet’s paintings since the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Courbet Reconsidered a decade ago was presented at the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne last winter from November through March. It then traveled to the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, where it closed on May 30. Titled Courbet: Artiste et Promoteur de Son Oeuvre, it was organized by Lausanne’s director, Jürg Zutter, in collaboration with the noted Courbet scholar Petra ten-Doesschate Chu. The well-illustrated catalogue contains valuable essays by Patricia Mainardi and Michael Clarke as well as by the two organizers. Although somewhat difficult to use because it lacks an index of works, the catalogue is an important and welcome addition to the Courbet literature.
The exhibition focused on the latter half—actually closer to two thirds—of the artist’s career, from the mid-1850s through to the artist’s death in 1877 at the age of 58. To consider the year 1855, with its great “summa” painting, The Studio of the Painter, and its innovative Pavillon du Réalisme as a dividing point in Courbet’s career is not an unusual view of the artist’s work. The earlier period, which saw him building up in the later 1840s to the climactic moment of the Salon of 1850–51, with the presentation of three large masterpieces of figure painting—The Burial at Ornans, The Return of the Peasants from the Fair, Flagey, andThe Stonebreakers—to be followed in the next five years by a whole series of major figure paintings, all of them radiating the energy and force of a new conception of what painting ought to be—found its climax in The Studio and in the unprecedented number of his own paintings that were on view in Paris during the first Exposition Universelle in 1855. But this dividing line has too often been used by art historians as a reason to focus their studies exclusively on the earlier and truly “heroic” period, when new forces in the political and artistic culture converged in the convictions and enormous energies of this painter, to create monuments of a new kind of painting. The notion of climax inevitably engenders the notion of anticlimax, and such narrative conventions can determine the way an artist’s oeuvre is positioned. What this exhibition and its catalogue does is to demonstrate the extent to which a newer kind of thinking, one not so based on these conventions, has emerged in recent years. The themes of the hunt and of the female nude for example, sometimes seen as representing a “sellout” to popular taste, are explored by Zutter in their complexity and reference to the artist’s inner life, while Clarke illuminates Courbet’s role as a painter of landscape, a genre that was achieving prominence despite academic resistance during Courbet’s lifetime. The articles by Chu and Mainardi give us new, solidly based insight into the issues of the market and of the exhibition as “media event,” both areas in which Courbet found himself to be as much of a ground-breaker as in his conception of the painting of modern life. It is these two essays that carry forward most directly the theme of the exhibition’s subtitle, Artist and Promoter of His Work.
Despite the difficulty of securing loans today, the organizers were able to demonstrate the significance of this second part of Courbet’s career by the overall strength of the paintings exhibited. Of the large major works of the post-1855 period—such as the Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine, the portrait of Prudhon with his daughters, The Rest During the Harvest Season, The Quarry, The Trellis, Etretat After the Storm—only The Sleepers of 1866 was included in the exhibition—but that is one of the most powerful paintings of his whole career. Those who know it will regret the recent treatment that has reduced the subtle warmth of the flesh tones—those tones which make it one of the most extraordinary representations of sensate flesh in our painting tradition—but it remains at the apex of the painter’s work.
The Sleepers was displayed in the appropriate company of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Woman in the Waves and the glamorous (glamorous, not glamorized) Stockholm version of Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl in the first large room of works mostly from the later 1850s and early 1860s. Outstanding among the less familiar portraits in this gallery were Béatrice Bouvey, a child of five whose unsettling intensity makes her a cousin to Gericault’s paintings of children, and Jules Bordet, an impressive study in the black of his long beard and the whites of his informal summer clothes. Two beautiful small landscapes of 1857 from the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, The Bridge of Ambrussum, and View of La Tour-de-Forges, remind us of the twilight of Courbet’s relationship to Alfred Bruyas, his great patron of the early 1850s, who while never ceasing to be a supporter did not fulfill the artist’s utopian dreams of an all-inclusive patronage.
Beyond this first gallery the paintings were grouped thematically, in a way which clarified specific themes and periods of Courbet’s career: the hunt and forest animals; the flora and fauna of the extended stay in Saintonge; the motifs of his native region around Ornans; the various moods of the Channel coast; the last years at La Tour-de-Peilz on Lac Leman near Lausanne. The German Hunter, a large bold painting from a museum in the town of Lons-le-Saunier near Ornans, shows the way in which Courbet, while making a painting that will have a specific market “niche” thanks to its subject, undercut the conventional attitudes associated with the theme of the hunt. The great stag, stiffening in death, dominates the center of the field, while the figure of the hunter at the left, far from exhibiting triumph and the release of animal passion, holds his dog in tight rein as he bows his own head toward the stag in a gesture of respect and even mourning. These paintings of deer in the forest and of the hunt are the most difficult for contemporary viewers, and are commonly dismissed as being wholly commercial; but the paintings in this gallery, which includes Yale’s melancholy self-representation, Hunter in the Forest Finding His Way, demonstrate how personal these works can be.
