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Gustave Courbet

Georges Riat

Text: after Georges Riat Translation: Michael Locey BASELINE CO LTD 33 Ter - 33 Bis Mac Dinh Chi St., Star Building; 6th floor District 1, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam © Parkstone Press International, New York, USA © Confidential Concepts, Worldwide, USA © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Fund 1962.2 © Collection Oskar Reinhart « Am Römerholz », Winterthur All rights of adaptation and reproduction reserved for all countries. Except as stated otherwise, the copyright to works reproduced belongs to the photographers who created them. In spite of our best efforts, we have been unable to establish the right of authorship in certain cases. Any objections or claims should be brought to the attention of the publisher. ISBN: 978-1-78042-990-8

Gustave Courbet

Georges Riat

Contents Introduction: Childhood and Youth in Ornans and Besanรงon I. The Beginnings

7 13-85

Paris and the First Salons


The First Successes of Realism


II. Glory Courbet: the Centre of Controversy Courbet between Success and Scandal III. Decline

87-169 87 141 171-245

The Beginning of the End


The Fall


Conclusion: Death of a Master




List of Illustrations


Introduction: Childhood and Youth in Ornans and Besançon


he artist Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet was born in

woman, constantly busy patching up the damage from her

Ornans on the 10th of June 1819. Most of Courbet’s

husband’s blunders and hare-brained schemes, she was the one

biographers say that he was of farming stock, and was a

who actually ran the farm, while still found the time to bring up

farmer himself. The latter statement is wrong, while the former

her children and relax in the evenings by playing the flute.

should be clarified. His father, Régis Courbet, was an important landowner. He owned an estate on a plateau, which although

Gustave was the firstborn. After him came three daughters, whom

fragmented, as was often the case in Franche-Comté, spread over

the artist quite often included within his paintings, most notably

the communities of Flagey, Silley and Chantrans.

in Young Women from the Village (p. 71). They were the somewhat sickly Zélie, who played the guitar; the overly sentimental Zoé,

A letter from Max Buchon to Champfleury depicts Régis Courbet

who had a fiery imagination; and Juliette, the youngest, lively and

in a lively, picturesque way: “The father is much more idealistic, a

devout, and who at an early age fell in love with the piano. Added

constant talker and nature-lover, sober as an Arab, tall, long-

to this family circle were Grandfather and Grandmother Oudot,

legged, quite handsome in his youth, immensely affectionate,

objects of Courbet’s constant affection, so the artist grew up in an

never knowing what time it is, never wearing out his clothes, a

atmosphere which was much more bourgeois than peasant,

seeker of ideas and agricultural innovations, who invented his own

though not so bourgeois that the young man was deprived of the

special harrow, and who, in spite of the fact that he had a wife and

wonders of nature, and not so peasant that there was any question

daughters to support, farmed in a way that made him little profit.”

of his becoming anything but an educated professional.

The old folks in the area still recall that “improved” harrow, which destroyed the crops, as well as a certain carriage, with a fifth wheel

At first glance, it is easy to see the imprint of both nature and

on the back which held the food baskets for the hunt. These

nurture upon Courbet’s personality. His Grandfather Jean-Antoine

inventions and a few others in the same vein earned him the

Oudot, a raging revolutionary of 1793 and fervent follower of

nickname, cudot, which in the local dialect described someone

Voltaire, taught him by example to espouse republican, anticlerical

possessed by pipe-dreams. He was on the whole an excellent

ideas; his father’s outrageous behaviour explains some of his own,

fellow who, had he been more practical, would have let out his

as well as his pride, vanity, and pursuit of glory; from his mother

lands to sharecroppers and lived the life of a country squire.

he received, in spite of appearances, a refinement and thoughtfulness, examples of which are plentiful throughout his

Courbet’s mother, Sylvie Oudot, was a relative of the jurist Oudot,

life, but which he kept carefully hidden from all but those closest

a professor of law in Paris, and was quite different. A hard-working

to him. His long ancestry of wine growers and farmers also made

1. Self-Portrait, c. 1850-1853. Oil on canvas, 71.5 x 59 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. 7

Gustave Courbet

him a man of the soil, a terrien, with all that this word implies

bread. At noon, it was a tiny ladleful of soup, a plate of fried

in terms of health, robustness, perseverance, determined

potatoes or cabbage or some other vegetable “always boiled,” and

possessiveness and occasionally a certain vulgarity, along with an

an apple or a pear, with “a little glass of wine, without much colour

uncompromising frankness and a roughness of character. In short,

to it,” the whole lot poorly presented, and with more often than

he inherited that rare flame of genius that made it possible for him

not “a strange taste or odour” about it. In the evening, he was

to become one of the greatest artists who ever lived.

given a main dish, salad, and an apple, and he was so rushed that it was not unusual for him to leave with half his meal in his

In 1831, his parents sent him to the lower seminary in Ornans,

pocket. The beds were small and hard; it did no good to pile all his

which prepared pupils not only for the upper seminary, but also

clothes over him, he was still cold, and he begged them to send

for secular careers. Courbet did not do well there, being unable to

him a blanket. Such was the unflattering picture that he painted of

take an interest in Latin, Greek or mathematics and frequently

the school. He ended with these sad yet hopeful words; “I can’t

playing hooky. He was known for his skill in chasing butterflies

wait to see Ornans and all of you; that’s understandable as it’s the

and his knowledge of the surrounding trails, so much so that he

first time I’ve left home!”

was picked to be the guide on Sunday outings. His resignation was only on the surface, and the letters that followed If Courbet paid little attention to classical studies, it was a different

soon showed him to be in a state of rebellion. The father remained

story when it came to drawing, and even painting, which soon began

intractable, and, despairing of ever convincing him, Courbet

to interest him. From that moment on his art teacher, “Father Beau,”

temporarily ceased putting his recriminations into writing. To

had no pupil who was more attentive or serious. It was not long

console himself, he drew scenes of Ornans like those he had sent to

before the pupil knew as much as his teacher. Mademoiselle Juliette

his older cousin Oudot in Paris, which the latter’s wife had put into

Courbet religiously kept albums filled with his drawings; studies of

her album, resolving to later check whether the likeness was true.

flowers, profiles, heads, sketches of landscapes, fantasies, all of which bear witness to his fervour for drawing. Such a calling was not at all

After the Easter holiday, they set Courbet up in a little room on the

to the liking of Courbet’s father, who wanted his son to study at the

main street of Besançon, in the house where Victor Hugo

École Polytechnique. Therefore in October 1837 he sent him to study

happened to have been born in 1802. This was during the same

philosophy at the royal secondary school in Besançon, thinking that

year (1838) that the great poet presented Ruy Blas, and one can

boarding school would straighten him out. But in fact the opposite

only imagine how his glory haunted the dreams of the young

occurred, and the many letters from the son to his parents show how

student. Glad of his refound freedom, Courbet began to work on

poorly he adjusted to this existence which was so new to him.

his mathematics with a talented teacher by the name of Meusy, and to attend courses at the Academy where Messieurs Perron, in

He found the daily schedule too busy. If only the living conditions

philosophy, and Pérennès, in literature, were attracting crowds.

had been decent! In the morning they gave him just one piece of

Unfortunately, while he had good intentions when they were not

2. The Bridge at Nahin, c. 1837. Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 17 x 26 cm. Institut Gustave-Courbet, Ornans. 8

Introduction: Childhood and Youth in Ornans and Besanรงon


Gustave Courbet


Introduction: Childhood and Youth in Ornans and Besançon

backed up by inclination; the passion for drawing had seized him

foundation in drawing; the artist’s stroke is clean, precise, delicate

once again heart and soul.

and expressive, and it was with great skill that his pencil, occasionally highlighted with firmly applied colours, analysed the

There were too many opportunities drawing him back to his

life models at Flajoulot’s studio. Courbet’s drawings of eyes, legs,

former predilections. A painter named Jourdain lived in the same

hands, feet, muscles, noses, ears, women’s torsos and breasts, soft

house, and, as mediocre as he was, Courbet quickly became very

and full, leave no doubt in this regard.

interested in his work. In addition, the landlord’s son, Arthaud, a student of Monsieur Flajoulot, director of the School of Fine Arts

At about the same time Courbet did some small primitive

of Besançon, often took him along to his classes. Courbet didn’t

paintings that do not show the same originality. These are

hide this; “Lately,” he wrote to his parents, “I have taken up a kind

landscapes from Ornans or the surrounding area; lively, grey, with

of drawing which I could do very well at, if my financial means

blue skies, small in size and minute in detail, with a touching

allowed me to do it more regularly. It is lithography.”

degree of good intentions, effort, and childishness. These include The Grape Harvest under the Roche du Mont, Chalimand Fields,

Among his first lithographs was The Bridge at Nahin (p. 9), which

Grandfather Oudot’s House, The Mill Road, The Entrance to Ornans,

he was to paint later with a skill neither apparent nor foreseen in

The Loue Valley in Stormy Weather (p. 10) and Montgesoye Islands,

his earlier work. Others were illustrations for Essais poétiques, par

with poplars, willows on a hillock, and the artist, observing the

Max B…, vignettes par Gust. C... (Poetic Essays, by Max B…, with

scene, with his gun under his arm …

illustrations by Gust. C…) published in Besançon in 1839. The poet Max Buchon, who came from Salins, thus launched his first

The inventory of all these works makes it obvious that the study of

book, with the assistance of the person who was to become one of

philosophy was gradually being abandoned. Did Courbet pass or fail

his best friends. Buchon was later the author of Matachin, a

the examination that he was studying for with so little interest? It

collection of poetry and stories from Franche-Comté written with

would seem that he did not even sit it. He went home to Ornans for

a saucy realism, who had the good fortune to impress Buloz, the

the summer holidays, and brought his father round to the idea of

editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes.

letting him go to Paris under the pretext of studying law.

Yet it was painting which called out to Courbet. Little by little, he

Before he left, he delighted in exploring his beloved countryside,

forsook the path to the Academy for that leading to Art School.

engraving its image forever on his memory. He gazed upon it once

There he continued to meet, with increasing pleasure, the

again with a filial affection, his sense of observation and his emotions

excellent Flajoulot who, although less modest than Father Beau,

quickened by the knowledge that he was soon to leave it. He carried

treated him with as much kindness. He was a follower of David,

these scenes of nature away with him, both the sweet and rough

and called himself the king of drawing. It was not long before he

elements drawn and painted on his heart; as yet unaware of the

nicknamed his pupil the king of colour. He gave Courbet a solid

immense importance they would have in his future artistic life.

3. The Loue Valley in Stormy Weather, c. 1849. Oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg. 11

I. The Beginnings Paris and the First Salons

The First Exhibitions in Paris

Bonvin, whose conscientious talent has not yet been properly appreciated, acted as a guide for his young friend.

However excited Courbet must have been on his arrival in Paris, one can easily imagine that it was not long before pangs of

Courbet was instinctively drawn to the masters who best

homesickness set in. He tried to improve his spirits by visiting

exemplified the as yet unfocused ideas developing within him. He

compatriots from Franche-Comté, either relatives or friends,

had no use for the Italian school. Later, Théophile Silvestre,

who consoled him as best they could. Relations with his cousin

recording a conversation that he had just had with the master, said

Oudot, the professor at the School of Law, soon became strained;

that Courbet called Titian and Leonardo da Vinci “frauds”. As for

he was no doubt disappointed that the young man should so

Raphael, he conceded that he might have done a “few portraits

quickly give up a career in the law for painting. Courbet’s life was

that were interesting,” the works nevertheless “show no thought,”

humble and uncomplicated. He seems to have taken lodgings for

and that is why, no doubt, continued Courbet, “our so-called

quite some time in a hotel, located at number 28 in the rue de

idealists adore them.” It is quite likely that he did actually say

Bucy, but the place was short on creature comforts, and Courbet

these things. But one must not give too much importance to these

wrote urgently to ask that sheets, a blanket, a pad and a mattress

witticisms, which smack of an artist out to shock the critics, who

be sent from Ornans.

were always the painter’s bête noir, and the bourgeoisie for whom he showed a profound scorn, as did many artists of his time.

Soon, in a letter of the 24th of December 1842, he announced to his parents that he had finally found a studio, at 89, rue de la

In his disapproval of the Italian school, he made an exception for

Harpe; “It is a fine room with a wooden floor and a high ceiling,

the Venetians; Veronese, and among others, Domenico Feti and

which will be warm in winter; the studio is upstairs, on the

Canaletto. Did he study the techniques of the Bolognese artists: the

courtyard, and has two windows, one looking out on the

Carracci, Caravaggio or Guercino? Everything points to their

courtyard, and the other in the roof.”

influence on him having been exaggerated. He particularly admired, and studied, the great realists such as Ribera, Zurbarán,

From then on he spent long and fruitful hours visiting the galleries

Velázquez, Van Ostade, Holbein, and, first and foremost,

of the Louvre. Francis Wey relates in his Mémoires inédits

Rembrandt, who “beguiles the intelligent, but bewilders and

(Unpublished Memoirs) that the fine fellow of a painter, François

overwhelms the slow-witted.”

4. Portrait of the Artist, known as Mad with Fear, 1848 (?). Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 60.5 x 50.5 cm. Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst Arkitektur og Design, Oslo. 5. Portrait of the Artist, known as The Desperate Man, 1844-1845. Oil on canvas, 45 x 54 cm. Private collection. 13


Gustave Courbet

From this period and these preoccupations date Head of a Young

which already reveal qualities of observation and colour. These

Girl, Florentine Pastiche, executed in the Florentine manner; a

include Landscape with the Roche Founèche, with the Salins road at

Fantastical Landscape with Anthropomorphic Rocks, after the

the bottom, and Ornans huddled on the bank of the river Loue;

Flemish; a Portrait of the Artist, in the manner of the Venetians

Views of the Forest of Fontainebleau, executed after a brief visit

and copies of the works of Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Van Dyck,

there in 1841; Wooded Landscape in Winter (1842) and Hunting

and Velázquez.

Blind, “a studio landscape,” as he himself called this canvas, to ridicule this illogical practice (1843).

When not at the Louvre, Courbet was hard at work in his studio, painting studies or portraits. He also went frequently to the atelier

But it was his portraits that most clearly foretold the great artist to

de Suisse, where he drew from life models without supervision,

come. In particular, the portraits of his sisters. From this period

and where he did a great many studies which he used later in his

on, he also used himself as a model. He has been much derided in

paintings of nudes.

this regard, and Théophile Silvestre, in the Catalogue de la Galerie Bruyas, went so far as to say that the soul of Narcissus lived on in

It has been said that Courbet was a student of the very academic

Courbet. To be sure he viewed himself favourably, but was he not

Baron von Steuben and Auguste Hesse. In fact, he went only three

naturally led to doing his own portrait to save the expense of a

or four times to the former’s studio, and then only to make fun of

paid model, particularly since he did not yet have commissions for

what was being done there. As for the latter, Courbet himself

paid portraits? His Small Portrait of the Artist with a Black Dog

refused to admit such a relationship; fundamentally, he had had

(p. 21) of 1842 earned him the honour of being accepted for the

only himself for a teacher, and the most abiding effort in his life

salon of 1844, an important date which, although not quite the

was devoted to preserving his independence.

end of his early period, nevertheless marked the end of his first step towards fame.

His production during these first four years in Paris is varied and contradictory, revealing the conflict of ideas going on in his mind,

“I have finally been accepted at the Exhibition,” Courbet wrote

and through which slowly and unconsciously his individual

to his parents in March of 1844, “which makes me most happy.”

aesthetic was being developed. In the “classical” style, there is

In a letter to his grandfather he announced that his painting was

Ruins Beside a Lake (1839), Monk in a Cloister (1840), both of

displayed in the salon d’honneur, “a placement reserved for the

which are fairly mediocre compositions; Man Saved from Love by

best paintings of the Exhibition.” He added that if it had been

Death, an allegorical composition showing Death carrying off a

larger, he would have won a medal. When it was displayed again

woman whom Courbet himself, on the other side, is trying to

at the “Centennale” Exhibition in 1900, the precision, assurance,

hold back, an “amorous whimsy” which the author made fun of

and skill in the brushstrokes, qualities not often found in the

and later painted over, and a very affected Odalisque, which he

early works of artists, were there for all to admire. He started

painted after reading Victor Hugo. There are also landscapes,

back to work with renewed vigour and produced a great deal.

6. Portrait of Grandfather Oudot, 1843. Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm. Musée Gustave-Courbet, Ornans. 16

The Beginnings

In February of 1845 he wrote that he had not stopped for a single

and bloodless, his lips without colour, as if he were on the point of

hour, including Sundays and holidays; consequently he was

dying. The dark landscape increases the horror of this tragic

exhausted in body and mind, and unable to go on for the time

moment. The catalogue from Courbet’s private exhibition, at the

being. He had just sent five paintings to the Exhibition. A letter

Pont de l’Alma in 1867, included this notation after the title;

received in Ornans on the 22nd of March 1845 states that he had

“(Paris. 1844). Rejected for the salons of 1844, 1845, 1846 and

only one painting accepted: Guittarrero. This portrait, in spite of its

1847 by the jury made up of members of the Institut.” However

real merit, is inferior to that of the previous Salon. It is less realistic

the catalogue from the Courbet exhibition at the École des Beaux-

and an obvious compromise between what was happening around

Arts in 1882, written by Castagnary, disagreed strongly with this

Courbet and what he himself was feeling vaguely and was soon to

date. According to him, “The free and supple technique of this

bring forth without ambiguity or hesitation. Several canvases from

painting shows that it is not the work of the artist’s early years; it

this period (1844-1845) are as worthy of attention as Guittarrero.

is from 1854. The catalogue of the painter’s first private exhibition,

Lovers in the Country, Sentiment of Youth is a highly poetic painting.

in 1855, attests to that; to accept 1844 would be to accept that it

The artist has put himself in the picture from the shoulders up in

was painted at the same time as Lovers in the Country, Sentiment of

left profile, his long hair blowing in the wind. Against him leans a

Youth and Man with a Leather Belt, Portrait of the Artist (p. 40),

very pretty girl, with a delicate and poetic profile tilted toward her

which would be a step backward.” However, this opinion by

right shoulder, her pale skin emphasised by her blonde hair

Castagnary may not be entirely correct; it is quite possible that The

cascading over her temples and ears. It would appear that the

Wounded Man is the “portrait of a man, life size,” mentioned in the

young woman is the Joséphine who was for so long the painter’s

letter of February, 1845. Nor is it proven that the Lovers in the

model and mistress. Having seen this painting it is impossible to

Country, Sentiment of Youth and Man with a Leather Belt, Portrait of

maintain the idea that Courbet was incapable of sentimentality.

the Artist are in any way inferior to The Wounded Man. This latter

This work, as well as the painting entitled The Hammock, foretold

work is very close to the other two in terms of inspiration, and it

the great master that Courbet would later become.

suffices to compare the two faces in Lovers in the Country and in The Wounded Man to see that they are similar. What may have led

Another painting, entitled The Prisoner of the Dey of Algiers but

Castagnary astray is that the artist probably revised his work about

sometimes incorrectly called Job, is another example of Courbet’s

1854, in view of the 1855 Exhibition, possibly touching it up a bit.

hesitations during this period. An old man with a long beard sits

There seems little doubt that it was composed in 1844.

in his prison half-naked, a blanket thrown over his head and body. Near him is a jug, and he is pulling the blanket down over his legs

All these paintings indicate a difficult struggle, one which was

in a pose that the classical painters would not have disowned.

becoming bolder and bolder. “In the coming year,” he wrote on the 10th of March 1845, “I must do a large painting which will

Is The Wounded Man (p. 28-29) from this period? The painter is

definitely get me recognised for what I truly am, for I want all or

shown full face, with a bloody wound in his chest. His face is pale

nothing. All those little paintings are not the only thing that I can

7. Portrait of Paul Ansout, 1844. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.2 cm. Château-Musée, Dieppe. 19

Gustave Courbet

do... I want to do large-scale painting. One thing is certain, that

otherwise? However, he took up his work again with his “usual

within five years, I must have a name in Paris; that is what I strive

determination; come what may, double or nothing!”

for. It’s hard to get there, I know; there are not many, and out of thousands there may be only one who breaks through. To move

He began to show signs of discouragement. In January 1846, he

faster, I only lack one thing, and that’s money in order to boldly

stated that “there’s nothing harder in the world than making art,

execute what I have in mind.”

particularly when no one understands it. Women want portraits without shadows, men want to be dressed up in their Sunday best;

So he was very pleased when a dealer from Amsterdam, who liked

there’s no way out. To earn money with things like that, you’d be

his work very much, declared that he had found nothing in the

better off walking on a treadmill. At least then you would not be

various studios of Paris better than what Courbet was doing. He

abdicating your convictions.”

bought two of his paintings for 420 francs, commissioned another, and assured him that he would make him famous in Holland. At

In March, he sent eight paintings to the Salon that had “already

last he was free, for the moment, from the “boring portraits, and

received much praise,” and he awaited the opening with great

women who insist on fair complexions, in spite of everything.”

impatience. He would care very little, he said, about the opinion of the members of the jury “if that weren’t so important for one’s

Audaciously, to show that he could paint in the grand manner, he

reputation”. Otherwise, rejection of his works would merely have

attacked a canvas that was “eight feet high by ten wide”. This was

proved that he did not think like them, and that would have been a

a “mighty work”, because he wanted to finish it before leaving for

compliment to him. Here we have another glimpse of the rebel that

Ornans, or at least to be well enough along for it to be dry and easy

had emerged at school, and which he would become as an artist. His

to paint over after the vacation.

judges, through excessive haste, self-centredness or lack of caring, missed the opportunity to recognise his efforts, and themselves

However, his own enthusiasm wore him out fairly quickly, and he

encouraged him to become their own formidable enemy.

decided to return home. The little town provided the happier company of his childhood friends, the musician Promayet and the

Once again, the tide was against him and only his portrait was

jolly Urbain Cuenot. One can only imagine the good times had by

accepted. Obviously there was “ill will” against him. The judges

this band of hearty fellows, whether they set out to go hunting,

were “a bunch of old fools who had never been capable of anything

fishing, hiking, or wooing the ladies.

and were out to stifle the younger generation who could walk all over them”. Being rejected by them was therefore an honour.

Back in Paris, Courbet briefly set aside his grand ideas. In those winter days, in fact, he had neither enough time nor enough light

Courbet, who had extended his summer holiday in Ornans, did

“to work seriously at it”. Moreover, he would have had to be more

not return to Paris until December. He worked on a portrait of

certain of selling this type of painting; what could one do with it

his friend Urbain Cuenot, which his friends, and Monsieur Hesse

8. Small Portrait of the Artist with a Black Dog, 1842. Oil on canvas, 27.5 x 22 cm. Musée municipal de Pontarlier, Pontarlier. 9. Portrait of the Artist, known as Courbet with the Black Dog, 1842. Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 55.5 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 20



The Beginnings

in particular, declared marvellous. However, he doubted that this

his earliest and most faithful support. He announced in August

work would be accepted for the Salon, because “it is entirely over

1847 that he was leaving for that country, the only one where he

the examiners’ heads.” He consoled himself with the thought that

had any hope of earning any money quickly. He already knew a

there was beginning to be talk of a coalition of painters who were

dealer and besides, he had been recommended “to a certain Van

rejected every year at the Louvre, and who would exhibit

den Bogaert, the ‘high cupbearer’ to the king of Holland, a very

somewhere else in protest.

influential man and one of the leading citizens of Amsterdam.” He would spend his time looking at what art lovers liked,

His predictions weren’t wrong. The three paintings that he

studying the old masters and getting acquainted with art dealers,

submitted were refused. It was prejudice; the jurors rejected all

so he would be unable to arrive in Ornans until the first of

those who weren’t of their school except a few “against whom they

September. During this trip, Courbet became familiar with the

were powerless, such as Delacroix, Decamps, and Diaz.” Although

work of the old Dutch masters, particularly Rembrandt’s, for

their opinion mattered little to him as far as his reputation was

which he always had the greatest admiration, and to which his

concerned one had to exhibit, and, unfortunately, there was only

own portraits were related in an irrefutable way. He studied them

that exhibition. “In previous years, when I had less of my own

in The Hague and Amsterdam, and described what a revelation

manner and so was still doing a bit like them, they accepted me;

they were for him, saying that this trip, “truly indispensable for

but now that I am myself, I mustn’t hope for it.” The frustrated

an artist,” had taught him more than three years of work.

artists reacted; there was talk of a petition to the king, or the

Unfortunately, the living there was very expensive, and he

Chamber of Deputies, and of a counter-exhibition in private

announced his departure for the following week.

rooms. Courbet was of the latter opinion, and he went on to set out his ideas in several articles for the Corsaire. It is known that

A letter of the 21st of December 1847 shows that he is very busy

this plan took shape and that a number of artists, including some

with a painting that he intended for the Salon. It was a painting

very important ones such as Scheffer, Decamps, Dupré, Delacroix,

that would cost him dear.

