Monday, July 15, 2013

Gustave Courbet, the Most Arrogant Man in France

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a talented painter but an even greater master of self-promotion, keeping his name before the public with a long series of carefully engineered scandals and stunts. He once proclaimed himself "the most arrogant man in France," and he was certainly one of the top competitors for the title. Above, a self-portrait of 1845.

Courbet's first notoriety came in 1850-51 when he exhibited a group of paintings at the Paris Salon -- center of the official French art world -- showing very ordinary scenes of village life at the large scale that was normally used for history painting. Critics called the paintings ugly and dismissed their subject as "peasants in their Sunday best." Courbet staged a public rant in which he defended the ordinary Frenchman as a subject worthy of the highest art. He followed up the following year with this work, Young Women from the Village, which was mocked both for its low subject matter and the miniature cows.

In 1855 one of his paintings was banned from the salon, and Courbet responded by creating his own Pavilion of Realism and stocking it with his own works. Yes, he painted a lot -- he once exhibited 140 paintings in one show -- and much of it his work strikes me as sloppy. But some is lovely. Above, The Rock of Ten Hours (1855), and The Wounded Man, painted some time before 1854.

In the 1860s Courbet began to push the bounds of acceptable taste in other ways:
But being provocative by nature, the artist once again caused an uproar with Return from the Conference (1863, now lost, probably bought by an indignant person with the aim of destroying it), showing drunken priests in merry conversation on a country road. The painting was refused at the 1863 Salon "as an outrage on religious morality" and he was forbidden to exhibit it even in the Salon des Refusés!
(The Salon des Refusés was organized by avant garde painters whose works had been refused by the official salon.)

Courbet also began painting very sensual nudes, some of which were too scandalous to be shown to the nineteenth-century public. Above, The Source (1862), one of at least two depictions of this same scene, and Sleep (1866).

The Paris Salon had been accepting nude works providing they were sufficiently classical, but Courbet insisted on submitting a nude painting of a living Frenchwoman in a contemporary scene. Woman with a Parrot (1866) was accepted by the jurors, winning Courbet more acclaim from his anti-classicist friends. Courbet also painted numerous hunting scenes, popular with the nineteenth-century art-buying class, still lifes, and seascapes.

The Stormy Sea, 1870. The Musée d'Orsay says of this,
Here, the artist offers an intense vision of the stormy sea, tormented and disturbing, with all the savage power of natural forces at work. "His tide comes from the depth of ages," Paul Cézanne would later comment. Applying thick paint with a kitchen knife, Courbet succeeded in conveying an impression of eternity.
In 1870-71 Courbet got himself into real trouble by his actions during the Paris Commune. When Prussia defeated France in the creatively named Franco-Prussian War, the French government surrendered Paris to the invaders. But the people of Paris were not done fighting; they proclaimed a "commune" (the medieval name for an independent town) and refused to admit the Prussians. Since the wealthy had already fled, this was a government of working people and their radical allies, and remembering it and honoring its heroes later became a cult among leftists in Europe. Courbet served in the commune's government, and one of his contributions was to agitate for the destruction of Paris's monuments to Napoleon. In the end the communards were crushed, and the most radical leaders were imprisoned or deported to South America. Courbet was jailed when the city fell and then forced to pay the costs of rebuilding one of those Napoleonic monuments, the Vendôme column. The 320,000 Franc bill bankrupted Courbet, and he moved to Switzerland, fearing further prosecutions.

He died in exile in 1877. One of his friends said about his career, "It was as if a whirlwind had roared through the gallery rattling the windows and shattering the glass." Above, The Castle of Blonay (1875).

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