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Gustave Courbet

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

February 27 to May 18, 2008


"The Desperate Man"

"The Desperate Man," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 17 3/4 by 21 5/8 inches, 1844-5,private collection, courtesy of BNP Paribas Art Advisory, Photo: © Michel Nguyen

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 too thinly.

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.

"Self-Portrait with Pipe"

"Self-Portrait with Pipe," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 17 3/4 by 14 5/8 inches, circa 1849, Musée Fabre, Montpellier

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 down gauntlets.

"The Preparation of the Dead Girl"

"The Preparation of the Dead Girl," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 77 by 99 inches, circa 1850-54, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased with the Drayton Hillyer Fund

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.)

"Young Ladies of the Village"

"Young Ladies of the Village," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 by 102 3/4 inches, 1851-52, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Henry Payne Bingham, 1940 (40.175)

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.

"Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine"

"Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 68 1/2 by 81 1/8 inches, 1856-57, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

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 comparison.

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 public."

"The Stream of the Puits-Noirs"

"The Stream of the Puits-Noirs, Valley of the Loue," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 41 by 54 inches, 1855, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. P. H. B. Frelinghuysen in memory of her father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1943

Courbet's greatest works, however, are his landscapes, especially his marine landscapes.

"The Shaded Stream at the Puits-Noir"

"The Shaded Stream at the Puits-Noir," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 25 1/4 by 31 1/3 inches, circa 1860-65, The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland

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."

"The Wave"

"The Wave," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 43 11/16 by 56 3/16 inches, 1869, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

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' details....


"Sleep," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 53 1/8 by 78 3/4 inches, 1866, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
© Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet

Courbet also painted nudes and one imagines he had passing visions of Titianesque and Fragonardesque women dancing through his head.

"Woman with a Parrot"

"Woman with a Parrot," by Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas, 51 by 77 inches, 1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (20.100.57)

"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."

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