Rousseau, Barye, Charles Jacque and Daumier amongst others, gathered at Barye’s place on the 15th of April 1847 and drafted a

The Revolution of 1848 doesn’t seem to have taken him by

document, later registered with a notary in Paris named Monsieur

surprise, nor diverted him from his work. He paid very little

Faisceau-Lavanne, in which they decided to establish an

attention to politics, “as usual,” as he found “nothing more hollow

exhibition independent from the official Salon. The Revolution of

than that.” He helped out a bit in “destroying former errors” and

1848 kept them from going ahead with their plan.

he was still ready to do so if there were new ones; but he was a painter above all, and the proof of that was that he had been

Somewhat discouraged and beginning to doubt seriously of ever

painting again for a fortnight, “in spite of the Republic, which is

succeeding in his own country, Courbet thought of seeking a

not the kind of government most favourable for artists,

following abroad, particularly in Holland, where he had received

historically, at least.”

10. The Sculptor, 1845. Oil on canvas, 55 x 41 cm. Private collection. 25

Gustave Courbet

The six paintings (Young Girl Sleeping, Evening, Midday, Morning, The

nationaux (state-sponsored work program under the Second

Cellist, and Portrait of Urbain Cuenot (p. 77)) and three drawings

Republic). It was just after the bloody days in June, with the deaths

(Classical Walpurgis Night) that he submitted to the Salon were

of Generals Négrier and Regnault and of the Archbishop of Paris

accepted, but since there were 5,500 works accepted that year, and

and the terrible repression by General Cavaignac. “It is the most

that moreover they were poorly placed, he had little hope of being

distressing spectacle that you could possibly imagine,” he

noticed. However, Courbet’s apprehensions were unfounded; critical

exclaimed, “I think that nothing like it has ever happened in

opinion began to support him. Champfleury exclaimed, “people have

France, not even the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.” To his

not sufficiently noted, this year, at the Salon, a large and striking

parents, who begged him to stay out of it, he answered; “There are

work, Classical Walpurgis Night, a painting inspired by the theme of

two reasons I am not fighting; first, because I don’t believe in war

Faust. I say it here, and let it be remembered! He, the unknown artist

with guns and canons, and it’s not part of my creed. For ten years

who painted this Classical Walpurgis Night, will be a great painter...”

I’ve been fighting a war of wits. I would not be true to myself if I

We must conclude, however, that the artist himself did not place too

acted otherwise. The second reason is that I don’t have any

great an importance on this work, since he painted The Wrestlers

weapons and cannot be tempted. So you have nothing to fear

(p. 64) over it. Prosper Haussard wrote:

where I am concerned.”

“At the last three Salons, Monsieur Courbet has gone

The Courbet of the years to come, even the Courbet of the

unnoticed. Is it our fault or his? Certainly in 1848 he qualifies

Commune, was already entirely present in this very interesting

as an artist, he makes his début as a painter. His Cellist in

letter; Republican in his soul, utopian, humanitarian, and

particular has the makings of style and manner, a handling of

rejecting violence. The painter barely appears in it, but we mustn’t

brushwork and chiaroscuro which stand out with brilliance;

let this silence deceive us. There was a third cause for the artist’s

it’s like a reappearance of Caravaggio and Rembrandt.”

abstention. The fact was that in spite of civil war, barricades, the revolution which rumbled in the streets, the roar of the crowd, the

Briefly, Courbet thought of entering the contest for the picture of

fervour and the carnage, Courbet was obsessed with his dream of

the Republic, which was to replace the portrait of the king, Louis-

fame and went on working with all of his might. And in the end,

Philippe. He decided against it, however. In the meantime, his

fame would begin to reward his labours.

poverty was increasing; he had no money at all. His clothes were in tatters and to save the expense of a tailor, he had himself dressed

The Beginnings of Realism

in the uniform of the National Guard; “I will be splendid in that, and people will take me for a rabid Republican.”

One of Murger’s characters in Scènes de la vie de Bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life) was Schaunard, whose real name was Alexandre

A letter of the 26th of June was written during the influence of the

Schanne. He was a painter at odds with the authorities, ended up

revolutionary fervour which followed the closing of the ateliers

selling toys in the Marais district of Paris and sketched an

11. The Game of Draughts, 1844. Oil on canvas, 25 x 34 cm. Private collection. 12. The Wounded Man, 1844. Oil on canvas, 81.5 x 97.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 26

The Beginnings




The Beginnings

entertaining description in his Souvenirs of life in the realist crowd,

anyone mentioned music, Courbet’s antelope-like eye lit up. Like

around 1849. Every evening Schanne went to an open studio where

Ingres, who liked to pass himself off as an expert violinist, the

one could paint and sculpt from live models for six francs a month.

artist sometimes painted himself as a guitar or cello player. Nor

Years later, Schanne could still remember how astonished he and his

was his studio the only place where he liked to sing his songs;

colleagues, among them Bonvin, were at the way Courbet worked:

the walls of the Andler beer hall trembled with them every evening and well into the night.

“He painted on thick, grey paper, sized with oil and stretched on frames three times the usual size. He was

Courbet did a fine portrait of Madame Andler (Mère Grégoire

therefore obliged to stay in the back row, so as not to block

(p. 47)), a large Swiss woman, behind her bar, between a pot of

the view of the others. The box he used was also oversized;

flowers and the waiters’ tip box. At the time the bar was at the

it held huge bladders filled with the most ordinary colours,

height of its popularity. Champfleury observed that the number of

which are sold by the kilogram, such as white, yellow ochre,

Parisians flocking to this “temple of Realism” was considerable.

vermillion, and black… Here is how he mixed his colours,

There were famous painters, he said, who wanted to see this “bull

after he carefully studied his model; he prepared basics for

in a china shop” first hand; critics, “divining rod in hand to gauge

light, half-tones, and shadow. Then he arranged the primary

the depth of the doctrine”; cynics looking for something to

colours in a fan on the top of his palette. Having done that,

believe in, if only briefly; opportunists looking for a way to

he painted with a stiff brush, a knife, a rag, even his thumb.

benefit from the new school; newcomers to the artistic and

He used anything and everything. But he was more

literary milieu; idlers and curiosity seekers and also a good many

interested in the harmony than the richness of the colours,

merrymakers all mixed together. Some were just passing through,

a quality, in fact, which stayed with him until the end of his

such as Corot, Decamps, Daumier, Barye and Préault. Regulars

career. Never, at Père Lapin’s place, did we see him do a

were the critic Théophile Sylvestre, whose admiration for the

whole figure; he studied only parts.”

master of Ornans was not without a touch of perfidiousness; Bonvin, Courbet’s first friend, and guide, in Paris; Alfred Bruyas,

Schanne was one of the regulars at Courbet’s studio, of which he has








left a quick sketch. The room was large, lit from above and by a small

encouragement; the painter from Besançon, Jean Gigoux, and the

window which looked out on the rue de l’École de Médecine.

two Realism enthusiasts from Saintonge, Etienne Baudry and Castagnary. Baudelaire should be considered somewhat

One of Courbet’s obsessions was music. He claimed that he was

differently; his relationship with Courbet was the subject of some

an expert and sometimes tried to give lessons to his friend

surprise, yet they saw each other on a regular basis for a number

Promayet, the son of the organist in Ornans, and who was a

of years, since the poet lived with the painter in his times of

violinist in the orchestra of the Hippodrome. Bonvin, who was

extreme need. He even asked Courbet one night to take notes on

sometimes present at these recitals, used to say that as soon as

his dreams – Courbet was horrified.

13. Lovers in the Country, 1844. Oil on canvas, 78 x 60 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 14. Woman Sleeping by a Stream, 1844. Oil on canvas, 88 x 68.5 cm. Collection Oskar Reinhart “Am Römerholz”, Winterthur. 15. The Source, 1868. Oil on canvas, 128 x 97 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 31



Gustave Courbet

Although the influence of all these persons was not enormous, the

drama and exoticism. Eager for glory of their own, the

same cannot be said for the authority exerted on Courbet by

newcomers raised the flag of Realism against these two enemies,

Champfleury and Proudhon.

believing that they themselves had invented the movement.

It is easy to imagine how pleased the writer was to ally himself

Does this mean that the realists didn’t follow in the footsteps of

with Courbet, whom he immediately recognised as having the

their predecessors? To claim that, it would be necessary to deny

stature necessary to introduce the realist doctrine into art.

the constant evolution of humanity and things, in which nothing

Although Realism in art had an eventful history, it never

is ever created without a cause linked closely to the past. Without

amounted to a unified whole; its proponents themselves never

dwelling on the Flemish, Spanish, even Italian, and French realists

agreed on its definition, nor the direction it should take.

of the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,

Nevertheless, its first collective manifestation occurred at the

who would be too numerous to list, and who are also linked to

Salon of 1855. Champfleury claimed in his 1877 biographical

their elders, one can trace the path of this tradition back to the

note on Max Buchon that “Realism was a democratic,

beginning of the nineteenth century and the height of the school

spontaneous and unthinking aspiration in certain minds; for,

of David. A foreshadowing of Realism then was the fascination

around 1848, we were buffeted by a special wind that pushed us

with contemporary life, which moved David to paint The

into action without apparent reason.” The definition is vague, as

Coronation of Napoleon, or The Oath of the Army after the Awarding

we see, and it would be useless to look for a more precise one in

of Medals, and Gros his Bonaparte at Arcole and Napoleon in the

another book by the same author, nevertheless entitled Realism.

Plague House at Jaffa. But the most significant event was the The

If it is vague, however, it is because the realist movement itself

Raft of the “Medusa” by Géricault at the Salon of 1819, about which

had no precise beginnings either.

Proudhon said, “a single painting like the Naufrage de la Méduse... suffices to point the way for art across the generations, and makes

Fundamentally, what all these young rebels wanted and put

the wait worthwhile.”

forth haphazardly in their speeches at the Andler brasserie, was a reaction against the double current, which seemed to them to

Géricault, who died prematurely in 1824 at the age of thirty-three,

be pulling French art into decadence, with the Academicism of

was in fact claimed erroneously by the Romantics. If he had lived,

Ingres on the one hand, and the Romanticism of Delacroix on

he would have founded Realism, which was present in the

the other. Neither corresponded in the least to their positivist

embryonic state in his work. It is well known that he was

leanings; the first with its taste for allegory and antiquity, its

fascinated with reality. At the Louvre, his preferences went to the

abhorrence of the ugly and the trivial, which led to its not

realist masters such as Caravaggio and Salvator Rosa, whom he

depicting real life, and its idealistic intentions, admitted or

copied ardently, and from whom he borrowed those dark

implied; the second with its wilful refutation of the present time

backgrounds that have been called “Bolognese cooking.” Courbet

and its exclusive quest for colour, the picturesque, historical

moreover always claimed him as one of his masters. The many

16. The Bacchante, c. 1844-1847. Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. Rau Foundation, Cologne. 17. Woman in White Stockings, c. 1861. Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. The Barnes Foundation, Merion. 36

The Beginnings


The Beginnings

paintings of the hunt and of races and the “portraits” of horses

which had exquisite paths shaded by centuries-old oaks and beech

made by Courbet show just how much he learned from this

trees to tempt the rambler. There he would call upon another of

teacher, and to what extent their tastes were similar.

his compatriots in his quiet abode, Francis Wey, who had been born in Besançon in 1812.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the landscape artists of the school of 1830, even Corot, began almost unanimously to turn in

They had met in the winter of 1848, as Wey himself tells it in his

the direction of Realism. Just when Courbet was starting his

Mémoires inédits; “One afternoon, near the foot of the rue de Seine,

ascension, however, their early successes were waning. It took a

I met Monsieur Champfleury, and, as we were gabbing on the

good deal of pressure when the attempt was made to enlist these

pavement, he mentioned a young, enormously talented painter, as

painters among the Romantics. During this time which led up to

yet entirely unknown, and who, being a native of my Franche-

the Revolution of 1848, they were still under the realist influence

Comté, would be worthy of a visit.” They decided to do so at once

of the English and Dutch landscape artists, however the time was

and went to the rue Mazarine, crossed the Place de l’École de

not far off when they would evolve towards subjectivism, which

Médecine, and went up to the studio. There they saw coming

was a form of Romanticism.

towards them, “a tall young man with beautiful eyes, but very thin, pale, sallow, bony, lanky […]. He nodded at me, without saying a

In spite of his yearly trips back to Franche-Comté, his regular

word,” wrote Francis Wey, “then went back to his stool in front of

patronage of the Andler-Keller, and, occasionally, the café

a canvas which I saw as I came up behind him. I don’t remember

Momus, could have been harmful to Courbet. Fortunately, once

ever having been so dazzled. The painting before me, treated with

spring arrived, the jolly band took up the habit of going out to

a rustic nonchalance, like the subject, showed a masterful

the country now and then for recreation, and so he was able to

insouciance, a controlled fire; the dark tones of the painting, the

get back in touch with nature. They went to the Marnes woods,

poetry of the execution were like no known style.” Full of

where, as Delvau phrased it, “the hazel trees and the fricassees

enthusiasm, Wey exclaimed, “With such a rare and marvellous

of la Mère Pihan are in flower”, or to the Fleury woods, “where

gift, how is it that you are not already famous? No one has ever

the coral bells and the cutlets of le Père Bazin are growing”

painted like that!”

and to the Plessis-Piquet pond “full of reeds and where Père Cense’s ducks swim around.” The cabaret run by Père Cense was

“Pardié,” replied the artist with a very countrified Franche-Comté

their favourite.

accent, “I paint like God!”

In the year of 1849, Courbet went several times to Louveciennes,

Francis Wey couldn’t help being taken aback by this placid

near the former residence of Madame Du Barry. This was a

statement, and the rest of the conversation simply increased his

charming village on the edge of the forest of Marly, not far from

astonishment. Courbet struck him as, “quite odd, as if rebelling…

Vaucresson, Garches, la Celle-Saint-Cloud, and l’Étang-la-Ville,

against most every theory, and steeped in a wilful ignorance,

18. Portrait of Juliette Courbet, 1844. Oil on canvas, 77.5 x 62 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 19. Man with a Leather Belt, Portrait of the Artist, 1845-1846. Oil on canvas, 100 x 82 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 20. Portrait of Alfred Bruyas, known as Painting Solution, 1853. Oil on canvas, 92 x 74 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. 39

Gustave Courbet

calculated to create an effect.” He railed against the masters,

having painted a genre scene on a five-foot canvas. In his view,

against pupils who subjected themselves before them like slaves,

using life-size proportions was wrong; one should look at life

and declared that it was high time to change all that. But the writer

through the small end of the glass, and furthermore, make it

did not criticise him for these opinions so unlike his own, because

poetic. As for Champfleury, he sounded an epic note; “Courbet has

of the “evidence of his extraordinary worth” spread before him,

taken the Salon by storm with nine paintings. Yesterday, no one

among which were Man with a Pipe (p. 79) and the future success

knew his name; today it on everyone’s lips. Such a sudden success

at the Salon of 1849, as well as After Dinner at Ornans (p. 58),

has not been seen in ages.” Concerning the After Dinner at Ornans,

which had caught his eye as soon as he entered.

“this painting could be boldly hung in the Flemish museums, amid the great crowds of burgomasters by Van der Helst, and it

That Salon of 1849 was highly important in the history of art since

would hold its own… Courbet, before long, will be one of our

the exhibiting artists were allowed to elect the jury themselves.

greatest artists.”

The experiment was enormously successful, if one judges by the results; Courbet was awarded the second-place medal. He had

It was claimed that this work had been painted with litharge on the

submitted seven works, including landscapes, portraits, and a

background, which was fading away. It should be recognised that

genre scene, all of which were accepted.

the subject called for this penumbra, since the scene is set in the late afternoon, perhaps at twilight, after the hunt. In a letter to

The great success went to the After Dinner at Ornans. The scene

Francis Wey of 28 November 1849, Courbet even referred to this

takes place in the Courbet kitchen, near the immense fireplace, on

painting as the Soiree à Ornans (Evening at Ornans). It is

a dark afternoon, when all the objects are bathed in chiaroscuro.

undeniable that it looked dark; but this is true of all the paintings

The meal has just finished and the table is still covered with the

of this period, in particular those by Courbet, who at that time was

remains. The musician Promayet is standing, playing the violin;

fully into his période noire. As he explained to Francis Wey, at the

Courbet is listening absently; his father, with a glass in his hand,

Salon of 1849 itself:

is asleep, and Adolphe Marlet carefully takes an ember from the fireplace to light his pipe. The overall impression is rustic, calm,

“That’s the way I see; you can’t reproduce an artificial

serene, restful; the heads are all excellent portraits and everything,

colour which is not real to you; that would be the false

even down to the big bulldog asleep under a chair, shows how

art of Ingres and the others. If brighter light is

Courbet was able to render his observations with fluidity and

necessary, I will think about it, and when I see it, it will

truth. The After Dinner at Ornans is one of the great masterpieces

be done, without my deciding to do so.”

of the nineteenth century. Thus did he justify, once again, the description that he gave of Courbet was much talked about in the newspapers and magazines.

himself, as “the pupil of nature and feeling,” and which his next

In the Revue des Deux Mondes, F. de Lagenevais criticised him for

works would bear out even further.

21. Portrait of H. J. Van Wisselingh, 1846. Oil on panel, 57.2 x 46 cm. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. 42

The Beginnings

The First Successes of Realism Courbet’s First Successes

the subject of an interesting painting. He arranged for them to come to his studio the next day, and the canvas was quickly finished. It is

At the beginning of the summer, Courbet went to stay in

of the same dimensions as the After Dinner at Ornans. There is an old

Louveciennes for two months, at the home of Francis Wey. As he

man in his seventies on the right, bent over his work. His

put it himself, he needed to “fatten up”. According to the Mémoires

sledgehammer is raised in the air, his flesh darkened by the sun, his

inédits, he was skinnier and paler than ever, but once in the

head shaded by a straw hat. His trousers of rough cloth have

country he soon recovered his appetite. He became the life of the

patches, and through the cracks in his wooden shoes his stockings

party at meals with his unexpected and original jokes, his high

can be seen; stockings that were once blue, and now have holes at

spirits and affability attracting neighbours and friends, who were

the heels. On the left is a young man with dust in his hair and

anxious to be invited and curious to see and hear him, although

greyish-brown skin. His shirt, filthy and in tatters, leaves parts of his

they were likewise sure that at “every conversation they would be

back and arms exposed; a leather strap holds up what is left of his

called idiots in a most congenial way.”

trousers, and his mud-coated leather shoes gape pathetically in several places. The old man is on his knees; the young man is behind

In Louveciennes, he wasted no time, painting on everything, even

him, standing, carrying a basket of crushed rock. Alas! In such a life,

cigar boxes, most often with a palette knife. The artist did not limit

thus does one begin, thus does one end! Here and there their

himself to scenes of Louveciennes and the environs. One morning

paraphernalia are scattered; a basket, a staff, a hoe, a soup pot and

he painted Madame Wey, who was then convalescing after a long

so on. They work in full sun, in the open countryside, beside a ditch

illness, sitting in front of a wooded hillside in a misty atmosphere.

that runs along a road. The landscape nearly fills the painting. “Poor

“This sort of miniature, painted broadly, is the lone example in his

folks!” he said in a letter to Wey, “I tried to epitomise their life in the

work of this style and manner.” The painter stayed in this

corner of this frame; isn’t it true that they never see more than a little

charming retreat for two months, then was off to Ornans.

slice of the sky!” The good people of Ornans flocked to his studio to admire the The Stone Breakers as soon as they could, and

His father had had a studio built for him, “of respectable

pronounced that he would never produce a truer painting, even if he

dimensions, but the window was too small, and in the wrong

did a hundred. Proudhon even wrote that the locals wanted to buy

position”. At once, “I had one three times as large put in; now it is

it and put it over the high altar of their church.

as bright in there as in the street.” On the 26th of November, he explained the chance encounter that had led him to paint The Stone

It was later said that the The Stone Breakers was the first socialist

Breakers (pp. 62-63); “I had taken our carriage; I was going to the

work by the painter. However, this letter to Francis Wey, and

castle of Saint-Denis, near Maizières. I stopped to watch two men

another to Champfleury couched in nearly identical terms, show

breaking up stone on the road. One rarely sees such an absolute

that he was initially moved only by pity for the dispossessed, and

expression of wretchedness.” He at once thought that this could be

not at all by the idea of stinging social protest. His ambitions were

22. Self-Portrait, c. 1850. Oil on mounted canvas, 50 x 40 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. 45

Gustave Courbet

elsewhere towards the end of 1849; he was still more concerned

They are arranged around an open grave, below the Roche Founèche

with art than politics, and art was what he wanted to reform. He

that Courbet so loved, with the Roche du Mont and the Roche du

believed that the painting he then had underway, called A Burial at

Château in the background, under a sickly white sky. On the left is

Ornans (pp. 74-75), would contribute greatly to that cause.

the priest, Monsieur Bonnet, bald-headed, reading the prayers for the dead and wearing a black cape trimmed in silver. Behind him stands

As he told Champfleury, all the Ornans folk were eager to be part

the cross bearer, the wine maker Colart; then Cauchi, the sacristan,

of A Burial at Ornans. Being obliged to choose his characters, he

likewise in a white surplice, and black biretta, like the kind they wore

was afraid of making lots of enemies:

in those days, triangular, very tall and topped with a pompon. The two choirboys are next, one paying attention, the other watching one

“I’ve already done studies of the mayor, who weighs 400,

of the pallbearers. In the left-hand corner, four men carry the coffin,

the parish priest, the justice of the peace, the cross bearer,

which is draped in a black and white cloth decorated with

the notary, Marlet, the assistant mayor, my friends, my

crossbones. They each hold the handles of the stretcher with one

father, the choirboys, the grave digger, two old

hand, with the other a strip of cloth, which goes around their

revolutionaries from ’93 with their uniforms of that time, a

shoulders and passes under the coffin. On their heads are wide-

dog, the dead man and his pallbearers, the beadles, my

brimmed hats, which the hatter Alphonse Cuenot rented out for

sisters, other women too, and so on. I was planning to skip

funerals. They avert their heads in a way that is very realistic, given

the two parish cantors, but there was no way around it.

that country burials were usually conducted fairly late, the body

People came to warn me that they were offended, that they

often beginning to putrefy by then. On the side toward the rocks, the

were the only ones from the church that I hadn’t drawn.

pallbearers are, on the right, Alphonse Bon, and, on the left,

They were complaining vociferously, saying that they had

Alphonse Promayet. On the other side are Etienne Nodier and the

never done me any harm, and that they didn’t deserve such

elder Crevot. Behind them, touching the frame, is the old wine maker

an affront. You have to be mad to work under the

Oudot, grandfather of the artist, and, above Alphonse Bon’s hat can

conditions I’m in; it’s like working with blinkers on. I have

be seen, in profile, the head of the poet Max Buchon.

no room to stand back and see the whole. Will I never have a space to work as I should? Anyway, I am about to finish

The central group can be divided in two. On the left is old Cassard

fifty subjects, life-sized, with landscape and sky as the

the gravedigger in shirtsleeves, kneeling on his smock. Behind, the

background, on a canvas twenty feet long by ten high.”

two beadles, in red choir robes with black velvet yokes, wear ribbed red caps. This dress has not changed, and its bright colour and

When you look at it closely, A Burial at Ornans is less a genre scene

unique shape can still be seen in Ornans today. The beadle on the

than a group of portraits. The idea was new, or at least a renewal

right is the wine grower J.-B. Muselier, and the one on the left, with

of the guild paintings of Van der Helst, Franz Hals and Rembrandt.

the extraordinary nose, the cobbler Pierre Clément. Between him

All these faces are recognisable.

and the priest is Promayet, the organist and father of Alphonse,

23. Mère Grégoire, 1855/1857-1859. Oil on canvas, 129 x 97.5 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. 24. Peasant Girl with a Scarf, c. 1848. Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena. 46




The Beginnings

wearing a white surplice and a black cap. On the gravedigger’s right,

satisfactory as the final version. Courbet had first seen the cortège

standing upright in his black frock coat and holding his top hat

as moving towards the grave, the priest, the pallbearers and the

appears Monsieur Proudhon, cousin of the philosopher, deputy

gravedigger positioned on the left-hand side of the painting. The

justice of the peace. Behind is the mayor, Prosper Teste de Sagey,

final arrangement of the cortège, having reached its destination, is

whose simple appearance contrasts with his neighbour’s. Near him

better suited for producing the effect desired by the artist. He

is Bertin, wiping his face with his handkerchief, and above him

wanted to show a country funeral, at the moment of the final

Courbet’s father, in right profile. Beside him is Adolphe Marlet, a

separation, viewed by the men with calm or scepticism, in most

friend of the artist; then Sage, in a top hat and the deputy mayor,

cases, and more melodramatically by the women; the priest and

Tony Marlet the younger, who had studied law in Paris. Finally, near

the gravedigger completely detached and unmoved.

a magnificent pointer that has wandered into the cemetery, probably not unusual in a village during such ceremonies, are the two

As enormous as the work required for this had been, Courbet’s

veterans of 1793, dressed the French style of breeches, white and

energy was still not exhausted. In addition to the landscapes

blue stockings and pumps, decorated waistcoats, wide cravats and

around the ruins of the Saint-Denis tower, in Scey-en-Varais, that

old-style bicorne hats. On the right is old Monsieur Secrétan, a wine

he would paint for relaxation, he began a third very large

maker, his hand outstretched, and on the left is old Monsieur

composition, Peasants of Flagey returning from the Fair, also known

Cardet, his arms crossed, looking thoughtful.

as Return from the Fair (p. 72).