In many of the landscapes, whether inhabited or solitary, the horizon is nonexistent, as the painter creates his motif from forest pools, streams emerging from rock masses or dropping from high cliffs, allowing at most a fragment of sky. By contrast, the Channel coast paintings present a kind of necessary opposite, open skies and low horizons that express relief from confinement but also the vastness that can send the psyche back to the protection of enclosure. This drama, as well as the internal conflict of the stormy sea paintings, reveal something of the extent to that Courbet used his representations of earth, sea, and sky to construct a form of dramatic meaning. The concept of “real allegory” which Courbet articulated in relation to the The Painter’s Studio of 1855 continues without exegesis in the landscapes and seascapes of the subsequent years.
Before Petra ten-Doesschate Chu’s indispensable publication in 1992 of the letters of Courbet (published in the original French in 1996), something was known—primarily from the limited number of excerpts from his letters that had appeared in various publications over the years—of Courbet’s situation vis-à-vis the primary existential question of how to survive as an artist in a world from which the traditional forms of patronage were disappearing. One had a sense of what Courbet was up against, but largely only in the matter of his relation to the Academy and to the State, in the form of the Salon—and by extension the critics of the Salon, whose number proliferated all during the course of the nineteenth century. With the corpus of letters now available in their full text—and with all those mundane passages about dealers and collectors and replicas and plans to send pictures to various exhibitions beyond Paris and beyond France no longer clipped away but properly studied—it is possible to develop a full and revealing picture of how Courbet went about the very modern project of managing his own career. This opportunity is taken up with alacrity and skill in the essays by Chu and Mainardi.
Chu begins the conclusion of her essay by writing: “If modernity is measured not by the degree of rupture that an artist hopes to attain in relation to the established canons of representation, but rather by the extent of his disrespect for traditional conceptions of the nature of art and of the status of the artist, then we can consider Courbet as the first modernist.” Both her essay and Mainardi’s demonstrate the validity of that observation with a wealth of detail, largely based upon the information available in the letters. Courbet was by no means a systematic recorder, but he did write to dealers, collectors, colleagues, and friends with instructions, queries, news of success or trouble, complaints, and demands. These are scattered throughout the letters, especially richly in the 1860s, the years in which he attained the success of his maturity.
One learns in these essays that this success was achieved not by the simple “selling out” to bourgeois taste of which Courbet has been traditionally accused but by something much more complex, as befits the complexity both of the situation and of his own response to it. We are able to see Courbet as he goes about inventing the essentially modern task of finding an audience, as he uses the Salons for large-scale flagship paintings that will arouse public attention and provide a core around which he can group smaller paintings on related themes that each have their own group of buyers. Similarly, he extended his audience by sending pictures regularly to the Salons and arts societies’ exhibitions in a number of cities, not only Besançon and Dijon and Le Havre but also Brussels, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Frankfort, and Munich among others. These shipments were undertaken upon request from exhibitors but also made at his own expense, as a means of spreading the reach of his work and the number of his collectors.
Another unprecedented route to this goal were the two exhibitions he put together in 1855 and 1867, each in conjunction with a major Exposition Universelle, of large collections of his own work. Particularly in 1867, this was done in the expectation that pictures would not only be sold from the exhibition, but could serve as drawing cards for buyers who might desire a replica of a specific image that was already committed elsewhere. For all his modernity of outlook, Courbet held to the conception of the artist as inventor of images which lost none of their uniqueness qua image when they were copied by the artist’s hand (workshop issues did not emerge until after the Commune had ended Courbet’s Paris career). At a time when conventional careers were fostered by the State and still founded in the educational role of the Academy, Courbet had no dealings with the latter; and with the former he had a highly problematic and basically hostile relationship. In this situation, as we learn in rich detail from these essays, he became not only the maker of his own art but its impresario as well.
These new and important insights are not without their problematic side. A clearer distinction needs to be made between Courbet’s utopian ideas of the early 1850s, when he dreamed of a direct communication to the people, and of a like-minded, all-sufficient patronage in the form of Alfred Bruyas—who might have made everything possible including vanquishing Courbet’s need to cater to clients and to market his wares—and the ideas that developed in the wake of his awareness that this was not going to happen. The market necessity cured him of his naivete in this respect but it did not necessarily inspire enthusiasm. If he grew to see that his paintings were more widely validated by their price than by their standing with the critical establishment, this was perhaps more because of his low opinion of that establishment at that time than because he made a true equation between worth and price. Thus the “heroism” of Courbet in challenging the prevailing aesthetic values of his time cannot simply be displaced by the image of a cynical “post-modern” marketeer. The solid information in both of these essays belies this either/or idea by showing the many fronts on which a man of his large and original ambitions had to fight.