The women fill the right-hand portion of the painting, separated

This burst of activity took up the winter of 1849-1850. Courbet

from the men, as in church. The artist’s mother is against the edge of

inquired whether the Salon would be held in the month of May,

the canvas, seen from the left in three-quarter view, wearing a black

in which case he was afraid that he wouldn’t have time to finish

coiffe and holding the hand of a pretty girl, who is Teste’s daughter.

everything for the exhibition. This was a needless concern since,

Her own three daughters are behind the veterans of 1793; Juliette is

owning to political events (conflict between the Legislative

on the left, a handkerchief over her mouth, in the centre is the

Assembly and the prince-president, Louis Napoleon, with a

exuberant Zoé, her face hidden in grief and on the right is the

gradual build-up to the coup d’Etat) the Salon was put off until

thoughtful Zélie. The woman in the hooded cape is “the” Joséphine

the 30th of December 1850.

Bocquin, and Promayet’s mother, Célestine Garmont, is also there, her bonnet falling in large folds. Françoise, the wife of Alexandre the

At the same time, Courbet complained of not hearing from his friend

hunchback, is next, then Félicité Bon, wife of Gagey the stone

Wey, and he thought the reason was that he had not sent his

breaker, the fourth in the first row, by some rocks.

condolences at the death of Wey’s father. Thus he decided to apologise in a most peculiar way. He stated that did not grieve for the

A drawing, which is now in the museum of Besançon, shows the

deceased because he was convinced that one grieved only for selfish

first conception of A Burial at Ornans, which is definitely not as

reasons. Additionally, one man’s life was “not directly useful to

25. Portrait of Zélie Courbet, 1853. Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy. 26. Grandmother Salvan’s Tales, 1847. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm. Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis. 27. Portrait of a Young Girl from Ornans, 1842. Oil on canvas, 71 x 57 cm. Musée Gustave-Courbet, Ornans. 53

Gustave Courbet

another’s” and there are better ways to use one’s time than to grieve

the republicans alone, whether because their purses were flat or

for the departed. Sorrow was a good thing, but it had to be shared in

because art was of little interest to them, could not make up for this.

person, never by letter and if it weren’t that he was afraid of tiring

Courbet, their partisan, had in fact reversed his earlier decision to

him, he would write him “four pages” of it. His abstention was not

require an entry fee, and since he was renting the room at ten francs

an oversight and it should be taken for what it was, and not for what

a day, he quickly packed up “without covering his expenses” and

it was supposed to be. This instance is very telling about Courbet

went back to Paris.

psychologically; here we see the troublesome tendency of his mind to philosophise about feelings and ideas, when in fact it was better able

No sooner had he arrived than artists “of all sorts” and “society

to grasp daily situations. The painter took himself for a philosopher,

people also” came to see his new works. Everyone agreed that they

just as he did a musician. That would be the cause of all his

would make a huge impression at the next Salon. “Their fame is all

difficulties, in art as in politics. He had been born a marvellous

over Paris; wherever I go, everyone talks about them.”

instinctive artist; instinctive he should have remained.

Courbet as a Socialist Painter Another letter to Wey revealed a new preoccupation; “In our civilised society, I must lead the life of a savage; I must free myself

The Salon for the years 1850-1851 opened its doors at last on the 30th

even from governments. My sympathies lie with the people; I must

of December 1850. The regulations determined that there would be

go to them directly, I must draw my wisdom from them, and they

two juries; one for acceptances, nominated by the artists, the other in

must give me life. For that reason, I have just embarked on the

charge of awarding prizes, composed of thirteen elected members and

grand, independent and vagabond life of the bohemian.”

of seventeen appointed by the minister of the Interior. All the works submitted by Courbet had been accepted. They were: A Burial at

Therefore, he set up two exhibitions of his works, in Besançon and

Ornans, Peasants of Flagey returning from the Fair, The Stone Breakers,

Dijon, and decided that they would have an entrance fee. In

Portrait of Monsieur Jean Journet, View and Ruins of the Castle of Scey-

Besançon, the mayor made the concert hall in the central market

en-Varais, Banks of the Loue on the way to Maizières, Portrait of Hector

pavilion available to Courbet for free. More than two hundred and

Berlioz (p. 78) and Man with a Pipe (p. 79). Scandal and success were

fifty people, “presenting 50 centimes from their pockets, their very

immediate and enormous; “The works of Courbet are causing quite a

own pockets”, came to see the works. It was a different story in

stir, widely attacked, and widely defended. This fellow has his

Dijon, in late July. With soldiers camped everywhere, the mayor had

disparagers and his fans; he is none the less one of the leading players

no available space and Courbet had to rent a room in a cafe building.

of the Salon.” Courbet was the subject of every conversation, some

In addition, the city was divided into two clearly opposing camps, the

claimed that he was a former labourer, carpenter, or mason, others a

Reds, republicans, and the Whites, conservatives, and the cafe in

staunch socialist, many denying that he had any aptitude for painting

question was run by a Red, and patronised exclusively by persons of

anything but peasants. Among the “detractors” was Philippe de

his persuasion. Not a single White came to see the exhibition, and

Chennevières, in his Lettres de l’Art français (Letters on French Art):

28. Preparation of the Dead Girl, c. 1850-1855. Oil on canvas, 195.6 x 251.5 cm. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton. 29. Firemen hurrying to a Fire, 1850-1851. Oil on canvas, 388 x 580 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 54

The Beginnings




Gustave Courbet


The Beginnings

“The Burial at Ornus (as the Salon catalogue had printed it),

reality, on the other, is merely the product of accidental details.

is a vulgar and blasphemous caricature, a signboard

The permanent is the ideal for which to strive; the role of art is to

painting, which is full of hatred even for art; what a sad

make the ideal real.” Théophile Gautier; “We don’t know whether

thing, in fact, when a true talent tries to win the facile and

we should cry or laugh. Did the author intend to make a caricature

extravagant applause of the nineteenth century through

or a serious painting?” The women’s portraits would tend to point

the exaggeration of ugliness!”

towards the serious side, “but the two beadles, with their faces blotched with vermillion, their drunken appearance, their red

Courtois, in the Corsaire of the 14th of January 1851, was also of the

robes and their ribbed caps, look doltish enough to make Daumier

opinion that this painting showed a true predilection for ugliness;

jealous. The Charivari offers its subscribers no satires more bizarre

“a disgusting canvas represents a burial at l’Ornus… It makes you

than this… There are also heads which are reminiscent of signs

recoil at the idea of being buried at l’Ornus! And I couldn’t say if it

from tobacco stores and menageries with their Caribbean

would be much better to be born there amidst such ugly people.”

outlandishness of their shape and colour.” In addition, many

Some compare Courbet to the Flemish painters, though they would

serious mistakes of composition were pointed out, including the

never have painted life-sized characters in such a scene.

horizontal arrangement of the characters and the absence of depth and perspective. The characters themselves are silhouettes without

“Never before perhaps,” exclaimed J. Delécluze, “has ugliness been

shading or body, simply filled with a high degree of local colour,

glorified more blatantly than this time by Monsieur Courbet. The

which is, in fact, subtle and accurate, and immensely effective.

scene suggests a daguerreotype that didn’t turn out; the beadles are

This shower of favourable and unfavourable criticism, spread

base caricatures, both disgusting and laughable. Realism is a brutal

across newspapers of so widely differing opinions, demonstrates

system of painting which defiles and degrades art, and, in spite of

just how original Courbet’s art was, since it was disconcerting to

the very real qualities of its advocate, he puts himself forward in

such an extent. It must be noted that Man with a Pipe escaped the

this way with an almost cynical boldness.”

general disapproval which attached itself not only to A Burial at Ornans, The Stone Breakers and Return from the Fair, but even the

P. Hussard, in the National complained that his eye and his mind

portraits of Berlioz, Journet and of Wey, with the landscapes

had suffered “the searing pains of ugliness… and the abysmal

slipping by unnoticed in the tumult.

revulsion of baseness.” It was also the opinion of Peisse at the Constitutionnel; “He confuses truth with reality; he brings

For Peisse, this portrait is “an admirable bit of painting” and

observation down to the level of a descriptive inventory. It is

according to Vignon, “a gem of shaping, delicacy, and execution”.

brutal, rather than intellectual; his analysis is not carried through

The “head rendered with a rare talent, ‘smoothness’ and a freedom

with that life-giving synthesis. Nothing is less true that the real;

in the brushwork which are quite remarkable, and which serve to

the closer one gets to the one, the farther from the other; truth is

prove that the author has studied the Carracci and the Spanish

what is permanent about things, and characteristic of their nature;

School,” thought Delécluze...

30. After Dinner at Ornans, 1848-1849. Oil on canvas, 195 x 257 cm. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille. 59

Gustave Courbet

And yet, a few critics were more insightful. For one admirer, The

with genius in it. I will not give advice to the painter,” concluded

Stone Breakers, Return from the Fair and A Burial at Ornans were

Champfleury, “let him go where his brush takes him. He produced

“triumphs of truth”. Albert de la Fizelière concluded that the scene

a masterpiece in this age of mediocrity; may his work help him

of the A Burial at Ornans has a quiet drama and a definite effect. P.

forget the nastiness inflicted on him by the mediocre.”

Pétroz, in the Vote Universel, applauded the artist for giving the painting of contemporary life the same elevation as historical

Now that Courbet’s Realism has been accepted, there is no need to

painting, and for opening up a new avenue for art. And, as was to

add to this praise written by a friend. Mademoiselle Juliette

be expected, Champfleury vigorously championed his friend.

Courbet donated the A Burial at Ornans to the Louvre in 1882, and it is considered one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century

All this commotion was already proof of the value of the work;

painting. It is a serious, strong, peaceful work, expressive of a

mediocre artists do not provoke critical reaction. However, the

specific region and period, a faithful image of humanity and

political accusation didn’t hold up; “There is not a trace of

nature, painted in good faith, using all the resources of a truly

socialism in A Burial at Ornans”. The painting was not meant to

admirable technique. It silenced laughter, and it provoked

illustrate any social systems. Courbet hadn’t intended to prove

thought. It is possible, actually, that this result might have been

anything through his work, which was simply “the death of a

achieved earlier if the realists hadn’t claimed to be erasing the past

citizen followed to his last resting place by other citizens”; an

and eliminating from modern art everything that could not be

event from the domestic life of a small town, a perfectly plausible

accommodated under this banner of novelty. Exclusiveness is the

subject, and worthy of being represented on such a scale. But,

norm among neophytes, but time works things out. Thus, there

some exclaimed, this had never been done. Yet Murillo, Velázquez,

was a time when a single gallery in the Louvre held works by

Van der Helst and so many others had often painted just such

Ingres, Delacroix and Courbet.

everyday scenes on canvases as large as After Dinner at Ornans (p. 58). Some pointed out that the burgomasters and aldermen of

To rest from the tremendous effort that he had expended, and

Amsterdam were important people, whose portraits could

from all this tumult, Courbet went to the countryside for a time,

rightfully be worthy of the talents of an artist, “but are not the

staying near Le Blanc in the Indre. From Le Blanc, he came back

mayor of Ornans, the deputy mayor of Ornans, the dog of a

to Paris, then went to Belgium. As he passed through Lille, he

pensioner from Ornans as important as the Flemish burgomasters

went to see the After Dinner at Ornans. At the Brussels

and aldermen?” As for the ugliness of these citizens, there was

exhibition, he noted that his The Stone Breakers and his Bassiste

nothing exaggerated about it; “this is the ugliness of the provinces,

(The Cellist) were creating a much greater stir than he had

which is not to be confused with ugliness by Paris standards.”

expected. In fact The Stone Breakers was highly appreciated by the Belgian artists, such as Charles de Groux, who, following the

“He made a ‘manly, powerful and sincere’ painting, executed

exhibition, organised their own version of the realist school in

simply, with a striking look and a strong and robust individuality,

their country.

31. Marc Trapadoux Examining a Book of Prints, c. 1849. Oil on wood, 41 x 32 cm. Musée d’Art moderne, Troyes. 32. The Stone Breakers, reproduction following the destruction of the original in 1849. Oil on canvas, 190 x 300 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. 60

The Beginnings

It was after this trip that the Messager, under the signature of a

coup d’état of the 2nd of December 1851, who would, moreover,

certain Monsieur Garcin, accused the artist of having attended a

become the future emperor’s closest and most effective

meeting held by “les Amis de la Constitution” (Friends of the

collaborator. Courbet’s future was assured from the official point of

Constitution), in the Salle Saint-Spire. The painter denied it since

view, if he had so desired, but he didn’t in the least.

he hadn’t been back to Paris after setting out on his trip. He did this more in the interest of truth rather than to exculpate himself,

Courbet had flattered himself for having disarmed the critics by

but from then on they called him the socialist painter and he

making his painting “pretty”, but his disappointment was great.

happily accepted this title, since he was “not only a socialist, but

Gustave Planche wrote that Courbet was still showing “the same

even more so a democrat and a republican, in a word, a partisan of

disdain for anything resembling beauty or elegance of shape; the

the entire Revolution, and, above all, a realist, which is to say the

young women are clumsy and common, it is an outrage to good

sincere friend of the true truth.”

taste.” Louis Esnault was indignant that the artist had chosen such a hideous dog, “a horrid little bastard, the product of several

On returning to his hometown, Courbet had found the welcome

illegitimate flings… Monsieur Courbet has extended his mockery

less enthusiastic than in 1849, after his medal. However, as the

even to the figure of the dog”. In Artiste, Clément de Ris, who was

calm returned, he set back to work with increased fervour. A letter

certainly no supporter of Courbet, came to his defence. The

to Champfleury tells about his work of the time; “It’s hard to tell

painting seemed to him to be full of truth, energy and light; its

you what I have done this year for the exhibition; I’m afraid of

style was simple, with very remarkable brushwork. The little

saying it wrong. You would understand it better than I if you saw

beggar girl showed true feeling, there was grace and subtlety in

my painting. For one thing, I’ve thrown my judges off the scent,

the movement of the young woman on the right, and Courbet’s

I’m leading on to new ground; I’ve done something pretty;

talent was inconsistent, odd, unpleasant, but undeniable, and

everything they have said up to now is useless.” He was referring

fascinating to examine.

to Young Women from the Village (p. 71). This time, perhaps afraid of being turned down, Courbet asked only his own family to

The two others works went more or less unnoticed.

model. The work as a whole gives an exquisite impression of calm, intimacy and health, with a whiff of country poetry. This is the

During the summer of 1852, Courbet intended to finish a large

painting that Courbet showed at the Salon of 1852, with the

canvas entitled Firemen hurrying to a Fire (pp. 56-57), which must

Portrait of Urbain Cuenot (p. 77), and Landscape on the Banks of the

have been a subject suggested by Proudhon by late 1851. The idea

Loue. As was customary, since the Count of Morny had bought it

was to show these humble men, rudely awakened, and hastily

before the opening, his ownership was mentioned in the catalogue.

preparing to run to the fire. The artist began his painting in a large

Was the juxtaposition of these two names not most peculiar? The

room at the barracks, which had been made available free of charge

republican – even socialist – artist must have been amazed at being

by the commander, whose co-operative spirit even led him to sound

appreciated by one of the best-known instigators of the imperialist

the alarm one night to show Courbet the true drama of the scene.


33. The Wrestlers, 1853. Oil on canvas, 252 x 198 cm. Szépmuvészeti Múzeum, Budapest. 34. The Grape Harvest at Ornans under the Roche du Mont, c. 1848. Oil on canvas, 71 x 97 cm. Collection Oskar Reinhart “Am Römerholz”, Winterthur. 65



Gustave Courbet

But, after the coup d’état, the order came down to eliminate all these

“Monsieur Courbet,” the official said, “you should pay more attention

favours. The canvas returned to the studio and Courbet rolled it up

to your words in public places… We have a certain volume of reports

stoically. His heirs later donated it to the city of Paris.

concerning you, and the Prefect did not think it necessary to thicken your file with the denunciation by an officer who, since he was

The turn of events worried him greatly. As early as January, 1852, he

attending a wedding as a private citizen, was not authorised to inform

wrote of it to his friend Francis Wey. “I painted stone crushers,” he

against you. For this reason he will be suspended from his duties.”

exclaimed, “Murillo painted a lice crusher; that makes me a socialist, and Murillo, a gentleman – it’s unbelievable!” He also accused the

Champfleury told how angry the artist was about this

chief of the gendarmerie in Ornans of actively spying on him and

nonchalance, and he would have been furious if he had learned

denouncing him to the prefecture, to the extent that he asked Wey

that he was being spied on less for his theories “than to know who

if he thought it were safe for him to return to Paris. The example of

was taking an interest in his recriminations, and might, at some

Max Buchon, was enough to make him pause for thought.

point, act on them.” Bohemian life did not seem dangerous, the writer concluded philosophically.

Buchon had taken refuge in Bern and had written the Matachin there. He had much the same inspiration as found in the rural

Enjoying the freedom that he was accorded, Courbet leisurely

novels of George Sand, but with greater attention to realistic detail;

prepared for the Salon of 1853, which opened at Les Menus-Plaisirs

in their respective domains, Buchon and Courbet were producing

on the 15th of May. There he exhibited The Wrestlers (p. 64), The

analogous works.

Bathers (p. 119), and The Sleeping Spinner (p. 96). Two days before, he wrote to his parents:

Why wasn’t the artist in the same kind of trouble as the writer? There are several reasons. First, the Count de Moray, as well as

“My paintings were accepted by the jury the other day,

the Countess, were interested in him and both proved it on this

without the slightest objection; I have been considered as

occasion. Moreover Courbet, who lived in Paris most of the time,

accepted by the public, and beyond being judged. In other

was less dangerous than his friend in a small town. Finally, his

words they have made me responsible for my works. All

very notoriety and his well-known excesses of language

of Paris is anxious to see them and hear what will be said

contributed to the fact that his political attitude was not taken

about them. I have just learned through Français that

seriously. Champfleury gives an amusing example of this; one

they have been very well placed. It’s The Sleeping Spinner

day the artist attended a wedding reception also attended by a

that has the biggest following. As for The Bathers, it’s a

policeman from Franche-Comté, who was so shocked by his

little frightening, although, after what you said, I’ve added

subversive speech that he denounced him on the spot. The

a cloth over the hips. The landscape in this painting is

artist’s letter was intercepted and Courbet ordered to appear at

generally well-liked. As for The Wrestlers, no one has said

the prefecture of police.

anything for or against up to now.”

35. View of Ornans, 1864. Oil on canvas, 86.3 x 129.5 cm. The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. 68

The Beginnings


Gustave Courbet

36. Study for Young Women from the Village, 1851. Oil on canvas, 54 x 66 cm. Leeds Museums and Galleries, Leeds. 70

The Beginnings

37. Young Women from the Village, 1852. Oil on canvas, 194.9 x 261 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 71

Gustave Courbet

38. Peasants of Flagey returning from the Fair or Return from the Fair, 1850. Oil on canvas, 208 x 275 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. 72

The Beginnings

As soon as the Salon opened, Courbet sent a letter to the newspapers

probably a young middle-class woman of about thirty from Franche-

in which he protested against the comment in the catalogue, which

Comté, who at the beginning of 1853 came to pose at Courbet’s

described him as a student of Auguste Hesse, and in which he

studio every day. She was the “Joséphine” who had left her husband

insisted that he had had only himself for a master. His most constant

to follow the artist.

concern had always been to preserve his independence. The Sleeping Spinner is in many ways more accessible to the In a letter to Max Buchon on the eve of the battle, Champfleury

public of the time. It is a tame painting, of the kind Courbet was

shared his apprehension concerning the effect liable to be

so clever at presenting every time there was another work likely

produced by a “certain nude lady, emerging from the water

to unleash a tempest, as Silvestre observed. In it the painter

displaying her buttocks to the public. Great scandal, you can

shows his sister, Zélie, with her thick, red hair, her shoulders

count on it… but The Sleeping Spinner will save the exhibition for

covered with a blue- and white-striped shawl. She is dozing

Courbet, and it is obvious that it will fetch a high price.” He

before her spinning wheel, her left hand resting on her flowered

considered this work a masterpiece.

dress, the right still holding the skein on her distaff. She is plump like the Bather, and her tipped head wrinkles the fleshy parts of

This work, the fate of which so worried Champfleury and other

her neck. A portion of her generous breasts appears under the

friends of the painter, is easily identifiable. The scene is on the banks

crossed shawl.

of the Loue, the clear waters of which show the pebbles of the shore and reflect the foliage of magnificent trees, through which the azure

The Wrestlers (p. 64) shows two muscular men, locked in combat

of the sky is visible. In the background curves the line of the nearby

in front of the Hippodrome of the Champs-Elysées, lit by a harsh

hillside. It is a rustic, leafy spot, humming with life, cool and fragrant,

summer sun. It was painted over Classical Walpurgis Night,

a common scene on the banks of provincial streams, near their

composed years before by Courbet, as one will recall, based on

sources in the mountains. A young naked woman, of ample

Goethe’s Faust.

proportions, has just been bathing and emerges from the water. With one hand she holds a cloth draped low around her hips. As she slips,

Just as Champfleury had predicted, the scandal prompted by the

she lifts the other hand to keep her balance, while a second woman

The Bathers was considerable in the general public. At court it was

sits on the grass, half covered by a skirt, wearing a bonnet, her legs

no less so; the evening before the opening of the Salon, Napoleon

partly naked. The seated woman looks up at her friend, smiling and

III, it is said, hit the painting with his crop.

stretching out her two bare arms. The sun filtering through the branches lovingly caresses the opulent flesh of these full-blooded

Eugène Delacroix was not gentle with these paintings either, and

country maidens, who are so at one with this vigorous land, this

one can still sense in his Journal how much they disturbed him.

exuberant nature. Regarding a Study of a Woman, bought by Bruyas,

“I went to see Courbet’s paintings,” he wrote on the 15th of April,

Théophile Silvestre says that the model for the standing bather was

“I was astonished by the vigour and audacity of his principal painting;

39. A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850. Oil on canvas, 315 x 668 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 73



Gustave Courbet

but what a painting! What a subject! The vulgarity of the figures

picture of reality.” Paul Mantz, not without some sadness, accused

wouldn’t matter; it’s the vulgarity and the futility of the concept which

the artist of betraying the hopes that had been placed in him:

are abominable. Even with all that, if only this concept, whatever it is, were clear!” The two women are making incomprehensible gestures;

“In The Wrestlers, he gave in to fantasy; the colours, brown

the water seems only deep enough for paddling. The landscape is

and dirty, are a deplorable reminder of the style of

extraordinarily vigorous, and the figures have no connection with

Guercino. Courbet performed a service in stopping the

what’s around them, since the nude scene is nothing but the

decline of painting into a neo-Grecian academic art

enlargement of a separate study that the painter adapted to the

through his protests, but he mustn’t go any further.

surroundings. “This is related to the question of the correspondence

Ugliness can be a means, never an end. Rembrandt painted

between the surroundings and the main subject, which eludes most

his virgins in the guise of common tavern servants, but his

great painters. This is not Courbet’s greatest shortcoming. There is

chiaroscuro encloses them in a halo of poetry; with him,

also The Sleeping Spinner, which shows the same qualities of vigour, as

feeling sanctifies ugliness.”

well as representation… The spinning wheel, the distaff, admirable; the dress, the chair, heavy and graceless. The Wrestlers shows a lack of

It is unprofitable to rehash here all the various opinions; more

action and confirms his impotence in invention. The background kills

pertinent is how Courbet himself judged The Sleeping Spinner, a

the figures, and it should have more than three feet cut off on all

judgement reported by Champfleury and which shows that he was

sides.” However much sympathy one feels for Delacroix, one is less

by then won over by Proudhon’s theories.

tempted to feel sorry for him for the unfair attacks to which he was subjected, since he in turn was unfair to others.

“I make stones think,” the artist had told his compatriot, forgetting that it was the latter who had, and not without some difficulty,

Beyond the peculiar shape of the bather, and her manner of presenting

conveyed this opinion about The Stone Breakers.

herself to the public, visitors were most shocked by the sight of realistic nudity in a real landscape, as they were used to seeing only

“Well then!” said Proudhon, pointing at The Sleeping Spinner,

nymphs and women with harmonious and idealised proportions in

“What does that think?”

such settings. This novelty, which was scandalous at the time, is no

“She’s a proletarian!”

longer shocking today, and the old customs are now the exception. Relations between the two Franche-Comté natives were becoming “Courbet,” Théophile Gautier stated to Presse, “has come at art like a

closer, much to Champfleury’s great chagrin. They were united in

peasant from the Danube; he seems to think the artist’s mission is the

a shared aversion to Parisian sarcasm, which had so often been

literal translation of nature at its most ordinary, which he banalises

directed against them. It was as a pledge of this friendship that

even further. He is the ‘Watteau of the ugly’. His works are a

Courbet began his Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his Children in

provocation to art and to criticism; they create caricature, and not the

1853 (pp. 132-133) that very year. He showed him in his garden,

40. Portrait of Urbain Cuenot, 1846. Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm. Musée Gustave-Courbet, Ornans. 41. Portrait of Hector Berlioz, 1850. Oil on canvas, 61 x 48 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 42. Man with a Pipe, c. 1849. Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. 76

The Beginnings

sitting on the steps of a small stoop leading up to his house, on

1889, and in which he is portrayed as pale, bilious, meditative, in

which were spread an inkwell with a quill, sheets of paper and

left profile, dressed in a brown frock coat with a velvet collar, a

books, some open, some closed. On the second step is the

cravat tied somewhat carelessly around his neck.

inscription “P. J. P. 1853” and on the first “Gustave Courbet” and “1865”, the date of the completion of the work. If we are to believe

“They weren’t handsome,” exclaimed Courbet, who was irritated by

Castagnary in the preface of the catalogue of 1882, Courbet painted

these dissatisfactions, “I couldn’t make them handsome, could I!”

this portrait from memory in Ornans in 1865, thinking back to 1853 when he had seen his friend in the rue d’Enfer, in the pose in which

They accused him not only of making his models uglier, but also

he depicted him. The idea of Courbet painting this from memory,

of painting only the outward appearance. It seems that this was

twelve years later, is rather unlikely. What is less so, it seems, is the

theoretical criticism, not meant seriously. Does not Berlioz, in his

idea that Courbet had sketched this portrait at that time, turned it

portrait made by the painter, appear with his bitter, disenchanted,

against the wall, as he frequently did, and took it back up later.

and sarcastic nature? Do we not see in Proudhon the unruffled and utopian middle-class dreamer that he always was; in Champfleury

Proudhon faces forward, dressed like a mason, in blue trousers and

the man already tortured with the regret of having been, and of

a grey smock. He wears glasses that are barely visible under his

being henceforth, unable to live up to his hopes? Either words

large, lumpy and prominent forehead. His right hand rests on his

have lost their meaning, or in these works there is a true

outstretched right leg; his left arm is propped on his bent other leg,

psychology, expressing itself unassisted by any rhetoric and all the

and his hand supports his head. In a garden chair, the

more persuasive for it. Once again, the label of “realist” was unfair

philosopher’s wife has set down her needlework. Nearby, the elder

to Courbet, for the public was wilfully simplistic and hardly

daughter leans on a small table and traces the letters of an alphabet

bothered examining a question in its complexity.

with her finger, while her little sister lies on the grass, pouring water from a little pitcher into a toy dish. The general tonality is

“I do not know,” said Courbet, “how I will ever finish the portrait

grey and the painting conveys an impression of the peace and quiet

of Baudelaire; every day he has a different face”.

which the philosopher so liked. Today this painting belongs to the city of Paris and is hung in the museum of the Petit-Palais. It first

It was true, Champfleury confirmed in his Souvenirs et portraits de

appeared in the Salon of 1865, where the critics did not spare it.

jeunesse (Memories and Portraits of Youth), that Baudelaire

Paul Mantz, among others, sharpened his wit concerning

possessed the secret of changing his mask “like an escaped convict

Proudhon’s wife, whom he declared to be imaginary; this

on the run.”

judgement apparently prevailed since she has now disappeared from the painting. It was the fate of the realist painter never to

The painter represented him seated on red cushions, his hair cut

satisfy any of his models. Champfleury cannot have been any

short, beardless, in a brown suit, with a golden-yellow silk cravat

happier with his portrait, which he bequeathed to the Louvre in

and a blue shirt. His eyes are piercing and he clenches a seasoned

43. Woman in a Riding Habit (L’Amazone), 1856. Oil on canvas, 115.6 x 89.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 44. Rocky Landscape, near Flagey, between 1839 and 1877. Oil on canvas, 85 x 160 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 81

Gustave Courbet


The Beginnings

pipe between his tight lips. In his right hand he holds a brown

vest, with a white and burgundy cravat and a heavy watch chain

book with red-edged pages, which rests on an oak table, upon

hung with fobs. His right thumb is hooked into the armhole of the

which also sits a square inkwell with a goose-feather quill. A pale

vest; his closed left hand rests on a green book on which is written

illumination floats about him, and lights him softly. The subtle,

Etude sur l’art moderne (Study on Modern Art). Solution. Alfred

witty, caustic Baudelaire, so eager to astonish, to seem strange and

Bruyas. It is decorated with the initial which he puts, with some

to shock the bourgeoisie, comes alive. And yet, the poet quickly

affectation, in all his portraits.

came to detest this portrait and its author himself. According to those in a position to know, this portrait was a very Certainly a more successful work in all respects was that of the art

good likeness, but not in the opinion of Théophile Silvestre. He

lover from Montpellier, Alfred Bruyas, who helped Courbet and

criticised it with an obvious bias, since he didn’t like Courbet

many other artists, and who was not spared from spitefulness.

much, first by temperament and also, probably, for tactical reasons,

Having come into a large fortune some years before, he started

to diminish the artist’s standing with Bruyas. “The subject,” he

coming to Paris regularly to follow artistic trends and involve

said, “is nervous and delicate, very fair with flaming hair and

himself in them. He quickly became known in the studios to

beard. Yet, the light blond hair has become reddish brown;

which he brought the cordial and insightful good will of a refined

Courbet has made the eyes wily, projecting his own shifty peasant

mind, sincerely interested in art. As a consequence, his person

ways onto the refinement of a man of the world; the body type was

commanded good will in return. He was tall, thin, slightly

misunderstood; the contours are massive, the gesture heavy, the

hunched, with a somewhat unhealthy look, not very talkative by

pose stiff.” Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that the subject

nature and intentionally quiet for fear of being rude. He often

was very happy with it, being more broadminded than his

seemed melancholy and wistful. He tended to look at paintings for

apologist. As for Courbet, he said he was satisfied with the work.

a long time without saying a word and bought them after the artist

During the sittings for this portrait, a sincere and abiding

had given up hope in the face of this silence. Eugène Delacroix,

friendship was formed between Courbet and Bruyas, one that was

although hard to tame, did his portrait, and this victory alone is

soon to be solidified by a lengthy stay in Montpellier.

proof that the model had great powers of persuasion, guided by deep conviction and impeccable breeding.

On the 22nd of June 1853, the Salon of 1854 was rescheduled for 1855 by decree, and made part of the Exposition universelle.

His tastes were eclectic, and, just as he had been charmed by

Courbet remained in Paris for the entire duration of the Salon, not

Romanticism, he was won over by Realism. Following the Salon of

wanting to appear to be running away from the “mockery,

1853, he bought The Sleeping Spinner and The Bathers, and

diatribes, accusations and tirades” assaulting him every day, proud

commissioned his portrait from Courbet, as he also did from a

of these persecutions, even provoking them by his intransigence.

number of other painters. Courbet showed him from the waist up,

At last, when the storm abated, he returned home to recuperate

turned three-quarters to the left, in a black frock coat and brown

and begin preparation for the coming Salon.

45. The Seashore at Palavas, c. 1854. Oil on canvas, 60 x 73.5 cm. Musée Malraux, Le Havre. 85


II. Glory Courbet: the Centre of Controversy

From the Exposition universelle to the One-man Exhibition

it had,” and he began canvases which he hoped to finish for the Exposition universelle, such as The Wheat Sifters (pp. 98-99), Rocky Landscape, near Ornans, The Puits Noir (p. 158) and Château

His native province, which always had such a positive influence on

d’Ornans. Confident in the far-off deadline, he didn’t finish them

Courbet, quickly restored the calm necessary for painting the large

until just before the exhibition.

canvases that he planned to add to those already completed. Within a week of his return, country life had reclaimed him all

The Wheat Sifters, which was shown at the Centennale of 1900,

together, and his correspondence with Francis Wey and Bruyas

is one of Courbet’s finest works for its easy self-confidence,

shows him to be busy with landscapes and genre paintings,

rustic simplicity, and harmonious colouring. It is now in the

intended to continue his Sur la grand’ route (On the Main Road)

museum of Nantes.

series, which included The Stone Breakers (pp. 62-63) and Young Women from the Village (p. 71).

In May 1854, Courbet wrote from Ornans to his friend Alfred Bruyas that the paintings had been returned, amongst them his

His satisfaction showed in a letter to Bruyas, and was expressed

portrait Man with a Pipe (p. 79), which he was glad to see join the

merrily. This same letter also contained various interesting details;

art lover’s collection. It represented an entire phase of his life; “it’s

he happily accepted his friend’s offer to go stay with him in

the portrait of a fanatic, an ascetic; the picture of a man who has

Montpellier, and check on his portrait (Man with a Pipe), which he

lost his illusions through the stupid mistakes which constituted

would be glad to see in the art lover’s collection. In addition, he

his education, and who is seeking to consolidate his principles.”

made no secret of his intention to do a one-man show of his works

The rest of the letter is a peculiar mixture of naiveté and

in 1855, which would serve as the “grand burial” of all the “idiotic

cleverness, modesty and pride, instinctive impulse and diplomacy,

bric-a-brac” that was cluttering up modern art.

imagination and reason, good faith and shiftiness. It is certainly a good expression of this strong personality, so complex that there is

In addition, he reworked Return from the Fair (p. 72). He had

none other like it in all the art of the nineteenth century, where

enlarged it by three feet, “correcting the error in perspective which

true nature and aspirations and strengths and weaknesses

46. The Seashore at Palavas, 1854. Oil on canvas, 37 x 46 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. 47. Entrance to the Strait of Gilbraltar, 1848. Oil on canvas, 18 x 26 cm. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati. 87



Gustave Courbet

constantly collide in a precarious equilibrium. “Fear not; should I

In the distance an old yellow coach is rolling along. Courbet is

travel the world over, I am sure to find men who will understand

arriving from Ornans, his sack on his back, in shirt sleeves,

me. Though I find but five or six, they will give me life, they will

dressed in blue twill trousers. He is in left profile, standing tall, he

save me! I am right, I am right; I met you; it was meant to be; for

alone throwing a shadow on the road, and nodding his tanned

it is not we who met each other; it is our solutions.”

“Assyrian” head, which is framed by his ample black hair and beard. He leans on a long stick in his right hand and with the left

Courbet returned frequently to this solution. For Bruyas, the

he doffs his grey felt hat. Monsieur Bruyas has come to meet him

solution seems to have been eclecticism, since he not only

from the villa Miey, and bows respectfully, head bare. He is

collected Courbet, but also Delacroix, Ingres, Géricault and

dressed in a green cardigan and blue trousers and holding his

Cabanel amongst others. For Courbet the solution was what they

black cap; his faithful servant, Calas, who carries a red shawl over

called Realism. But a solution was an idea, and, as always, it was

his arm, looks uncomfortable in his russet frock coat, while the

better not to overly examine the Courbet’s ideas. Proudhon

dog, Breton, welcomes the artist in his own way.

explains it perfectly in his Principe de l’Art (Principle of Art); “Cut out to be a giant, he feels the pen in his hand as an iron bar

More than a simple genre scene, The Meeting is a group of fine,

in a child’s. Although he speaks often of series, he thinks only in

expressive, lively portraits, not juxtaposed, but participating in an

detached thoughts. He has isolated intuitions, more or less true,

action which unites them realistically. The dog is as beautiful as the

sometimes felicitous, often sophisticated. He seems unable to

one in the A Burial at Ornans (pp. 74-75). Lastly, the countryside is

build his thoughts.”

admirable. Although it is very different from that of Franche-Comté, Courbet rendered this southern landscape with as much vigour and

In spite of the cholera that was rampant at the time in

clarity. The Meeting is topographical in the same way as The Puits

Montpellier, Courbet didn’t hesitate to accept Bruyas’ invitation,

Noir, Château d’Ornans and Young Women from the Village.

and he stayed there for several months, which were as busy as they were pleasant. The collector, who already owned Man with a

While in Montpellier, the artist did not limit himself to the city, and

Pipe, The Sleeping Spinner, The Bathers, the idealised Study of a

often went to relax after his labours by gazing at the blue waters of

Woman, which had contributed to the latter painting, and

the Mediterranean. The gulf of Aigues-Mortes, an extension of the

Courbet’s Portrait, asked him to paint several more works just for

Gulf of the Lion, between Frontignan and les Saintes-Maries de la

him. One of the most interesting, certainly, was The Meeting

Mer, is edged with ponds, vestiges of the salt water that formerly

sometimes called Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, or Fortune greeting

covered the entire area and is now receding, leaving the small ancient

Genius (p. 92), and which was expressly requested to

coastal towns to the sands and backwaters. Scarcely four leagues

commemorate Courbet’s stay in Montpellier. The scene is set on a

separated Courbet from the sea. He crossed the vineyards of the

dusty road, perhaps cinder-covered, with sparse vegetation nearby,

valley of the Lez, the nurseries of Lattes, passed between the ponds

dried by a beating sun. The sky is very blue and the horizon low.

of Arnel and Pérols, and reached Palavas-les-Flots, famous

48. The Return to the Homeland, c. 1854. Oil on canvas, 81 x 64 cm. Private collection. 90

Gustave Courbet



throughout the region for its magnificent fine-sand beach, where the

from his stay in the south. By dint of contemplating this bright

pines and tamarisk trees extend all the way to Maguelonne.

southern light, unfiltered by the slightest vapour and giving the smallest objects brilliance, his eye, so gifted at grasping colours,

The master painted several seascapes there, and, among others,

dilated even further. Well ahead of the revolution caused by the

The Seashore at Palavas (p. 86) which Bruyas purchased. It is low

Impressionists, he began to wash his palette and produce images

tide; the blue waves, fringed with white foam, break upon the

of nature less sombre than one was used to seeing. But this

yellow sand. In the foreground, the painter stands on a rock,

influence of the southern atmosphere could only go so far, and it

wearing a brown cardigan, his cane in his hand, greets the vastness

would be to the likes of Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Sisley, Degas,

with a gesture which can only be called theatrical. But one hardly

Renoir and Cezanne that the glory of analysing light in all its

notices it when observing this work, at once so realist and so

subtlety would fall.

poetic, which is reminiscent of the Dutch seascapes of the seventeenth century. As with these, the sky occupies two-thirds of

He left Montpellier in the autumn, leaving Bruyas behind, not

the canvas; like Van Goyen or Van de Velde, Courbet had observed

without regrets, as well as his new friends, amongst them Fajon, of

that the beach and sea seem crushed by the height and the weight

whom he later did a handsome portrait. He was soon back at work

of the atmosphere. The human is consequently no more than a

and even dreamt of building himself a studio.

barely perceptible dot, a molecule compared to the colossal elements, and the painter understood that seascapes should be, if

Meanwhile, the Exposition universelle occupied him greatly. He

not always, at least most often solitary.

planned to send fourteen paintings, including Man with a Pipe and The Meeting, which he found “burned and black, but which is

After the forests and prairies, after the country folk and city dwellers,

much appreciated in Ornans.” He also planned to submit his

the painter took up the sea and sky. In the same way that his vision

various portraits, including those of Bruyas, who kindly lent them

reflected the entire liquid plain in his seascape of Palavas, he had

to him, and finally The Painter’s Studio (pp. 122-123). This last

embraced all of nature in its elements, shapes and colourings, in its

work had been barely sketched in; Courbet transferred it line by

appearances both permanent and fleeting. And, in that way, he would

line to the canvas, “which is twenty feet wide and twelve feet

have appeared to be a pantheist painter if he had only added a more

high. That makes the most surprising painting imaginable; there

intellectual aspect to the perfect interpretations that he gave things.

are thirty life-size figures; it is the moral and physical history of

But one must not lament that fact, for every time he became aware of

my studio; there are all the people who help me and who

this shortcoming, he tried to compensate for it, and since he had no

participate in my undertaking. In the background will be the The

predisposition for such things he compromised his work.

Bathers and the Return from the Fair (p. 72). On my easel I will be painting a landscape; there will be a donkey-driver and donkeys

Finding this new area of work available to him was not, along with

bearing sacks to the mill. I will entitle it first series, because I

the growing friendship with Bruyas, the only benefit he derived

hope to bring people into my studio, thus making known what

49. The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, 1854. Oil on canvas, 132 x 150.5 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. 93

Gustave Courbet

I am drawn to and repelled by. I have two and a half months to

On the left, one sees all the people in whom the painter has taken

finish it; and besides I will have to go to Paris to do the nudes,

an interest, and who represent the diverse social categories. In the

so, all in all, I have two days per figure; you see that I cannot

first row is a poacher (Hunting), whose dog crouches close by,

dally.” Such was the original thinking about The Painter’s Studio.

looking disdainfully at a sombrero with black plumes and a dagger

The final painting is a bit different. The title that the painter gave

spread on the dusty floor. These represent Romantic Poetry. Not far

it, in 1855, was The Artist’s Studio, a Real Allegory Showing a

away is a skull resting on a copy of the Journal des débats (the Press);

Seven-year Phase in my Artistic Life. Courbet, by the bold joining

“newspapers,” said Proudhon, “are the cemeteries of ideas.” In

of these two incompatible words: real allegory, meant to show

front of it slumps an Irish mother (Poverty), her legs and breast

the public, in a tangible form, the ideas which had occupied his

bare, nursing her child. Behind is a rabbi in a long robe and cap,

thinking since 1848, and for which he had offered solutions or

with an aquiline nose and a long beard (Hebrew Religion) and in the

examples in his works, at the same time that, out of gratitude, he

background crouches a Jew (Commerce) showing a length of cloth

grouped around him the friends who had supported and

to a well-dressed, seated man wearing a top hat, who is none other

encouraged him in his struggle to make his theories prevail. It

than the wine grower Oudot, grandfather of Courbet (Work in the

was a complex and difficult undertaking.

Vineyard). To the side are a Pagliacci in a cocked hat (Theatre) and a priest (Catholic Religion). To the rear on the left-hand side are

The scene is the painter’s enormous studio; on the walls, guns,

reaper and a road worker (Life in the Fields), an unemployed worker

clothing, instruments and pipes; against a partition, a mannequin,

(Unemployment), a gravedigger (Death) and a streetwalker

representing Saint Sebastien pierced by arrows represents

(Debauchery). The Jew, the haberdasher, the Pagliacci, the priest,

Academic Art. In the centre an easel holds a Franche-Comté

the undertaker and the trollop have been lumped together, as

landscape with big trees, which Courbet is in the process of

though saying that they thrive off of humanity and exploit it.

painting: this is the Personal and Realistic Art of Courbet. He sits on a square chair, in profile, showing off “the Assyrian side” of his

On the right-hand side, near the window through which shines a

face, which his black hair and beard render luminous by contrast.

warm light that caresses and illuminates the nude body of the model,

He wears checked trousers and a jacket with a striped collar. At his

there are twelve figures. In the foreground, sprawled on a table

feet, a white angora cat. Before the canvas, a small local shepherd,

reading, is Baudelaire (Poetry) and beside him a socialite in crinolines

his feet bare in his wooden shoes, his hair tousled, watches the

and a shawl, who is touring the studio with her husband (Urbane Art

hand which recreates the scenery where he is wont to watch his

Lovers). At their feet on the floor, their child is looking at a picture

flock. On the right of the easel is a tall nude female model, also

book (Studious Childhood); in the centre, against the window-frame,

watching the painter work. She is depicted in profile, her

two lovers kiss (Free Love). Champfleury, seated on a stool in a dark

magnificent hair rolled into a chignon on her neck, holding a large

suit, watches Courbet’s brush (Prose). In the background are

drape over her chest with both hands, the end dragging on the

Proudhon (Social Philosophy), Promayet (Music), Max Buchon

floor. Her clothing is tossed carelessly over a stool.

(Realist Poetry), and Bruyas (Patron of Realist Painting).

50. Bouquet of Flowers, 1855. Oil on canvas, 84 x 109 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg. 94



Gustave Courbet

51. The Sleeping Spinner, 1853. Oil on canvas, 91 x 116 cm. MusĂŠe Fabre, Montpellier. 96


52. Portrait of Baudelaire, c. 1848. Oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm. MusĂŠe Fabre, Montpellier. 97




As we can see, the subject, which at first glance can seem

in the light dress, seated on her lover’s knees, is a pretty spot of

confusing and overcrowded, becomes clear with attentive

brightness in this dark corner.

observation, and however incorrect and odd the sub-title to this painting, it is indeed ideas that these figures represent, that they

But it is the group in the middle that is nothing short of marvellous,

symbolise. They are real allegories, just as Courbet said; and it is a

and would suffice in itself to ensure the proper fame of this painting.

strong reply to those who accused him of painting only the

The landscape of Franche-Comté, with its deep blue sky and its tall

appearance of things, and neglecting the spirituality of beings. But

trees, arching over a cliff, is quite remarkable, and once again

didn’t this, as an indirect consequence, justify their own paintings,

Courbet has produced a lively, natural and expressive portrait of

and in the end deny Realism the very thing that was thought to

himself. The little shepherd boy’s gesture is charmingly innocent, and

have been, until then, its originality and reason?

reminds one of the little girl in A Burial at Ornans, and of the urchin in The Beggar’s Alms at Ornans (p. 222), which we will study later,

Another weakness, which has to do with the very nature of the

and finally of the shepherdess receiving alms in Young Women from

subject, is the lack of cohesion among all these figures. At least in

the Village. Children are not that frequent in Courbet’s work, but each

A Burial at Ornans, which is comparable to The Painter’s Studio in

time he painted them he did it with appropriateness and with a deep

size, those present had gathered for a ceremony, which they had

feeling for the naïvety and innocence of children.

wished to attend. But here, any meeting is impossible. Neither let us pretend that Courbet is the link uniting all these spectators.

As for the model, she is truly admirable. This magnificent young

The group on the left is totally foreign to the one at right and they

woman, with the body of a goddess, was painted, as she deserved

pay no attention to one another; they are not of the same type.

to be, by an artist enamoured of rich flesh tones and statuesque

The outcasts show Courbet’s social ideas; the socialites are not

forms. Courbet had been accused of painting only the ugly and the

interested in them, but in the painter’s work, which, up to that

freakish, which was pure exaggeration, almost slander. Is it

point, it is important to recognise, had not been socialistic, but

possible to show a more beautifully curving neck, arms more

naturalistic. It would become socialistic only in retrospect

perfectly proportioned, a firmer breast, a more elegant torso or

through the overpowering will of Proudhon, whose influence was

more shapely legs? Her gesture is perfectly natural, like those the

preponderant from then on; the spirit of The Painter’s Studio

Greek sculptors always found for their modest Aphrodites. The

proves as much.

entire history of painting includes few nudes as beautiful as this one, and this central group of The Painter’s Studio is a pure

Finally, the relative merit of the three parts of the composition is

masterpiece. No one doubted the acceptance of this work. Alas,

uneven. The group on the left is muddled, commonplace, poorly

they were quickly disillusioned.

drawn and lacking in colour. The other side is superior; the lady is well-portrayed and the heads are expressive, true portraits with

The jury rejected A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio, and

depth, of the kind the artist could do so well. The young woman

barely accepted The Meeting because, as Courbet wrote to Bruyas,

53. The Wheat Sifters, 1854. Oil on canvas, 131 x 167 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes. 54. Louis Gueymard as Robert le Diable, 1857. Oil on canvas, 148.6 x 106.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 101

Gustave Courbet

they found it “too personal and too pretentious.” He added that the

with which the newcomers were being burdened. There had

members of Jury “declared an end must be put at all costs to my

always been close observers of reality; the innovation brought by

tendencies in art, which were disastrous for French art.” However,

Courbet was less the Realism of his observation than the desire, in

they accepted eleven of his other works; The Stone Breakers; Young

the time of Ingrism and Romanticism, to give new subjects to this

Women from the Village; The Meeting; The Wheat Sifters; The Sleeping

observation. That is, life in the countryside and small provincial

Spinner; two portraits of Courbet; The Spanish Lady; Rocky

towns, with their qualities and their flaws.

Landscape near Ornans; The Puits Noir and Château d’Ornans. Those few subtle and keen minds that appreciated Courbet’s In the face of the ostracism of A Burial at Ornans, Courbet decided

work were not mistaken, and first among them was Delacroix,

to do a separate exhibition. He asked for his Return from the Fair

better disposed than on a previous visit. “When I went out,” he

to be sent, so that he could finish it in time. Bruyas sent Bather but

wrote on the 3rd of August, “I went to see the Courbet

the municipal council of Lille refused to lend After Dinner at

Exhibition, which he has lowered to ten sous. I stayed there

Ornans (p. 58). At first he thought he would show only twenty-

nearly an hour, alone, and I discovered a masterpiece in his

seven paintings, then it was thirty, finally forty, and four drawings.

rejected painting (The Painter’s Studio). I could not tear myself

The little catalogue included, on the back of the title page, the

away from that sight. He has made tremendous progress, and yet

painter’s profession of faith, written, apparently, by Castagnary.

it made me admire his A Burial at Ornans… In this one the

“The title of realist,” said Courbet, “was imposed on me in the

characters are on top of one another, and the composition is hard

same way they imposed the title of Romantic on those of 1830.

to understand. There is airiness and parts that are executed well;

Titles have never given a proper idea of things; if it was otherwise,

the hips and thigh of the nude model and her breast, and the lady

the works themselves would be superfluous.”

in the foreground with a shawl. The single flaw is that the picture he is painting constitutes an amphibology; it looks like a true sky

Thus, to eliminate any misunderstanding, he explained, “I have

in the middle of a painting. In this they have refused one of the

studied, in the absence of any concept of system and without bias,

most singular works of our time, but he is not the kind of hardy

the art of the old masters and modern art. I have no more wished

fellow to be discouraged by so little.”

to imitate the former than to copy the latter, nor was it my intention to arrive at the vain objective of art for art’s sake. No! I

The article by Paul Mantz in the Revue française, with its

wished simply to draw from the full knowledge of tradition the

reservations and its praise, shows once again how much openness

logical and independent sentiment of my own individuality.

and conscience this curious mind put into his evaluations. The critic

Wisdom brings power, that was my thought. To be capable of

approved of Courbet doing a private exhibition, since the jury had

translating the mores, ideas, and appearances of my times, as I saw

rejected a work “sincerely and faithfully painted, and full of

them, to be not only a painter, but also a man, in a word, make

honourable qualities.” He was faced with a case of justifiable self-

living art, that is my goal.” Thus did he reject the term Realism

defence. The Meeting, to his mind, was merely one more portrait.

55. The Rock at Bayard, Dinant, c. 1856. Oil on canvas, 56 x 47 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. 56. The Sawmill on the River Gauffre. Oil on canvas. Private collection. 102



Gustave Courbet



The Wheat Sifters (pp. 98-99), which no one was talking about, was

While he returned home to relax, the controversy about him

a solid and expert painting, “a successful remembrance of reality,”

continued in the press. Champfleury wrote, “The comedy

and the landscapes “very picturesque and true.” The Painter’s Studio

concerning Realism annoys me, because, basically, it’s just

was eccentric, oddly lit, and the perspective was not successful. But

playacting, and I don’t wish to mislead the public who always see

the colour “strikes the eye” with its vigorous tones, which brighten

through things in the end… the fury being unleashed against

“the green landscape and the rose-white body of the nude woman.

Courbet stems from a very legitimate reaction to his exaggerated

There was not a single painter at the Academy who could put

vanity.” On the 16th of April 1856, he continued, “Courbet doesn’t

together such an assortment of tones.” Thus the painter’s exhibition

sell; he is attacked; but what great artist hasn’t had the life slowly

marked the end of a period. He had won the attention of patrons,

tormented out of him? If you change your direction based on

the public and the critics; he had imposed his way of conceiving

outcry and advice, then you don’t have a well-defined path in

painting, and had elbowed his way into his own place between

mind. What are the established systems anyway? Mere lies, since

classicism and Romanticism. The battle was pitched, victory was

they seek to deceive the public over the lack of consistency in a

still in dispute; the guard must not be let down for an instant. But,

spirit gone astray.” This letter foretold a new subject of

in spite of the modest material gain from the exhibition, when the

misunderstanding between the two friends: Champfleury thought,

master closed the door of his “shed”, he must have felt satisfied.

in fact, that he could see Courbet straying from his path since his

Henceforth, Realism was accepted in art.

exhibition, trying to please public taste rather than challenge it.

The Controversy surrounding Realism

This suspicion quickly turned to certainty, as seen in a letter of 1857, in which he disparaged Maidens on the Banks of the Seine (p. 117).

The letters from Champfleury to Buchon indicate that Courbet

“Obviously, Courbet understands nothing about women. You may

had pushed himself very hard for the exhibition. Friends in Ghent

find me disloyal, but I have always told you that since A Burial at

asked him to come spend a few days with them. He accepted, since

Ornans our friend has lost his way. He has taken the pulse of the

this would be “a wonderful opportunity to visit Belgium, and to

public mood too much. He is trying to please, and he doesn’t possess

see many paintings by the great Dutch masters, which are very

the necessary flexibility for it. Courbet should remain a simple and

useful” in his “education.” Courbet exhibited his enormous ego so

solid citizen of Franche-Comté… Flatter public taste! Shock people!

often that he needed to show signs of his intermittent modesty and

Neither method is right. Making oneself happy by producing works

abiding deference for the Dutch masters, who were his true

one likes should be one’s goal. Courbet told me of a subject of a

teachers, along with the Spanish. As for the Bolognese, who were

picture that would make a fine painting, the slaughterhouse in

often thrown in his face, it can be safely said that they had no

Ornans, and he told me, ‘But everyone would be shocked by it!’

influence on his maturation. He hadn’t really been acquainted with

Myself, I can see this painting; the subject does not disgust me, and

them, and, moreover, religious subjects had always been

I don’t see why Courbet should worry about feelings of buyers, since

repugnant to him.

he will have great trouble selling concessions such as The Roe Deer.”

57. The Stream (Le Ruisseau du Puits Noir; vallée de la Loue), 1855. Oil on canvas, 104 x 137 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 107

Gustave Courbet

58. The German Hunter, known as The Hunter from Baden or The Dying Deer, 1859. Oil on canvas, 118 x 174 cm. MusĂŠe des Beaux-Arts, Lons-le-Saunier. 108


59. The Spring Rut, Battle of the Stags, 1861. Oil on canvas, 355 x 507 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 109

Gustave Courbet

This is the same idea that Castagnary would also put forth in the

which he excelled at mimicking. The entire universe boiled

preface to the Exhibition of the Works of Courbet of May 1882. In

down to him alone.

other words, a revolution is said to have taken place in Courbet’s career. This opinion seems particularly exaggerated; the revolution

His life was “full of integrity, gentleness, goodness and

was just a simple evolution, which all his works were leading to

moderation… He lies frequently but innocently... He adores

step by step, the earlier ones containing the seeds of all the later

originality in opinions and eccentricity in words... He thinks he

development; elegance and vulgarity, strength and subtlety.

has arrived at self-knowledge and self-possession.” His independence was a mixture of good sense and ridiculous whims.

His technique also remained the same; the only thing noticeable in

His theories were simple; “The only history that an artist can

those years following the exhibition of 1855 was a gradual,

portray is contemporary history; originality, independence, and

progressive lightening of the palette. This was the influence of the

current relevance are the supreme qualities that an artist must

trip to Montpellier and the sea, and which soon would lead to a

possess. He must study tradition in order to benefit from

major event in the history of nineteenth-century art. Champfleury

successive discoveries and surpass those who have gone before;

and Castagnary, however, were too close to events to appreciate

but he must forget it when he begins his first original work.

them fairly; they lacked the necessary perspective.

Painting is an intentional and mathematical art.” These were Courbet’s failings; his incessant preoccupation with harmonising

Courbet’s letters from that time show that he was very busy

thought, composition, drawing and colour dampened his natural

trying to end the exile of his friend, Buchon; but he was impeded

abilities. His scenes were static, but his execution was unusually

by the latter’s obvious repugnance for signing his petition of

solid; his century had no other practitioner of this calibre.

pardon and the pledge to engage no longer in politics. He also announced to his friend that Théophile Silvestre had just written

What was his technique? He began with layers of undercoats

an article about him in his Histoire des artistes vivants: Etudes

according to the type of painting; brown for The Wrestlers (p. 64), red

d’après nature (History of Living Artists: Studies from Nature). In

for Young Women from the Village (p. 71), to obtain darkness or

matters of morality, Courbet had a luke-warm, unbelieving

brightness. He drew his characters and objects grosso modo with

attitude, “sheltered from moral extravagances and great clashes

white chalk, and often redrew them up to three times. “He makes

of the imagination. The only excessive thing about him is his

great use of a palette knife, which puts colour on the canvas with a

self-esteem; the soul of Narcissus came to rest in him in its latest

vivid and brutal straightforwardness, whereas the bristles of a brush

migration through time.” His enormous ego was naïve and

leave small furrows where light is trapped and extinguished, as on

courageous to say the least. He wanted to know everything and

velvet.” He pursued harmony from the strongest shadow to the

judge everything, but as his education had been very basic, his

brightest light; his last touch was what he called his dominant. Just as

efforts to appear to be a thinker made him look ridiculous. He

the sun, at dawn, penetrates the darkness of the night little by little,

was very cocky, detecting with great subtlety people’s failings,

drawing the shapes of objects, then showing them in all their fullness.

60. Villager with a Kid, 1860. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Musée Gustave-Courbet, Ornans. 110


So, the harmony of his paintings became the simple result of partial

and colour and measure the expanse of space which he wishes to

colours in juxtaposition; in this way he gave objects their relief and

make intelligible to our eyes.”

created a spatial depth and harmony of colour. But to Silvestre’s way of thinking, Courbet put too much emphasis Here, we must pause for comment. This juxtaposition of partial

on observation, and by being precise, he became a slave to the

colours, which Silvestre saw clearly, was the movement towards

model. He had to examine a man or a scene at length before

the division of light, the breaking down of its consecutive parts,

venturing to paint them. This compunction for “naturalism”

which Impressionism soon proclaimed as the very basis of

(the word is significant for the time) was a violent reaction against

painting. Manet and Monet were already thinking about it at that

artists who painted from memory.

time, and they studied Courbet’s works carefully. It is not contradictory to contend that these words contain the seeds of

Moreover, if his landscapes were quite true, they had only material

the new doctrine since, furthermore, the artist’s palette was

truth; they lacked feeling. There was also too much provincialism

becoming ever lighter, and tending towards the whiteness of the

in his works with an excessive love of scandal. He had the bad

colours of the atmosphere. There was no doubt about this

habit of limiting himself to the contemporary and to down-to-

influence for Monsieur Roger Marx, who stated in his Études sur

earth subjects; he forgot that imagination was “the principle of the

l’École française that while the title of leader of the open air

masterpieces that have illuminated the centuries.”

movement properly belonged to Claude Monet, “the latter adopted, pursued, and carried through to their triumphant

At the same time, Courbet did not remain idle in his own country.

conclusion the as yet timid, tentative, and disorganised

The most important works, begun in Ornans and finished in Paris,

experimentation with light done by Courbet”. Silvestre could not

were those that he showed at the Salon of 1857. That year, the jury

as yet have reached these conclusions of such capital importance

was taken exclusively from the first four sections of the Académie

for the evolution of painting in the nineteenth century. But his

des Beaux-Arts; the clause that allowed the artists to elect half of

observations in this matter show his clairvoyance. It is obvious

the members had been revoked. This was a reactionary measure,

that he watched Courbet work, and observed his technique

as Monsieur Fould, Minister of State, made clear in his speech to

carefully. He noticed, in addition, that the painter covered all the

the young talent, after the Exhibition:

parts of the composition; the foreground, horizons, shadows and light, with the same amount of paint. “It is only through the

“Art comes very close to being lost when, abandoning the

quality of the colour and the preciseness of the drawing that he

pure and lofty regions of the beautiful and the traditional

makes his objects stand out or recede into the perspective,

paths of the great masters to follow the teachings of the

instead of using scumble and glaze, which are artificial and

new school of Realism, it seeks nothing more and a

ineffective methods. It is while making up the colours on his

slavish imitation of the least poetic and uplifting that

palette that the painter must calculate the phenomena of light

nature has to offer…”

61. The Quarry, 1856. Oil on canvas, 210.2 x 183.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 62. The Hunting Meal, 1858. Oil on canvas, 207 x 325 cm. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne. 113


Gustave Courbet

63. Hammock, 1844. Oil on canvas, 70.5 x 97 cm. Collection Oskar Reinhart “Am Römerholz”, Winterthur.


64. Maidens on the Banks of the Seine, 1856-1857. Oil on canvas, 174 x 200 cm. Petit Palais - MusĂŠe des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 117

Gustave Courbet

The works thus incriminated by the Minister of State were Maidens

except, perhaps, the rather clumsy parallel lines made by the light

on the Banks of the Seine; Roe Deer Hunt in the Forests of the Jura,

stockings on the dark grass. The painting is strong, rich and

also known as The Quarry (p. 112), and Hind Forced Down in the

colourful; the gestures are perfect. There are two “preparations” or

Snow (p. 166), which were some of Courbet’s best works, along

replicas in a smaller format, either because the subject particularly

with Banks of the Loue, and the portraits of Louis Gueymard as

pleased Courbet, or, more likely, because he decided on the final

Robert le Diable (p. 100) and of M. A. P.

version only after several trials.

Maidens on the Banks of the Seine (p. 117) is one of Courbet’s

Hind Forced Down in the Snow and The Quarry are hunting scenes

masterpieces and could be legitimately compared with The Stone

in the forests of Levier. In the first, a doe has fallen from fatigue,

Breakers or A Burial at Ornans. It is set on the banks of the river,

her legs stretched out; from the rear, dogs race forward at full

probably at la Grenouillère, in any case around Bougival, an area

speed, bounding over the snow, and two hunters follow at a

much in vogue under the Second Empire, and where the painter

slower pace, knowing that the prey will not escape. It is a tale

always liked to go. In the shade, two “demoiselles” are lying on the

told darkly and with a moving simplicity because the painter was

ground, daydreaming. Overcome by the heat, they while away the

the first one to be moved by it, if it is true that hunters love

stifling hours of summer, and eagerly await the cool of the

animals more that anyone else, even though they take such

evening. In the meantime, they dream perhaps of some absent

pleasure in exterminating them. Hind Forced Down in the Snow is

friend, of their heartaches, of the emptiness of life, of the future

the first in a series of admirable paintings, in which Courbet

they cannot foresee and their plump faces grow sad. These

would give his impressions of the hunt.

“working girls” are idle and melancholy. The Quarry is even more beautiful, if such a thing is possible. Few works are as brutally expressive as this portrayal of courtesans

Again, it is a dramatic scene, experienced by the painter, which he

of the Second Empire. These are no longer the scatterbrained

invested with all his emotion. The Roe Deer, which was shown in

“grisettes” of Louis-Philippe’s reign nor yet the depraved “tarts” of

Lyon in 1801, was perhaps, according to the observation by Paul

later on. They are beautiful girls, fattened up by lust, as practical-

Mantz, the original study used by Courbet for this painting.

minded as middle-class housewives, with a mentality far below the norm, doing business with their bodies.

Gustave Planche, in the Revue des Deux Mondes admitted that he had been mistaken in believing that the painter had chosen

The technique of this painting is no less arresting. By an unusual

scandal as the way to achieve success, since he persevered even

bit of luck (for there are few drawings by Courbet, who drew

though his name was already known. Thus, Maidens on the

directly on his canvas, or, occasionally, did “preparations”) we

Banks of the Seine was a challenge. Maxime Du Camp softened

have several studies from which to trace the development of this

his criticism; for him Courbet painted with a firmness and

work. There would be almost nothing to change in this work,

vigour that had not been seen in France in a while, but the soul

65. The Bathers, 1853. Oil on canvas, 227 x 193 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. 118

Gustave Courbet

66. Nude Woman with a Dog, 1861-1862. Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 120


67. Nude Woman Sleeping, 1862. Oil on canvas, 75 x 97 cm. Private collection. 68. The Painter’s Studio, 1854-1855. Oil on canvas, 361 x 598 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 121



was still lacking, and the whole effect remained physical and

mourners, the choirboy and the dog were and would remain

external. The blue of the Seine seemed a contradiction to him,

admirable pieces. In spite of its problems with perspective, the

the dogs in Hind Forced Down in the Snow were made of rubber

landscape of The Quarry was magnificent. There were marvels of

and he noted that people had not hunted in the snow since the

trompe-l’œil in Maidens on the Banks of the Seine. Unfortunately, the

law of the 3rd of May 1844; therefore he believed that the

draughtsmanship in these works was defective. To summarise, this

painter had never hunted. As for the dogs of The Quarry, which

defect was the only slightly serious fault About could find to hold

was in any case an excellent still life, they were of a special type

against Courbet in this well-studied article, which was a tribute to

to be sure, neither lying down nor running!

both of them.

Théophile Gautier granted that these paintings had “candid and

It was at that year’s Salon that the master met Castagnary, who

robust qualities”, and save for the Maidens on the Banks of the Seine,

hailed from the Saintonge. He wrote his first Salon review in 1857

there was nothing overly eccentric about them. Courbet matched

in Présent, a European magazine. It was in his Philosophie du Salon

the Flemish and Spanish in terms of material practice; his

de 1857 that he substituted the term naturalism, already used by

technique was simple and powerful, “but don’t ask him for

Silvestre, for Realism. Naturalism, a development of Realism,

composition, drawing, or style.” The only things lacking for The

implies a greater concern for psychology, a study of character and

Quarry to be a masterpiece were perspective and a sense of

setting, a philosophy not presumed by its predecessor. In fact the

proportion and depth. Maidens on the Banks of the Seine was a

new name of naturalist did not apply to Courbet any more than

drum beat, a “purposely grotesque” painting. However, “there is

that of realist. His theory was in his works; it took root in his mind

reason to note great progress in the master painter of Ornans.”

in advance of any formula or label. These are useful for attracting attention, but they soon become burdensome and do not

In the Journal officiel of the 28th of August Edmond About devoted

correspond to anything. The simple fact was that Courbet,

a very long article to Courbet in which one feels a great affection,

instinctively avoiding the Academicism of Ingres and the

in spite of certain reservations.

Romanticism of Delacroix, intended to paint what his eyes saw and what interested him in real life and contemporary nature. But

For Courbet, he wrote, all subjects were equal in painting; a man

this taste for individuality wasn’t isolated, and he was part, like it

was of no greater value than a deer. He triumphed in still life, but

or not, of a general movement which carried literary as well as

lost his way in the movement of joints, “which are like the spring-

artistic minds from Romanticism to naturalism. In literature, this

action of animal life.” Yet the delicacy that he lacked was one of

was the evolution prepared by Balzac, and developed through

the qualities that gave him his power. On one occasion he had

Flaubert, Zola, and the Goncourt brothers.

come close to it; in the wrists and ankles of his Bather, that scandal of nudity, which would nonetheless be admired one hundred years

Castagnary understood perfectly Courbet’s approach and did not

on, like a Jordaens or a Dürer. In A Burial at Ornans, the group of

seek to force him into the new doctrine. He was satisfied with

69. Madame Auguste Cuoq (Mathilde Desportes, 1827-1910), 1852-1857. Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 108 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 70. Laure Borreau, 1863. Oil on canvas, 81 x 61.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Fund 1962.2 71. Spanish Woman, 1855. Oil on canvas, 80.3 x 64.8 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. 125



Gustave Courbet

supporting, encouraging, and strengthening the painter in his

of the Salon of 1867. In Brussels, where the gossip had him in beer

individual undertakings, which were compatible in any case.

halls, abusing “the ideal”, he saw evidence that the considerable influence of the exhibition of 1852 and of The Stone Breakers was

Still, his admiration for Courbet, which later became warm and

still making itself felt, and even increasing. It would lead to the

lively, was rather reserved at first. “Courbet is a hard-working

triumph of Realism at the Antwerp Exposition in 1861. Later he

painter who, for lack of understanding of the aesthetics of his art,

went to Frankfurt am Main. Meanwhile, he took part in the

is letting admirable and rare qualities go to waste. As a genre

exhibitions of Bordeaux, Le Havre, Dijon, and Besançon with

painter, he could have thought in the past that painting ought to

Stream of the Puits Noir and Château d’Ornans, and the artist

have a social purpose; but now he no longer believes a word of it,

published lithographs of this last painting as well as of The Quarry.

and, by making a door behind Saint-Lazare lead to flowery

In Frankfurt, bankers, the wealthy bourgeoisie, and the society of

meadows worthy of poems by Madame Deshoulières, he makes a

the Permanent Exhibition of Frankfurt showed an interest in

mockery of himself, others and his art. As a landscape painter, he

owning works by Courbet.

scarcely caught a glimpse of nature except through a window. His sites always remind us of a nice outing… nearby, along his

The painter did an enormous amount of work; “I’ve never done

hedgerows, an aroma of fricasseed game is in the air.” Such were

so much in my life. I’ll send four or five paintings to Ornans one

the footings of the early relationship between Castagnary and

of these days. There are two big ones, one the size of A Burial at

Courbet; the former’s ideas about the latter were, fundamentally,

Ornans, the other as big as The Painter’s Studio, that I must finish

similar to those of Champfleury, but Champfleury never stopped

for the exhibition in March. I just have the landscapes left to do.

reinforcing his, while Castagnary changed his quickly. The painter

One is a hunted buck, with dogs and a whip, the other, a combat

soon neglected his old friend for his new sycophant.

of stags, in a big forest. I’ll have to go to Levier to do a landscape for that one.” The paintings were Hunted Stag and The Spring Rut,

A trip to Montpellier hastened the break-up. For the second

Battle of the Stags (p. 109), which appeared in the Salon of 1861.

time the artist came in contact with the Mediterranean, whose beautiful blue water he so enjoyed seeing as it sparkled with

In 1859 Champfleury’s book, entitled The Friends of Nature, was

sapphires and pearls under the wonderful, unfiltered light of the

published by Poulet-Malassis. A drawing by Courbet, engraved

South. It was this light that from 1854 onwards continued to

by Bracquemond, appeared at the beginning. This illustration

exert so felicitous an influence on his painting, lightening it

was rather mediocre; Courbet was not at all made for this type

more and more.

of work, as proved by the collection of poetry by Max Buchon. His glory lay elsewhere.

The year 1858 was almost completely devoted to travel. Courbet returned to the South, where he painted, amongst others, View of

By 1859 his work as a whole had already been thoroughly studied

the Mediterranean, at Maguelonne, near Montpellier, which was part

by an artist who proved on this occasion to have great critical

72. Reflection, known as Meditation, 1864. Oil on canvas, 54 x 45 cm. Musée municipal, Douai. 128


discernment. Zacharie Astruc first noted that everything in France

Vanneuses. As for The Stone Breakers, it’s a great rustic poem, so

was wearing out, even ridicule, and that it was spending its last

bold and so sad, which will take its place alongside the

gasps on Courbet. The relentless pursuit of this artist by critics is

Philosophers or the little Clubfooted Boy by Ribera, the Fools by

one more proof of the decline of taste, for the painter is

Velázquez or the Street Urchin by Murillo, “for these great masters

marvellously gifted, well-versed in the old ways, energetic. He is

loved the poor and were not afraid to laud them.” The Meeting is a

the master of his brush, still young and already renowned, nearly

bright scene from nature, Hind Forced Down in the Snow a

complete, very individual, one of the most powerful art machines

charming dramatic idyll, and The Quarry would have made

that France has ever produced, the only one beside Delacroix who

Rubens tremble.

dares to proclaim loud and clear his independent spirit. He is capable of “making everything young again, and imbuing it with a

But where were the honours that should accompany the

natural and delicious simplicity.” His work was already immense

appearance of such an important body of work? Courbet shared

and of prime importance. A Burial at Ornans expressed the essence

the fate of all men in France whose strong personality came up

of an age; any museum should be proud to own it. It conveys an

against the opposition of the ignorant. It did not relent at the

immense impression of sadness, mixed with something at once

private exhibition of 1855, which very few people saw or

indifferent and joyous, which is life itself. The pallbearers are

understood. That year he did not exhibit at the Salon in order to

powerful; the mourners form a group that is beautiful, simple, and

prepare “a series of works which will, I hope, spark great

deep, like classical sculpture. After Dinner at Ornans would alone

controversies, great frights.”

suffice for a man’s fame; it honours, along with Delacroix’s Medea, the hall of French painters at the Lille museum. There is no “more

The whim took Zacharie Astruc “to go and visit this young hero

moving spectacle of muscles” than that of the two men in The

hidden away under his tent.” His modest, simple studio was that

Wrestlers, fierce, intertwined, twisted, panting, in an elegant

of a worker and not a socialite. It was cluttered with nothing but

landscape, under the radiance of a beautiful pure sky. Return from

the artist’s works, which were many, for his creative faculty was

the Fair (p. 72) is as beautiful as a Cuyp, but more solid, and

little short of prodigious.

denoting a true animal painter’s strength. It breathes a penetrating calm, an overwhelming majesty, its colour vibrates, warm and

Here were Young Women from the Village, The Wrestlers, The Stone

solemn; there is nothing to outshine these great oxen in neither

Breakers, Return from the Fair, A Burial at Ornans, The Painter’s

Potter nor Jordaens. In Maidens on the Banks of the Seine, in which

Studio and Firemen hurrying to a Fire (pp. 56-57). His three latest

the first girl’s pose is a bit common, there is an unaccustomed

canvases were rolled up. There was also a small Portrait of

beauty of light, a perfect feeling of repose and of the delicate

Baudelaire (p. 97), dreaming before his table, and Woman in a

nervousness of this warm-blooded creature. The girl in the pink

Riding Habit (L’Amazone) (p. 80) which later drew the admiration

hat is as delicate as a page by Gainsborough. An enchanting

of the visitor. It showed Louise Colet, the well-known novelist,

coloration in the pale and sweet range is the trademark of the

born in Aix in 1810, and who died in 1876.

73. Madame Proudhon, 1865. Oil on canvas, 73 x 59 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 74. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his Children in 1853, 1865-1867. Oil on canvas, 147 x 198 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 131



Gustave Courbet

75. Flowers in a Basket, 1863. Oil on canvas, 75 x 100 cm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. 134


76. The Trellis or The Woman with the Flowers, 1862. Oil on canvas, 109.8 x 135.2 cm. The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo. 135

Gustave Courbet

Beside L’Amazone, Astruc noticed an Man Seated in an Armchair,

spend a few days in Salins. He accepted this invitation and while

wearing a black skullcap, then what he called Idéalité (Idealism),

there painted Portrait of a Young Girl from Salins.

which was none other than the Lovers in the Country, “a graceful whim,” a charm of colour and sentiment.

Courbet remained in this province all winter and much of the year 1860. The Diligence in the Snow (p. 168), dating from 1860, was

There were four more “incomparable” studies, two each for

the memory of an episode he witnessed while hunting in the

Maidens on the Banks of the Seine and a work in progress, Mère

forests of Levier.

Grégoire (p. 47), “a powerful busybody dressed in black, with an embroidered collar and cuffs.”

While he was preparing, at leisure, his Salon of 1861, many of his works both old and new were being viewed in exhibitions. In

The seascapes painted at Palavas, Maguelonne and in Camargue

Montpellier, from the 1st of May, were shown Seascape and six

were marvellous. Large or small, “they express all the singular

works from Bruyas’ gallery. He had fourteen paintings in the

transformations of the sea at all hours of the day, this sky, liquid,

Besançon exhibition. To Brussels he sent Winter Landscape (p. 167),

stormy, deep, changing and infinite just like the other. Effects of

Cliffs at Honfleur and Woman with a Mirror, on which W. Bürger

sunlight, mist, wind, grey pallor of the morning, luminous serenity

lavished praise in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Concerning Woman

of mid-day, tranquil and veiled mystery of evening.”

with a Mirror, “with flesh tones of a rare delicacy,” he mentioned the name of Correggio, as had Astruc concerning other works. It was

One of the few criticisms that one could make of this author

justifiable, in fact, to compare the soft colours of the two painters,

would be to do with his interpretation of Courbet’s morale. He

and the accuracy of their brushwork. It would also have been

presented the master as sad, bitter, discouraged, troubled by the

possible to pair the two names of Courbet and Giorgione, for the

sorrows people caused him and the obstacles put in his way, and

way both rendered the voluptuousness of women’s flesh.

complaining “very gently” of the ill will directed against him. In that, there is certainly as much imagination as there are words.

At the same time, Champfleury expressed his surprise that

To prove it, one need only show Courbet at the Brasserie des

Courbet had been able to carry out, so well and so peacefully, a

Martyrs, where he was a regular at that time, and where Firmin

venture as difficult as the exhibition of 1855. He praised him for

Maillard described him as being in merry company. There he

avoiding the salons, protecting his independence, and declining to

met with writers, politicians, whom Courbet was to meet again

do portraits of people he hadn’t known for long, and which would

later, unfortunately, in tragic circumstances, and the worthy

have made him a fortune. His influence increased daily; his

painter Claude Monet, instinctively drawn to this master, who

reputation became known even amongst the masses.

for some time had been pursuing a path close to the one he Champfleury expected in vain to be thanked for his article. In a

was beginning.

letter to Buchon, dated the 5th of February 1861, he expressed Back in Ornans, Courbet received a letter from Buchon, dated the

surprise at this silence. By then Courbet was totally immersed in

11th of October 1859, inviting him and Champfleury to come and

preparing his very important Salon of 1861.

77. Madame de Brayer, 1858. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 72.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 78. The Lady of Frankfurt, 1858. Oil on canvas, 104 x 138.5 cm. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne. 136



Gustave Courbet



Courbet between Success and Scandal

At the Salon of 1861, Courbet exhibited five works; The Spring

Monsieur de Chennevières, to purchase The Spring Rut, Battle of

Rut, Battle of the Stags; Stag in the Water (Hunt on Horseback);

the Stags for the Luxembourg. These negotiations, however, were

Whip; Fox in the Snow; and Roche Oraguay, valley of Maizières,

unsuccessful. With rare exceptions, in fact, the critics had praised

not Oragnon, as printed in the catalogue, which had already

Courbet for having given up, or so they thought, his usual

written Ornus for Ornans.

subjects, and devoting his talent henceforth to hunting scenes and landscapes.

He would have liked to present a painting with figures as well as these animals in landscapes; but he had broken his left thumb that

Théophile Gautier was pleased that Courbet understood “that he

winter, which kept him from working for a month and a half, and

had too much talent to seek success through intentional

the government had refused an extension.

eccentricities,” and satisfied himself, that year, with excellent and solid painting. No padded Venus, no village demoiselle, no hussies

The Spring Rut, Battle of the Stags (p. 109) is a true masterpiece,

on the banks of the Seine, only animals and landscapes of great

which the patina of time and darkening of the colours make it

truth and masterful execution.

impossible to admire as it deserves to be. Courbet told Wey that the scene was a “thing” that he had studied while in Germany.

These reviews must have left Courbet rather cold; the same could

“I saw these battles in the reserves of Hamburg and Wiesbaden.

not have been true for those by Castagnary and Burger. The latter

I went on German hunts, in Frankfurt for six months, all one

recalled his visit years before to Courbet’s garret in the Latin

winter, until I had killed a stag, which I used for this painting, and

quarter; “The early paintings that he had then.... two or three

also some that my friends killed. I am precisely sure of this action.

men’s heads and his own portrait, showed such energy, that a

In these animals, there is no visible muscle. The battle is cold, the

future great practitioner was already visible in them.” His palette

rage deeply hidden; the blows are horrible, and they don’t seem to

was dark and limited; “since then he has discovered the secrets

harm them. You can understand when you see their incredible

of light, and he occasionally even shows discernment for local

armour. He then describes the “time of year”; it’s “early spring...

colour.” However, he didn’t use scumble, and laid his paint on

When things near the ground are already green, when the sap has

thickly, “even shadows, spreading his under-paintings with a

risen in the tall trees, and only the oaks, which are the latest, still

palette knife, as if with a trowel, and in the end his touch doesn’t

have their winter leaves.”

appear any the heavier for it, owing to the richness and variety of his colours. He has some tricks all his own, and to be sure his

Courbet’s friends celebrated his success at the Salon of 1861 with

execution is even more original than his imagination.” His

a realist banquet on the 3rd of June at the Barrière Clichy. It was

drawing is firm, tight, the volumes true and even delicate, and

there that Poulet-Malassis opened negotiations, on behalf of

his colour generous and luminous. He captured the whole

79. Reverie (Portrait of Gabrielle Borreau), 1862. Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 63.5 x 77 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. 141

Gustave Courbet

integrity of the shape, expression, bearing and gestures, and

The two champions of French art were celebrated all the more

sometimes a depth of expression, grace and charm, as in Woman

since over the previous few years academic art had begun to fall

with a Mirror. He had everything he needed to be a great master,

from favour. Adolphe Siret wrote in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, in

but to be accepted he would have needed taste, “which derives

1860, “The invasion of the Antwerp studios in the last few years

from a pleasing way of composing,” which of course did not

by the style which has been improperly named Realism was a

exclude the most blatant originality. Thus it was with Millet too,

distraction to our most promising Rubens. There was a moment

who lacked Courbet’s brilliance for colour and was more

when the excesses went so far that Monsieur Courbet himself

monochromatic, but who was no less true in his restraint. If

would have been frightened by them. Today, calm has returned;

neither one of them, for lack of this taste, reached the heights of

the river art has retreated to its true banks, and the silt left on the

the greatest geniuses, destiny would nevertheless see them

shore has brought forth a healthy discussion.” He was alluding to

classified among the great masters.

the enormous success of The Stone Breakers in Antwerp in 1852, and to the strong influence exerted by this painting on the

Castagnary praised the painter no less highly, stating that, for

direction of Belgian painting. A Burial in Ornans was in fact the

the first time, he had won over everyone, even the most

burial of Romanticism and spared nothing of this school of

recalcitrant. He was the only painter of the time of the stuff of

painting except that part of it which had been a witness to the

Velázquez, Veronese, Titian, or Rembrandt, especially of

human spirit, and which consequently deserved to live; that is,

Velázquez for the clarity of conception, the certainty of

the work of Delacroix and Rousseau. “Romantic art, like the

execution and the blend of elegance and strength, opulence

classical school, was art for art’s sake. My expression of art is the

and distinction.

ultimate, because it is the only one so far which has combined all these elements. By arriving at the negation of the ideal and all

The triumph of the master at the Salon, which the official jury

that follows from it, I achieve the full emancipation of the

refused to recognise, spread throughout the provinces and abroad.

individual, and finally, democracy. Realism is by its very essence,

At the Nantes exhibition, his The Wheat Sifters was purchased by

democratic art.”

the city and won him an honorary diploma. Man with a Pipe (p. 79), Courbet with a Checked Collar, and The Sleeping Spinner

This theory was immediately refuted by Madier de Montjau who

(p. 96), lent by Bruyas for the regional exhibition of Beaux-Arts in

asserted that “nothing could ever keep the artist from uplifting,

Marseille, aroused “great enthusiasm among the members of the

beautifying, poeticising human nature, life, and reality.” The truth


is that Realism was a glorious moment in art, as were, in their time, classicism and Romanticism, and as Impressionism would be later.

Even more brilliant was his triumph in Antwerp in August 1861,

The history of art is a series of journeys across widely diverse

where public opinion, though very heated, was divided between

countries, lively or solemn, colourful or grey, tranquil or agitated,

The Spring Rut, Battle of the Stags and Millet’s large Sheep Shearer.

towards an ideal made up of reality and poetry.

80. Study for The Return from the Conference, 1862. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Kunstmuseum, Basel. 142




Courbet returned from Belgium with the idea that he had moved

were only studies of fruits and flowers on the walls, and on the

the cause of Realism forward. In Paris the efforts of the

floor was a cast-iron stove with long pipes. There was a veritable

government and the Academy to slow its progress, and even to

forest of easels, and a platform on which stood in turn a bull or an

stop it, were not to have any greater effect than those of the

exhausted horse that a farmer and a groom held in pose.

Academy of Antwerp. A demonstration by young people proved to him the respect these newcomers felt for his work. A certain

One can imagine the commotion this event provoked in Paris. The

number of students from the École des Beaux-Arts, declaring

studio was besieged by curiosity seekers who came to watch the

themselves weary of the teachings of Picot and Couture, came to

show. For a fortnight it was the object of all the talk and all the

Courbet to ask him to initiate them into the practices of his art.

jeers. People were passing around a caricature by Benassit

He answered with a long letter in which the “master painter,” as

representing Courbet astride an ox with his palette and brush,

he liked to call himself, explained to his “dear colleagues” that he

treading on the winners of the Prix de Rome to inaugurate the new

could not be their teacher in the exact sense of the word. For, as

studio, to the great displeasure of the Greeks and the Romans.

he had recently stated in Antwerp, “all artists must be their own master,” since art is essentially individual. He added that the artist

On the 10th of March 1862, Courbet, writing to his father, could

could show only what he saw; historical art was a contradiction;

not hide his satisfaction with the results achieved, although he

the story of a period finished with that period. Painting was an

complained of the enormous work required of him and the

essentially concrete art, which could amount only to the

“excessive crowd [...] since all of modern painting was

representation of real and existing things. “Imagination in art

converging” on his studio. He also said that he had just made a

consists of being able to find the fullest expression of an existing

sculpture in front of his students; Bullhead Fisherman. The pose

thing, but never to suppose or create this thing itself.” Given

is graceful, the contours of the body are not without charm or

these very strong convictions, it would naturally be impossible for

skill, and this work, although inferior to his paintings, is

him to open a school, to train students, to teach this or that

certainly not mediocre. His intention was to cast this statue in

partial tradition of art. But, short of a school, he could establish a

metal and to present it to the city of Ornans for the fountain of

studio with them similar to those of the Renaissance. There he

the lower islands.

could explain to them, as collaborators and not as disciples, the method by which one became a painter, by which he himself had

It was shortly thereafter that the studio was dissolved for various

become one, each one keeping complete control over his

reasons. Courbet must have tired, in the end, of devoting all his

individuality, and full freedom of his own expression in the use he

time to it and neglecting his personal work for this new

would make of this method.

responsibility. It must also be recognised that he was hardly fit to become a teacher, being by nature a solitary man. Perhaps also his

From the 9th of December, the students began flocking to

students were not very gratifying, and soured his taste for

Courbet. Léo de Bernard described the studio in the Monde Illustré

teaching, for the great majority do not seem to have been original.

(1862) and showed it as simple, modest and without frills. There

The students for their part also tired no doubt of such a

81. Beneath the Trees at Port-Bertaud: Children Dancing, c. 1862. Oil on canvas, 66.5 x 52.1 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. 145

Gustave Courbet

revolutionary way of teaching and feared, or were made to fear,

for the work can be seen on p. 143). It shows a jolly procession

being forever stricken from eligibility to the École des Beaux-Arts

on the road to Ornans: they are priests, returning from the

if they continued to attend this rival establishment. Yet Courbet’s

ecclesiastical conference, hosted every Monday by one of the

effort had not been in vain.

priests in the deanery of Ornans in rotation. It dealt with questions of religion, morality, and history, and was often

The example of his works, in a still more effective way, prolonged

followed by a plentiful “dinner,” rich in full-bodied wines and

this teaching, acting not only on the Impressionist group, which

good food when the guests felt so disposed, and the finances of

was then taking shape, but also on the artists simply taken with

the host allowed it. The dean, with an enormous flushed face, has

nature and truth, such as Bastien-Lepage, Rosa Bonheur, Bazille,

been hoisted onto a donkey. The inebriated fellow, whose

Bonnat, Henner, and Carolus-Duran. The latter’s Sleeping Man was

immense body is slipping farther and farther to one side, is being

an obvious reference to The Wounded Man (p. 28-29). The entire

supported by a young, happy-faced vicar. In the rear, a seminarian

development of painting of that period was more or less clearly

struggles to remain dignified. “Our Lady of the Beech Tree”

influenced by it. Puvis de Chavannes was even tempted to follow

contemplates this bacchanalian scene. In a field, a peasant in

this direction. The symbolist or idealist group had recently been

shirtsleeves stands with his left hand on a pickaxe and his right

trying to react by forbidding direct study of models or nature; but

hand on his belly as he laughs, while his wife kneels with hands

its protagonists themselves abandoned this rigidity fairly quickly.

clasped in prayer as this grotesque procession passes by.

All that was certainly very far from Courbet’s mind at the beginning of the summer of 1862, when he went to Saintonge with

We should at least acknowledge here this luxuriance, good

Castagnary to rest, far from the madding crowd, at the castle of

humour and gusto, which call to mind the innumerable works of

Rochemont, near Saintes.

“haulte graisse,” a tradition honoured by Rabelais, and so many storytellers before and after him. It is quite possible that Courbet

He remained there at length, to the point of spending all autumn

used an actual scene he had witnessed as an inspiration for Return

and winter there, kept, if we are to believe the whispers, by the

from the Conference.

pretty hotelkeeper. A few days after sending it off, he was informed that the painting In a letter to his parents from the beginning of 1863, Courbet told

had been sent back “on the basis of outrage to religious morality,”

his father that he had used the time to make an opposition

and that he was forbidden even to take part in the Salon des

painting. “It is a large canvas like those started in my studio at

Refusés on the Champs-Elysées, the height of censure. If he was to

Ornans, 9 or 10 feet by 7 or 8 high; this painting is [...] critical

be treated in this manner, he would soon create two more; Dinner

and comical to the nth degree. Everyone here is thrilled with it. I

at the Conference, in which during the discussion, one priest would

won’t tell you what it is; I’ll show it to you in Ornans. It is almost

be throwing others out the window, and Bedtime after the

finished.” This painting was Return from the Conference (a study

Conference, which would show maids making tea for these

82. The Oak Tree at Flagey, called the Oak of Vercingetorix, 1864. Oil on canvas, 88.9 x 111.1 cm. Murauchi Art Museum, Tokyo. 83. The River Meuse at Freÿr, c. 1856. Oil on canvas, 58.5 x 82 cm. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille. 146





Gustave Courbet



“gentlemen,” and tucking them in. Meanwhile, he would show his

Courbet had provoked this scandal; others reproached him for not

work in his studio and invite everyone to come see it and exhibit

having explained his aesthetics, and for being a sphinx. Proudhon

it in all the major cities of Europe.

answered both groups by establishing general critical principles, which would make it possible to evaluate and to classify not only

During the summer of 1963, Courbet was extremely busy. Far

Courbet, but all artists, whoever they might be, and to point out

from hurting him, the imperial ostracism served his interests.

the path taken.

His letters show him working hard on Bullhead Fisherman. He

“Man alone is able to appreciate beauty; he possesses

needed to order the basin of the fountain of Ornans, on which it

aesthetics or the ability to perceive what is beautiful and

would stand, from his friend, Charles Lapoire, whom he asked to

what is ugly in himself and in things, and to make from

send his proposal for approval. The statuette would be cast in late

this perception a further means of enjoyment, a


refinement of pleasure; this is the sense of poetry. It must be added that the idea of beauty has an objective reality

In another letter, he explained to his father why he hadn’t yet been

and it is not a pure intellectual concept; that art, although

able to return to Ornans. “Just now, I am corresponding with

essentially objective is nonetheless personal, free and

Proudhon; together we are writing an important work, which

changing; that the impression of beauty is fleeting and

connects my art to philosophy, and his work to mine. It is a booklet

that the image of what is beautiful must be fortified

which will be sold at my exhibition in England, with his portrait as

against defection and observations of the ideal.”

well as mine, showing two men who have synthesised society, one in philosophy, the other in art, and both from the same province. I

The words “Realism” and “idealism” became virtually

have seven more pages to transcribe for him before six o’clock […]

indistinguishable. The real and the ideal, for the artist, were

I have never written so much in my life. If you saw me, you’d die

inseparable. The ideal was everything that conformed to the idea,

laughing. At last we’ll have an established treatise on modern art,

or was related to it. The ideal meant a generalisation, not a reality,

and the trail, blazed by me, applied to proudhonian philosophy.”

the opposite of the observable particular, and consequently an antithesis of the real. Moreover, the idea was the pure and perfect

The treatise by Proudhon, which was supposed to be twelve pages

model, perfection, the absolute. The ideal was thus the perfect

long, then 160, was in fact 376 pages long when it was published

form revealing itself to us in every object, and of which this object

in his Posthumous Works under the title Du Principe de l’Art et de sa

was but the more or less accurate realisation. Since this ideal didn’t

destination sociale (On the Principle of Art and its Social Purpose).

exist, it could be neither represented nor painted. What then would be the use of this ideal in art, of which it was the object?

Following the refusal of Return from the Conference, public opinion

The artist would act in the same way as Nature, which made

towards the painter was partly unfavourable. Some said that

particular manifestations based on models or ideals, which existed

84. View of Saintes, 1863. Oil on canvas, 33 x 46.5 cm. Private collection. 151

Gustave Courbet

85. The Crumbling Rock, Geological Study, 1864. Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. MusĂŠe Max-Claudet, Salins-les-Bains. 152


86. The Bridge, c. 1864. Oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg. 153

Gustave Courbet

within it. He acts as nature’s extension by producing, in his turn,

contemporary and moralising. The works cited above certainly

images according to some of his own ideas, which he wished to

were contemporary in their subject matter.







particularistic and determinative, as was nature. It is through these

As for morality, Return from the Fair and The Sleeping Spinner show

concrete forms that art instils ever more deeply the sense of the

the good country life of Franche-Comté and of France, calm,

beautiful and the sublime, the love of perfection, the ideal. It was

simple and honourable. A Burial at Ornans was accused of showing

therefore an idealistic representation of nature and of ourselves,

a grotesque ceremony, and in fact that is what it is. By showing it,

leading to the physical and moral development of our species.

the painter intended to create a reaction to revive the religion which honours the dead, just as by showing a plump and

So long as art was subordinate to justice and science, it flourished.

pampered bather, a well-to-do middle-class woman distorted

When it decided to be art for art’s sake, it began the decadence and

through overindulgence and luxury, he warned against the

demoralisation of a people. Such was the lesson taught by history.

foolishness and selfishness which had led her to love food too

The question asked then was, why would there not be a French

much and exercise too little. Thus, the art of Courbet was not

art, instead of an art inspired by antiquity ever since the

caricature, nor an accusation, nor satire, nor genre painting, but a

Renaissance? It was on that topic that the Romantics and

mirror of truth, an art of Realism. It was also an art of criticism, in

classicists did battle, without ever managing to agree. The

the sense that it discerned, discussed, approved or disapproved an

Romantics made the same mistake as the classicists, since, while

auxiliary of reason. It was educational, rational and reasoning, an

the latter swore by antiquity alone, the former would admit

art of observation, no longer simply of inspiration.

nothing but the representation of the middle ages, neither camp ever suspecting that art, in order not to succumb to decadence,

This is a criticist theory of art, and Courbet had confirmed it by his

should interpret contemporary life. This irrationality, which

innovative works. The Stone Breakers shows the slavery of poverty,

Monsieur Chenavard attributed to the weakening, caused by

a destitution which should be shared like a public service, a corvée

age, of the aesthetic sense, was what the realist or naturalist

or duty, among all healthy members of society. They are as good as

school wanted to bring to a halt.

a parable in the Gospel; this is morality in action. Maidens on the Banks of the Seine is the antithesis of this; fashionable women of

In what ways had it asserted itself? Through masterpieces such

the Second Empire, idle, dreamy, oozing pride, adultery, divorce

as Return from the Fair (p. 72), The Sleeping Spinner, A Burial at

and suicide, they seem horrible the longer one looks, and this

Ornans (pp. 74-75) and The Bathers (p. 119), in which Courbet

spectacle alone would be a deterrent from vice. Courbet continued

painted people as they were, in the “undergarments of their

the lesson in Venus and Psyche in which he shows the special kind

consciences, not simply for the pleasure of jeering, but with the

of lubricity of the time and its hypocrisy. Finally, Curés (Priests) or

goal of general education, and as an aesthetic warning.” Here is

Return from the Conference attests to “the radical impotence of

the true starting point of modern art; painting should be

religious discipline to sustain in the priest the severe virtue

87. The Cave Pool of Conche, 1864. Oil on canvas, 70 x 60 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. 154


Gustave Courbet

88. The Source of the Loue, 1864. Oil on canvas, 99.7 x 142.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 156


89. The Sarrazin Cave, 1864. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. MusĂŠe des Beaux-Arts, Lons-le-Saunier. 157

Gustave Courbet



demanded of him”. For this painting was not created just to show

Courbet was the primary catalyst of this evolution. Artists imitated

a drunken scene – far from it.

him; they had to be of their time, of their country, of their opinion and, firm in their ideas, they reconciled art with what is just

Such is the work of Courbet. It is not without its faults; there are

and useful.

mistakes of perspective and proportion, dark, flat colours, exaggerations, sloppiness, a certain tendency for caricature,

Such was the conclusion of this Principe de l’art, in which there

sometimes brutality. Courbet is more a painter than a thinker; he

were, to be sure, clever insights, a deep feeling for the past, a

had certainly not thought everything that Proudhon supposed, but

penetrating psychology of Courbet, but the basis of which was an

the result was the same, and that was what mattered. The theory

exaggerated and potentially harmful exclusiveness. To think that

that one must not paint on commission was too absolute; an artist

the artist should be a teacher of morality would be to wish his

should understand, feel, and reproduce what was pleasing to

death. To suppose, as the painter wished, that art should be no

others. He was also mistaken in dismissing the art of the past,

more than the expression of the present, and that dreams, fantasy,

which, to his mind should only serve for education, whereas it is

the evocation of the past, and even of the future were forbidden to

in the interest of humanity to preserve its creations. In

him, would lead at the very least to a very harmful diminution of

concentrating too much on himself, to the point of representing

his activity. Both should be avoided and the artist left with all his

himself in The Painter’s Studio (pp. 122-123), which did not greatly

freedom. His taste alone, and the sense of discretion that it implies,

improve the work, and finally in believing that he had absolutely

would keep him from going astray upon the path to beauty.

invented Realism, which developed without any possible doubt out of the situation of 1830.

Such were the aesthetics of Realism composed by Courbet and Proudhon during those summer months of 1863. That did not

These reservations aside, it must immediately be said that the

keep the painter, however, from beginning, continuing or

realist, or critical, school was humanistic, philosophic, analytic,

finishing certain works. He executed Lady in a Black Hat,

synthetic, democratic and progressive, and that it existed. But it

Towpath on the Banks of the Loue and Saddled hunting Horse and a

was not yet fully conscious of itself; it was lacking in theory. It

Bulldog in the Forest the history of which is rather complicated.

needed to take into account that a purely realistic school was

The painting was entitled Fox Hunt in the Salon of 1863.

impossible; it would be idealistic at the same time, its ideal

Somewhat ill-used by the press, he eliminated the rider, and left

simply subordinated to conscience, science, truth and law.

only the horse, marvellously painted, with head lowered, sniffing

Furthermore, it had to be admitted that this was but a moment

the soil, while before him a bulldog approaches and barks, on a

in the historical evolution of art. A new phase would come,

forest path bordered with magnificent beech trees. This is the

which would join moral beauty to physical beauty, creating

painting which reappeared in the private exhibition of 1867

human beauty, at the same time as human virtue, independent of

under the title Whip’s Horse, and with the incorrect notation;

dogma and religion.

Salon of 1864. The Source (p. 33) shows a woman from the back,

90. The Puits Noir, c. 1860-1865. Oil on wood, 65 x 81 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore. 91. The Covered Stream, known as The Stream of the Puits Noir, 1865. Oil on canvas, 94 x 135 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 159



Gustave Courbet

with a shapely elegance one would not expect from the painter of

place piled high with these paintings. This same artist told how he

The Bathers, with a long, supple waist, slim hips, and satin skin.

witnessed the creation of the The Source of the Lison. Buchon and

She sits near a waterfall in a cool landscape and shows how

he had learned in Salins that the painter was in Nans-sous-Sainte-

Courbet’s ideas at the time were evolving, and how they had, in

Anne, a small village located one kilometre from the source of the

fact, started to do so several years before.

Lison, and resolved to go see him and bring him back to their town for a few days.

The painter went to rest in Ornans, at the beginning of the autumn, but he did not give up on the exhibition; “If I don’t have

“You’re coming after me!” exclaimed the master. “Diable! I have a

the time for a figure painting, I want to have some large

painting to do, and you are talking about leaving at five o’clock...

landscapes. Our peaks are covered with snow; the winter is

Well, I may have finished, although that only leaves two hours.

charming, and I am full of enthusiasm for my work!”

Let’s get to work!”

He did, however, execute a large figure painting; “two nude

No sooner had he spoken than a gust of wind blew the painting,

women,” he wrote to Monsieur Luquet, “life-sized, painted in a way

which was punctured by an arm of the easel. Calmly, Courbet laid

you’ve never seen from me.” Alas, neither The Awakening, Venus

paper over the tear, glued it down with paint, and went back to

chasing Psyche in Jealousy nor Venus and Psyche appeared in the

work as if nothing had happened. “With his palette knife he took

Salon any more than the Return from the Conference, but it delighted

white, yellow, red, and blue from a box filled with jars of colours.

the Belgians at the Brussels exhibition of that same year. Emile

He mixed them on his palette, then, with his knife, he laid them

Leclercq, writing about it in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, found the

on the canvas and spread them with firm, assured motions,”

two women ugly; but this seems simply a case of prejudice. The

explaining his theories all the while.

painting has a warm, weighty, and voluptuous harmony, and the beauty of the landscape glimpsed through the corner of a window

“You are surprised that my canvas is black. However,

makes it even more magnificent, worthy of Titian. This is the

nature, without sunshine, is dark and shadowy. I act like

painting that Proudhon cites in the Principe de l’art as a protest by

light; I illuminate the salient parts, and the painting is

Courbet against the lubricity of his contemporaries. The painter

finished... the knife is my best tool. Try to make rocks like

had made a study for this work from a model from Paris; it was

that, rusted by time and the rain, with great veins from

hung near the painting in 1882. The painting was barely finished

top to bottom, using a brush!”

when springtime drew the artist out to resume his excursions in the valley, and these were always productive.

At the stated time, the painting was done. They packed up, and Jerôme, carrying everything in a large cloth, climbed up the slope,

The sculptor from Salins, Max Claudet, who called on Courbet in

six kilometres long, followed by the three friends all chatting,

his studio in the Besançon road that same year of 1864, found the

laughing and smoking. With his magnificent nonchalance,

92. Mountain Landscape. Oil on canvas. Galerie Paul Vallotton, Lausanne. 93. Dead Fox Hanging from a Tree in the Snow, c. 1864. Oil on canvas, 134 x 100 cm. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. 94. The Roe Deer, 1876. Oil on canvas, 43.5 x 33 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 162

Gustave Courbet


Gustave Courbet

95. Hind Forced Down in the Snow, 1866. Oil on canvas. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. 166


96. Winter Landscape, 1876. Oil on canvas, 45 x 102 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg. 167

Gustave Courbet



Courbet, who was supposed to spend only a week in Salins, was

two rocky outcrops where the Plaisir-Fontaine stream begins, all in

still there three months later.

twilight. The splendid The Covered Stream (pp. 160-161), which the Luxembourg and then the Louvre called Entrance to the Valley

His work did not suffer for it. Provence Beach, a white beach before

of the Puits Noir, Doubs: Twilight Effect, was meant for the Salon, as

the blue sea, with Camargue horses under a sky filled with those

was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his Children in 1853 (pp. 132-133).

shredded white clouds that are nicknamed cat’s whiskers,

With few unnoteworthy exceptions, the press was very harsh with

represented him that year at the Exhibition of the Lorraine Society

Courbet’s pieces, which he had not been able to retouch after they

of the friends of the Arts in Nancy. Willows was shown at the

were hung, as he had hoped, and the portrait of Proudhon’s wife in

Exhibition of the Limousin Society of the friends of the Arts in

particular earned him a thousand insults. Paul Mantz made no

Limoges, and Venus and Psyche at the Exposition de Cartons

secret of the “bitter disenchantment,” engendered by this “tired

in Brussels.

art”; Jules Claretie called Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his Children in 1853 a “caricature,” and criticised the painter for having shown

Courbet’s father and Castagnary, who were worried by this long

Madame Proudhon as a hunchback. For Challemel-Lacour,

absence, brought him back to Ornans. Shortly thereafter,

Courbet had idealised “the irascible philosopher, who took

Proudhon died, on the 20th of January 1865. The painter was able

pleasure in frightening the middle class,” and his painting was

to be with him at the end, and wished to keep its memory alive by

“neither true, beautiful, nor pleasant.”

drawing the lifeless head of the philosopher, dull and black on his pillow. In a letter to Luquet, Courbet wrote that he was “overcome

All this fuss can seem laughable today, with the passage of time,

in any case. This death of my friend Proudhon has made me ill,

and at the Petit-Palais, in the collections of the City of Paris, we

and precisely at a time when I most needed to work. I am going to

can see the Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his Children in 1853,

make a historical painting of Proudhon for the exhibition, as I

Madame Proudhon having been painted out in 1865. This work,

promised him.” He asked Luquet to send him a photograph of

conceived in a harmony of grey tones, is striking in its serenity;

Proudhon to use, and announced that he would not return to Paris

it is certainly not rebellion that it presents, but the calm,

for another two months. He was obliged to stay at home because

middle-class family man that Proudhon was at home, according

of a Proudhon family meeting, in which he would take part, and

to all those who knew him. It is strange that people wished to

to help the philosopher’s beneficiaries finish the volume on the

force Courbet to paint the one rather than the other. Public

Principe de l’Art.

opinion would have admired a Proudhon on the barricades or speaking at a rally; it laughed to see him daydreaming in

Courbet had already sketched out this painting in 1853. He took

a garden.

it back up to Paris and worked on it during the first months of 1865, while finishing Entrance to the Puits Noir. This shows a green

Yet, while they were counting him out, Courbet was on the

meadow where a shepherdess watches her cows graze in front of

threshold of the most successful period in his life.

97. The Diligence in the Snow, 1860. Oil on canvas, 137.2 x 199.1 cm. The National Gallery, London. 169

III. Decline The Beginning of the End

The Case of The Woman with the Parrot

opulent hair. This splendid portrait is dated Trouville, 1866. There is also another slightly different version of the same work.

For the first time Courbet spent the season in Trouville. This holiday, which was filled with work, was of capital importance for

In a letter to Bruyas of January 1866, Courbet described his

him. He immersed himself once again in the contemplation of the

seascapes of Trouville. There are “twenty-five views of the sea in the

sea, which he so loved, and he established himself amongst the

same vein as yours and of those I did at Les Cabanes, twenty-five

high society on the shore. They were happy for his company, either

autumn skies, each one more extraordinary and free than the last;

to spite the powers that be or because his works had won them

it’s amusing.” They are mostly skies, in the manner of the old Dutch

over, or perhaps for both of these reasons. His success was

masters, skies which are clear, deep, pure or full of clouds, always

enormous and lucrative; his portraits and his seascapes found

dominant, stretching out across the thin strip, blue-green this time,

purchasers easily. “I have gone bathing eighty times. Six days ago,

and not blue as at Palavas and Maguelonne. The foreground often

we went in again with the painter Whistler, who is here with me;

contains a narrow spit of land reddened by the lichen growing on it.

he is an Englishman who is my student.” This student, who had

Most often these seascapes are deserted, sometimes containing a

been acquainted with him since 1859, even did Courbet’s portrait

boat beached on the shore or hinted at in the distance. Courbet was

on one of his seascapes.

not at all one of those sea painters who show man at odds with the elements, in terrible struggles with the storm, in the manner of

The portraits of Mademoiselle A. de L., “the lady with the parasol,”

Joseph Vernet. Nor was he one of those who contrive to show scenes

and of Comtesse K..., as they were identified in the catalogue of

of the elegant social life on the beach, as his friend, Boudin,

1867, are among Courbet’s best, with La Duchesse Colonna today in

attempted to do. His “sea landscapes” are in general very light; the

the museum of Fribourg. Added to these were Jo, La Belle

master’s palette is no longer sooty, as he had been so much criticised

Irlandaise (p. 198), often mistakenly called Belle Hollandaise

for, and when one looks at them, one understands the influence they

(Beautiful Dutch Girl), in particular in the sale catalogue of 1881.

exerted on the development of Impressionism.

She was Whistler’s mistress, with whom she stayed for five years, and by whom she had a son. Courbet shows her from the waist up,

Upon his return from Trouville on the 20th of November, he made

in left profile, wearing a white blouse. In her left hand she holds a

up his mind, with much regret, to spend the winter in Paris; first

mirror, in which she admires her magnificent pale, red-head’s

of all to finish most of his paintings, also to work on his next Salon

complexion, while with the right hand she lifts the curls of her

and finally because he expected to sell many paintings.

98. The Clairvoyant, known as The Sleepwalker, 1845-1855 (?). Oil on canvas, 47 x 39 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. 99. Woman with a Cat, 1864. Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 57 cm. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester. 100. Lady with Jewels, Blanche d’Antigny, 1867. Oil on canvas, 81 x 64 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen. 171

Gustave Courbet

However, in March 1866 Deer under Cover by the Plaisir-Fontaine

With its warm and intoxicating voluptuousness, this work contrasts

Stream (p. 235) and The Woman with the Parrot (pp. 176-177),

with the cool, restful charm of Deer under Cover by the Plaisir-

intended for the Salon, were nearly finished, according to the

Fontaine Stream (p. 235). This is set in Puits Noir on a lovely, sunny

Count of Ideville, who saw them in Courbet’s studio. When he saw

day; the canopy of trees opens here and there on the blue sky,

them the artist, smoking his pipe, was adding the finishing

between the white or grey cliffs with their vertical ridges, which

touches in front of a nude model, a splendid redhead, who was

enclose the clear, shallow water, gurgling over the pebbles. On the

stretched out on the sofa, holding a spirited macaw.

right, a small brocket drinks from the stream while another crosses it, its head to attention. On the left, a stag nibbles on ivy under a large

“If they’re not happy this year,” he cried, “they are impossible.

oak near a doe at rest, with her legs outstretched. Anyone acquainted

They will have two clean paintings, just the way they like them,

with the site is unable to look at this interpretation without a surge

one landscape and one academic, unless they see in it a secret

of emotion, and it seems that everyone must experience the same, for

society of deer, rallying in the woods to herald the Republic.”

the sincerity, the beauty, the reality and the poetry that the master painter has put in it are without compare. This is a work that can

They, translated the visitor, were the Institute, the Ingrists, the

stand with the few uncontested masterpieces.

Jury, the Government, and so on. Meanwhile, the “two paintings” produced a considerable effect. The Woman with the Parrot has many parallels with Venus and

“They are at last confounded!” cried Courbet, “All the painters, all of

Psyche; the model is in almost the same pose and it shows the

painting is turned upside down. The Count of Nieuwerkerque sent

same bed with spiral posts and a window opening, at the left,

me a message saying that I had created two masterpieces and that he

onto a beautiful distant landscape. The young woman is

was delighted. The entire jury said the same thing with no objection.

magnificent, plump and muscular at the same time, with

I am the success of the exhibition without question. There is talk of

admirably curvaceous hips and legs and delicate, firm breasts.

a medal of honour, of the cross of honour [...] The landscape painters

Her head is thrown back, spreading her lush red hair over a

are knocked dead. Cabanel complimented the woman as did Pils and

white cloth, which she holds against her upper thigh in her right

Baudry. I’ve been telling you for a long time that I have been sparing

hand, while her left arm curves gracefully holding a turquoise

them this punch in the face; they got it this time.”

macaw, its wings spread, over her head. It is a marvellous combination of colour in which the light and dark spots, so

There were, however, some discordant voices: Lagrange

contradictory, nonetheless harmonise to the point of offering

(Correspondant) sounded the death knell of Realism, which,

rest for the eye. The gaze moves easily from the white cloth to

“brought down from the heights to which misguided friends had

the rosy body, to the red hair, to the brown drapery, to the green

tried to elevate it [...] turns out to be no more than a colour

countryside, in a symphony arranged with a virtuosity worthy of

system. Instead of imposing impossible subjects on the good sense

Titian and the greatest colourists.

of the public, it takes its subjects ready made from the historical,

101. Portrait of a Woman Holding a Parrot, 1861. Oil on canvas, 61 x 44 cm. Private collection, Switzerland. 102. The Woman with the Parrot, 1866. Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 195.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 174



Gustave Courbet

103. The Origin of the World, 1866. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 178


academic or picturesque traditions, and it is only in their

remarkably well painted, ‘with love’ as the Italians say; the last word

interpretation on the canvas that it innovates.” But the vast

in Realism. Yet, through some unfortunate mistakes the artist, in

majority of articles and studies published about the Salon

copying his model from life, forgot to include the feet, legs, thighs,

produced a harvest of nearly unanimous praise for Courbet.

stomach, chest, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and the head.” However, crossing the line of taboo, what Courbet did not forget to

At the time when the Salon opened for submissions, Courbet had

show, was the lush bush of pubic hair. At a period when women’s legs

reason to believe that the superintendent was keeping The Woman

were kept mysteriously behind vast quantities of material wrapped

with the Parrot back for himself. All his letters show that he was

over crinoline cages, the very existence of pubic hair on a woman was

counting on it; he wrote Arthur Stevens about it on the 22nd of

a dark and shameful secret, possibly even unheard of by some

March and to Urbain Cuenot on the 6th of April. “Nieuwerkerque

married men. Thus the painting was long kept out of sight in private

was planning to give me ten thousand for the woman; I don’t know

collections. Its last owner, the philosopher Jacques Lacan, brother-in-

if he will stand by this price.” He authorised Courbet, by special

law of the surrealist painter André Masson, asked the latter to cover

letter, to finish the drapery in the The Woman with the Parrot which

it using a frame with a false back and to paint another work over it.

“belongs to [him].” In the Liberté of the 13th of May, Castagnary

He did a snowy landscape, a surrealist, and much less explicit,

“heartily congratulates Monsieur le comte de Nieuwerkerque on

version of The Origin of the World. And, when the painting was at last

having purchased it in preference to the landscape.” During the

exhibited to the public for the first time, at the Musée d’Orsay in

month of August, Courbet was very busy. He wrote to his parents on

1995, it once again created shock and controversy.

the 6th of August, saying that there was nothing “so exhausting as making money,” and that he had to go to Trouville, to the Abbey of

But far from suspecting the truly unusual, even unique destiny of the

Jumièges, to see Monsieur Lepel-Cointet, then back to Paris, to

painting he was finishing, Courbet, in 1866, had obligations to meet.

finish the painting for Khalil-Bey. This painting that the painter had

He had to go to Vendôme, to “do” the hunting pack for a collector,

to finish was The Origin of the World (p. 178). The former Turkish

receive his Frankfurt paintings, which had earned him the gold

ambassador to Saint Petersburg, Khalil-Bey, already owned The

medal, on their return from Holland, then send The Woman with the

Turkish Bath by Ingres and was then living in Paris. The painting is

Parrot to the Brussels Exhibition, which, just to have it, had delayed

one of the most erotic images in Courbet’s work, and such Realism

its opening for five days. Monsieur de Nieuwerkerque bought The

was particularly noticeable at a time so characterised by prudishness

Covered Stream, for 2,000 francs, but refused to buy The Woman with

and sexual hypocrisy. Moralistic repression had already taken hold

the Parrot, because, wrote the superintendent, “this painting is not

in France, notably in the obscenity accusations against Baudelaire’s

the kind that the government should support and encourage.” When

Les Fleurs du mal and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Courbet learned of this he exploded with anger.

Maxime du Camp described The Origin of the World disingenuously

Courbet fired back that Monsieur de Nieuwerkerque had bought

as “a nude woman, facing forward, unusually excited and contorted,

the painting as a private citizen, and as proof he cited the

104. The Sleep, 1866. Oil on canvas, 135 x 200 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 179



Gustave Courbet

authorisation to make an alteration, which he had signed. But

suggests Venus and Psyche, The Source and The Woman with the Parrot,

according to Monsieur Philippe de Chennevières, this letter, found

with which there is certainly a family likeness. Paul Mantz criticised

in the archives by Monsieur Buon, was not probative, and there

the exaggerated length of the left arm, the overly foreshortened right

was almost certainly a misunderstanding. A letter of the 6th of

one, the repainted head done from another model or from memory,

August to his parents shows him in full battle mode, refusing to

and the legs out of proportion with the torso. “But if the design is

sell the The Woman with the Parrot to the State, to which Monsieur

questionable,” he added, “its execution is powerful.”

de Nieuwerkerque had wanted to shift the responsibility. The administration were also only offering 6,000 francs instead of the

A letter to Bruyas from the 18th of February 1867 shows the painter

10,000 supposedly promised by the superintendent. The story of

very busy in Ornans for the Salon. He intended to send a hunting

the rejected painting caused a scandal in Paris; the superintendent

painting and a portrait of woman, The Clairvoyant (The Sleepwalker)

might be forced to hand in his resignation. In one letter, Courbet

(p. 170), and he wanted to add his self-portrait, Courbet in Profile,

told him that if there were no fair judges for him in Paris, there

from Bruyas’ collection, which “had never been shown in Paris, and

certainly were in Berlin. In another, that the future would see the

which is, as far as I can recall, one of the best things I’ve done”. He

scales tip in favour of his kind of painting, scorning “the one the

therefore asked his friend to send it to him before the 27th of

government supports with millions and three kilometres of offices

February, the deadline for the delivery of paintings. “You know how

filled with employees.” Since he was on the list for the cross of

I am always rushed; today even more so than ever. I am doing a large

honour, the government was embarrassed. If it wasn’t granted to

hunting painting, fifteen feet high by eighteen feet long, for the 15th

him, the newspapers would raise a hue and cry over the injustice;

of March.” This was the The Deer Kill (also known as Hunting Scene

if they did give it to him, he would refuse it “so that now […] I am

in the Snow) (p. 225), a magnificent “snowscape”, energetic,

insulated from the crookedness of those people.”

powerful, comparable to The Diligence in the Snow (p. 168) and, like it, expressive of winter in the Jura. This canvas was intended by

The incident went no further. Which of the two was right? It is

Courbet for a private exhibition, similar to that of 1855, which he

certain there must have been a misunderstanding, for it is hard to

intended to put on at the Rond-point de l’Alma on the Champs-

imagine that Monsieur de Nieuwerkerque, who was known to be

Elysées. He was about ready to start building, he said, but “this time

a gentleman, could have gone back on his word so casually if he

it will be a permanent studio for the rest of my life, and I will hardly

had really given it. On the other hand, Courbet’s good faith is not

ever submit anything to exhibitions by the government, which has

in doubt; might his active imagination have made a firm promise

behaved so badly towards me up to now.” The project took shape

out of what was at first only wishful thinking? At the end of

very quickly and a letter of the 27th of April announced that the

October, Courbet was back in Ornans.

building would be ready on the 5th of May, and open to the public ten days later. This magnificent exhibition, however, did not cause

It was then, no doubt, that he painted Bather, in a splendid

much of a stir. Paul Mantz even claimed that he had often been there

landscape, lighter than that of the The Bathers in Montpellier, but

alone, and that the cashier was a little sad. There were many fewer

somewhat similar. The elegance and the suppleness of its form

items than in 1855 and in previous Salons.

105. The Awakening, 1866. Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 66 cm. Kunstmuseum, Bern. 182




A letter of the 9th of December to Bruyas reveals that he was

“in a way [...] the fatigue and satiation with beauty,” that is,

moving out, because his time was up and he had to evacuate the

Guercino, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Ribera, Velásquez, Valentin, if

space. He said he was happy with his exhibition. Yet, in another

they copied nature, at least they didn’t make it ugly. Yet that is what

letter dated the 9th of February 1868, he admitted that he had lost

Courbet was doing. He now seemed troubled, uncertain, and his

money. In addition, part of the receipts for these paintings had

popularity was dwindling. He had hoped to restore it through

been stolen, and he experienced deep sadness at not succeeding in

The Beggar’s Alms at Ornans; it was a muted gunshot.

transforming his exhibition into a permanent museum. Still, he hoped to do so some day.

Courbet consoled himself after these insults by organising several exhibitions of his works in the provinces and abroad.

Preparation for the Salon occupied his time until April. That year he showed The Hunted Deer on the Alert; Spring (p. 190) and The

When he returned from Ghent, a peculiar rumour began to

Beggar’s Alms at Ornans (p. 222).

circulate in the papers. It was claimed that Courbet hoped to join the Institut as Picot’s replacement. Castagnary wrote him in

This latter was part of the Série de la grand’route, which already

Ornans to inform him and encourage him to protest against this

included Peasants of Flagey returning from the Fair, and Return from

slander, which, it need not be said, had no basis in fact.

the Conference. The landscape is as beautiful in its verdant perspective as it is interesting in its luminous clarity, which the

That, however, scarcely disturbed the serenity of the painter, who

painter had at last achieved. This work certainly does not deserve

was finishing The Woman in the Waves (p. 187), depicting a

all the anathema which has been heaped upon it.

magnificent young woman leaning against a rock, waist-high in the sea, her arms crossed over her head, lifting her comely breasts

“My paintings will make a great stir at the Salon, I think,” wrote

above the water. She is the model from the The Woman with the

Courbet on the 9th of April to his friend, Max Buchon. He was

Parrot and the work can be compared without diminution to

hugely mistaken, and critics hastened to inform him of his final

Titian’s Venus Anadyomene.

decline. Louis Auvray insisted that Courbet’s influence on painting was non-existent, since he had not a single follower besides Manet

In 1869, he was represented at the Salon by The Deer Kill (Hunting

and Monet, that The Beggar’s Alms at Ornans was horribly grey and

Scene in the Snow) and Nap during the Haying Season, Doubs

badly drawn. For Paul de Saint-Victor (Liberté, 29th May),

Mountains, paintings that had already presented to the public in

Courbet’s paintings were no longer even strong enough to cause a

his private exhibition of 1867.

scandal. His talent was gone, only his triviality remained; “this is painting in the state of disintegration.”

This last work brought Théophile Gautier out of his usual somewhat benevolent reserve, and he was hard on Courbet. He

Théophile Gautier (Journal official), observed that the realists of

believed that to continue to see the master of Ornans as a realist

the past, coming after da Vinci, Raphael, Correggio had provided

was a prejudice that it was time to fight; now, he only painted

106. The Three Bathers, 1865-1868. Oil on paper glued onto canvas and oil on canvas, 126 x 96 cm. Petit Palais - Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, Paris. 185

Gustave Courbet

mechanically, without consulting nature. The Deer Kill (p. 225)

a huge following; he is praised for seeing nature like a peasant, and

looked ghostly, the snow was conventional, the horse’s anatomy

painting it like a professor.”

hap-hazard and so on. It looked like a half-faded tapestry, and his dimensions were colossal for such a skimpy subject.

From Munich, the painter returned to Ornans via Switzerland, where he stopped in several cities. It was then that he painted the

However, Castagnary (Siècle) claimed that certain aspects of the

magnificent Landscape at Interlaken, a prelude to his series of

drawing of The Deer Kill would become classics, that one day

Swiss landscapes.

people would use them as models, and that such paintings could be included proudly in the most demanding galleries.

He spent the winter in his hometown and only returned to Paris at the end of March to do several portraits, notably his Castagnary.

That summer it was Étretat and the seashore that drew Courbet. To

The Stormy Sea, and The Cliff at Étretat after the Storm (p. 208)

paint, Courbet sometimes set up his easel near the calages, old

were much noted and commended at the Salon. They received

boats covered with thatch roofs used for storage by fishermen; at

almost nothing but praise; however, the former was generally

other times he climbed up the cliffs.

preferred to the latter.

He wrote to his parents that in a month he had already done ten

Meanwhile, the liberal Ollivier government, installed on the 3rd of

seascapes, including one for the 1870 Salon.

January 1870, and which included Courbet’s friend Maurice Richard as minister for Fine Arts, decided to have a referendum

In the midst of this sea-side idyll, Courbet received two pieces of

declaring a liberal Empire, in hopes of improving the damaged

good news. The Brussels exhibition had just awarded him the first-

prestige of Napoleon III. Once the results of the vote were known,

place medal, and the jury at Munich had asked the King of Bavaria,

Courbet, delighted, wrote to his parents on the 11th of May. “The

who had agreed, that he be given the cross as knight of the first

vote on the referendum just makes people laugh. The authorities

rank in the order of merit of Saint Michael, which carried with it

are terrified. The army voted more favourably than the middle-

the title of Baron.

class, such that there is no one left on the Emperor’s side except the inert mass of peasants. The Empire keeps putting up

Courbet had sent a Landscape near Maizières (p. 196), The Woman

roadblocks, but nobody goes through them.”

with the Parrot (pp. 176-177), The Stone Breakers (pp. 62-63) and His mood improved even further when paid 3,500 francs to buy the

The Deer Kill to Munich.

collection of Monsieur de Planhol which included a large number of These works were very well received, as recorded by Eugène

supposedly old masterpieces. “I made a wonderful deal,” wrote the

Müntz for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. “Monsieur Manet,” he

painter, “I rented lodgings in order to leave [this museum] where it

wrote, “goes completely unnoticed with his Philosopher and his

is. The thing is worth perhaps 300,000 francs. I hardly dare think of

Spanish Singer. Monsieur Courbet, on the other hand, has acquired

it or look at it. I paid cash on the spot so that there would be nothing

107. The Woman in the Waves, 1868. Oil on canvas, 65.4 x 54 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 108. The Source, 1862. Oil on canvas, 120 x 74.3 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 109. The Young Bather, 1866. Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 97.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 186



left to haggle over... There are, among other things, a good ten

In the back of the café, was the hard-liners’ corner, where,

Rubens, which are worth a fortune.” Shortly thereafter, Courbet

surrounded by “old, long-bearded sachems, solemn and dogmatic

rented out most of the premises to a club, leaving in it the bulk of the

blowhards,” old Delescluze pontificated, recently back from Devil’s

500 paintings, plaster busts, and marble pieces that he had acquired.

Island and venerated for having made the voyage. This group was

A later inventory lists a Reconciliation of Laban and Jacob by Pietro da

joined, once Rochefort had founded The Marseillaise, by a swarm

Cortona; a Portrait of Madame de Chantai by Philippe de

of old-fashioned and pretentious students. These were self-

Champaigne; a sketch attributed to Rubens; a Saint Bruno from the

proclaimed journalists, who couldn’t think, couldn’t spell, and

School of Murillo; a Head of Herodiade which, before it was

knew Paris no better than Patagonians; boys with beards who

restretched, carried the notation by Titian; a Conversion of Mary

thought they were called to regenerate the world, pedants for the

Magdalene attributed to Holbein; a Stoning of Saint Stephen attributed

Republic, all with vests à la Robespierre and cravats à la Saint-

to Paolo Veronese; a Joseph Explaining Sadly to the Old Pharaoh that

Just.” Some of these were Raoul, Renault, Triton, Landrieu and so

in Three Days He Would Die attributed to Velázquez; Charlemagne by

on, who would be part of the governments of the 4th September,

Claude Vignon; Saint Stephen attributed to Guercino; a Last Supper

then of the 18th of March.

similar to da Vinci’s, full of buckshot; a Saint Francis attributed to Velázquez and so on. In fact, these works had no value and were only

One can only imagine the hubbub among this “seed bed of great

student copies, or exercises, from who knows where, probably from

men,” when on the 22nd of June, the news came that Courbet had

the stores of some Italian curiosities merchant. Their price of 3,500

been decorated the day before by decree, inserted in the Journal

francs was more than their true worth. At best they could be used as

officiel de l’Empire française. People arrived to say they had just

sized canvases to paint over.

seen the painter with the red ribbon in his lapel; some said such a calumny couldn’t be true. Others said Courbet cared as much for

At that time, Courbet went regularly to the Café de Madrid, on the

this distinction as for the hiccoughs. Amidst this extraordinary

boulevard Montmartre. This “handshake factory” caught everyone

turmoil, nothing was heard but these questions; “Will he accept?

as they went by, and soon all his friends had adopted the new

Will he refuse?” Alone Carjat remained calm, for “friend

“literary watering-hole,” which thereby became a “little arts

Castagnary was keeping vigil.”

exchange,” along with a hothouse for politicians. This was where most of the Commune was recruited.

The next day, the 23rd of June, the papers published the famous letter to Monsieur Maurice Richard, Minister of Letters, Sciences

At the Politicos’ table Gambetta held court, surrounded by Laurier,

and Fine Arts, in which Courbet, having learned the news of his

Floquet, Spuller, Lannes and Isambert; “a noisy, gesticulating table

decoration at the home of his friend Jules Dupree in l’Isle-Adam,

on which Gambetta’s fist practised its parliamentary pugilism for

wrote that he couldn’t accept this distinction, yet paid full and

five years, leaving the marble top split like Roland’s rock.”

complete homage to the minister, who had taken office “following

Castagnary and Carjat also joined the group.

a disastrous administration, which seemed to have assigned itself

110. The Hunted Deer on the Alert; Spring, 1867. Oil on canvas, 111 x 85 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 111. Deer by the River. Private collection. 191



Gustave Courbet

the duty of killing art in our country, and which would have

France [...] I have to keep my hat in my hand, like the priests,

succeeded through corruption and violence, if there hadn’t been

when I walk along the street [...] What I just did is a fantastic

here and there a few men of courage to stand in its way.”

move. It’s like a dream; everyone envies me and I have no opposition. I have so many commissions right now that I can’t

Immediately, the artists gave a banquet for him, at Bonvalet’s, on

keep up. So I’m leaving. Paris is unbearable, and a person can get

the boulevard du Temple, presided over by Gustave Chaudey.

stabbed everyday [...] I will be in Ornans the month of September

Daumier attended, he who had also refused to be decorated by

[...] My story has lasted three weeks in Paris, in the provinces and

Maurice Richard, and had answered the sculptor Préault:

abroad. Now it’s over; war is replacing me.”

“My good friend, let me look at myself in the mirror; for

Courbet under the Commune

fifty years I have seen myself like that; I would laugh if I saw myself any differently. Thank you for your kind

War was declared against Germany on the 19th of July 1870.

intervention; but let us speak no more of it.”

Although disastrous for all French people, it would, through its consequences, overcome Courbet to a particularly terrible extent,

Carjat, full of good intentions, included Daumier in Courbet’s

and cast him quickly down from the pinnacle to which his work

glory; and amidst unanimous applause, the two artists embraced.

had lifted him. With it, he began a period of rapid decline which

Thiers himself congratulated Courbet, pointing out that having

would continue until his death. He would end up a shadow of his

received every decoration, he never wore any.

former self through events in which he was the often innocent victim, derided by his former and ever-new enemies, abandoned

On the 15th of July, the very day the war against Prussia was

by his friends, who accused him to safeguard their own freedom.

approved by both Houses, Courbet wrote to his parents, “War has

He found himself suddenly made into a scapegoat, driven from his

been declared; the peasants who voted yes are going to pay dearly

country by the tax authorities and dying in isolation well before

for it... We are sure to see the Allies again; with these Napoleons,

his time, as the result of a slow and vicious persecution which

it’s obvious... The police and the government are shouting ‘Hurray

stunned him, ruined him, emptied and destroyed him.

for war!’ in Paris. It’s scandalous. All the decent folk are staying home, and fleeing Paris.”

He had decided not to leave Paris, he wrote on the 9th of August, because he was needed there and because he had considerable

As for Courbet himself, he would go to the seashore at Étretat, or

interests to protect.

to Victor Hugo’s on Guernsey. Following his refusal of the decoration, he received more than three hundred letters

It was also on the 9th of August that the Ollivier government was

congratulating him; he had been given a dinner with eighty to a

overturned, and replaced by that of Palikao, following the defeats at

hundred guests. Monsieur Thiers, and “even princesses”

Wissembourg and Reischoffen. On the 4th of September, after the

congratulated him. “Everyone thinks I am the foremost man in

surrender at Sedan, the National Defence Government replaced the

112. The Great Oak, 1843. Oil on canvas, 29 x 32 cm. Private collection. 194



Gustave Courbet

113. Landscape near Maizières, 1865. Oil on canvas, 50 x 65 cm. Neue Pinakothek, Munich. 196


114. Great Oaks, by the Water at Port-Berteau, 1862. Oil on canvas, 68 x 91 cm. Richard Green Collection, London. 197

Gustave Courbet

115. Jo, La Belle Irlandaise, 1865-1866. Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 66 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 198


Empire, with Trochu, Arago, Crémieux, Jules Favre, Ferry, Gambetta,

many adventures, was brought back to grace the statue of

Garnier-Pagès, Glais-Bizoin, Pelletan, Picard, Rochefort and Jules

Napoleon I, commissioned by Napoleon III from Dumont in 1863

Simon. It was the event that Courbet had expected and predicted long

and itself destroyed in 1871.

before. Immediately the bas-relief by Barye, representing Napoleon III on horseback, was removed from the gate of the Carrousel; the

The royalists in 1814 under the direction of Messieurs de la

Napoleon in frock coat by Seurre, at Courbevoie, was thrown into the

Rochefoucauld and de Maubreuil had tried to pull the statue down

Seine at the bridge of Neuilly, and Voltaire replaced Prince Eugène on

by hitching their horses to the ropes which had been attached to

his base. And yet not one voice was raised against the Arc de

it. But their efforts were in vain, and the person who had cast it

Triomphe of the Étoile, or the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides.

was called upon to bring the statue down using scaffolding, hoists and capstans. A white flag replaced the Imperator.

The same could not be said of the Vendôme column. Its construction had been ordered by Bonaparte on 8 vendémiaire,

The column remained without a crown until Louis-Philippe, who

year XII (1st of October 1803); a statue of Charlemagne was meant

ordered the statue to be restored on the 8th of April 1831. The

for the top. On the 14th of March 1806, the minister of the

artist chosen was Seurre, who depicted Bonaparte in a grey frock

Interior, Champagny, begged Napoleon to allow the Emperor’s

coat and a little hat, based on clothing lent by General Bertrand.

own image to crown the column, since the statue of Charlemagne

This restitution contributed, along with the return of his ashes, to

had been sent back to Aachen. This would be “made with the

the popularity of the Napoleonic legend. Protests arose, however,

bronze from the cannons taken from the enemy” on the

from Auguste Barbier, Lamartine and the leader of positivism,

proportions of Trajan’s column. In the margin of the report,

Auguste Comte.

Napoleon accepted the modifications, and ordered the minister of War to make 150,000 pound weight of bronze in artillery pieces

These were futile protests; the statue was removed but quickly

available to the minister of the Interior. These cannons were the

replaced on the 4th of November 1863 by another, more

least apt for service, and had been taken from both the Russians

triumphant, by Dumont. This showed Napoleon once again as a

and the Austrians. “Thus the conception of the monument is the

Roman emperor, holding the small victory by Chaudet in his right

apotheosis of Napoleon I.” It was this aspect of being a personal

hand. The exasperation of the adversaries of the Empire grew

apotheosis, and not collective as was the Arc de Triomphe, which

proportionately, and they began to see this monument as pure

made the enemies of the imperial government hate the column.

glorification of Napoleon III. Soon it personified not the first empire, but the second, and it had all the anathema heaped upon

That had been seen at the time of the invasion that brought Louis

it that the latter provoked through its scorn for Liberty and the

XVIII back to France. The statue of Napoleon by Chaudet was

humiliations inflicted by its absolutism. It may be said that just as

taken off the column, and melted down for the statue of Henry IV

the débâcle of 1871 brought about the collapse of the regime

on the pont Neuf. There survived only a small bronze winged

which had provoked it, the regime of Napoleon III, as it fell,

victory which the Emperor held in his left hand, and which, after

brought down this dynastic symbol with it.

116. The Girl with the Seagulls, Trouville, 1865. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Private collection, New York. 117. Three Young Englishwomen by the Window, 1865. Oil on canvas, 92.5 x 72.5 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. 199

Gustave Courbet

The question of the column was on the agenda of the commission

of Strasbourg for the Place de la Concorde with those of other cities

appointed by the artists, on the 6th of September, to oversee the

of France. In a letter of the 5th of October, addressing the National

preservation of the riches of the museums, which, it was claimed,

Defence Government, and published the same day in the Réveil,

had been squandered by the administration.

Courbet strongly opposed this proposal. “This is what I was afraid of; a bronze statue! You say it will commemorate the glory of Strasbourg.

This commission elected Courbet as its president, and its members

Is history so forgetful, and have we forever lost the memory of the

were Daumier, Veyrassat, Feyen-Perrin, Lansyer – all painters;

heart? [...] The stone statue exists, respected and venerated by all.

Ottin, Moulin, Le Véel, Geoffroy Dechaume – of the sculptors;

Leave it where it is, with its flags, its crowns, its maudlin crepe.

Bracquemond, an engraver and Reiber, an ornamental designer.

Strasbourg merely did its duty, after all; it remembered that it was an

Meetings were held in the superintendent’s office. Some were

integral part of France: it died as a true French citizen. Erect a statue

surprised that Courbet had accepted this presidency, which,

to it if you will! But be logical and fair about it. Cast effigies also for

moreover, had no official status. This action, however, seemed

Metz, Toul, Laon, Bitche, and Phalsbourg, for every city which will

natural to those who knew of the long-standing and bitter enmity

fall, as Prussia advances to crush them...” For him it was preferable to

that existed between Courbet and the former superintendent. This

add a marble plaque with a brief inscription on the pedestal of the

was personal enmity, exacerbated by the blunders of Monsieur de

existing statue, and to save the bronze from the Napoleon to make

Nieuwerkerque, particularly regarding The Woman with the Parrot

new cannons, which were sorely needed.

(pp. 176-177), as well as enmity on principle between a republican and an imperialist. In Courbet’s view, the presidency of artists

While he was at it, he spoke out against the “fools” who hadn’t

replaced the superintendence; it was revenge.

understood his proposal about the column; he had certainly never wanted it “smashed”; he only wanted “this pile of melted cannons,

Several days later, Ratisbonne, in the Débats, said the column

perpetuating the tradition of conquest, removed from a street named

should be melted down. These resolutions were to be forwarded to

rue de la Paix (Street of Peace).” Democracy and universal socialism

the mayors of the nineteen Paris arrondissements, to their

required no longer erecting monuments perpetuating hatred.

armament committees, then to the government, and to the

Courbet’s opinion about the column, then, was very clear; it must not

commander in chief of the Paris army. The next day, Citizen Jules

be destroyed since it was a work of art, albeit mediocre; but, since it

Ferry had this proposal adopted by the nineteen town halls of

glorified hatred, it should be removed from the street commemorating

Paris; he had platforms erected under the carriage entrance of the

peace; its panels could be displayed in Les Invalides. Those

town halls and there in his orations he supported this provocation,

demanding its total destruction were many, at the time; Courbet was

agreeing to demolish the column.

not among their ranks, but rather part of the conservative minority of the new guard, as he would be later in the Commune.

At the end of the deliberation of the armament committee of the 6th arrondissement, Jules Simon decided that the Napoleon from the

On the 1st of December, Courbet and Burty resigned as members

column would be melted down, and the bronze used to cast the statue

of the Archives Commission. The work of this body had lasted

118. Immensity, 1869. Oil on canvas, 60 x 82.2 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. 119. Sunset on Lake Léman, 1874. Oil on canvas, 55 x 65 cm. Musée Jenisch, Vevey. 202





Gustave Courbet



nearly six weeks; it concluded that the integrity of the

felt better for it; the news that his studio had been pillaged had

functionaries in the Museums had been complete. The two

disturbed him greatly, but “we will fix it when we can.”

dissidents did not contest this, but they distanced themselves from their colleagues so as not to have to approve the decision to renew

Autographe published a letter by Courbet offering his candidacy

the respective appointments of these men, who had shown

to the Bordeaux assembly. “I will show,” he said, “the full

themselves such faithful servants “of an odious regime.”

independence and logic which are my nature, by defending Liberty and Democracy, as I have never failed to do openly for thirty-five

Courbet did better work at the Commission of Artists. Paris was

years [...] To promise anything else at this time would be

occupied from the 19th of September. Working together with the

humiliating for me.” Election to the “fearsome” assembly of

curators, the Commission of Artists laboured tirelessly to ensure that

Bordeaux would have been Courbet’s salvation.

the windows of the Louvre were bomb-proofed, the horses of Marly, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Fountain of the Innocents protected.

We know that this assembly met on the 12th of February, presided

The same was done at the Luxembourg, the Cluny and Gobelins

over by Monsieur Grévy. They appointed Thiers as chief executive

Museums, and special commissions were sent to Versailles,

of the French Republic, with the mission to bring peace. The

Fontainebleau, Saint-Germain, and Sèvres. Unfortunately, it was

preliminary treaty was signed on the 26th of February in Versailles

impossible to protect Saint-Cloud, Meudon, and la Malmaison in the

and ratified on the 1st of March. Soon afterwards, fears of a

same way, since the occupation was advancing too quickly.

restoration of the monarchy brought on the Commune in Paris.

Testimony given at the trial of Versailles proves that the painter had

The disappointment and the hardships of the siege, the idleness

performed his duties as conservator of Arts very conscientiously.

and humiliation encouraged its development. A central revolutionary committee, after organising the battalions of

A letter from Courbet to his parents, dated the 23rd of February

confederates in the National Guard, took the Hôtel de Ville, and

1871, describes his life during the siege, and the siege itself. It

set the 26th of March for the election of communal counsellors.

indicates exactly the state of mind that would produce the

Courbet was not elected. A complementary election for two

Commune. For him, and for most republicans, the siege was just

counsellors was set for the 16th of April. The painter continued his

a “joke”; the last thing the reactionary government wanted was for

candidacy. In his campaign statement he showed a certain ill-will

the Republic to save France.

at not being understood in the first place, and he submitted to “the requirement” of presenting a platform, “the language of painting

Personally, many things had been happening in his life. He had

not being familiar to everyone.” “I have always concerned myself,”

been appointed president by the artists working to save art

he said, “with social issues and the philosophies related to them,

treasures and the museums; served on the Archives Commission

marching on this path alongside my comrade Proudhon. Denying

and given a cannon to the Republic for the marching companies of

the false and conventional ideal, in 1848, I carried the flag of

the National Guard of Grenelle. He had lost weight, and actually

Realism, which alone puts art at the service of man.”

120. The Fishing Boat, 1865. Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 81.3 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 207

Gustave Courbet

121. The Cliff at Étretat after the Storm, 1870. Oil on canvas, 133 x 162 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 208


122. Beach in Normandy, c. 1872-1875. Oil on canvas, 61.3 x 90.2 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 209

Gustave Courbet

On the 5th of April, Courbet issued an appeal to the artists of

simple solutions, attributed it to Courbet. Yet on the 12th of April

Paris, in his capacity as president, and convened them the

the painter was not yet a member of the Commune, and later Felix

following Friday in the grand amphitheatre of the School of

Pyat admitted he was responsible.

Medicine. It was, to be sure, important to reopen the museums, and to organise an exhibition soon, in order to honour Paris. The

The same day, the executive Commission of the Commune

city represented an example for France as a whole, herself still

authorised Courbet, and the forty-six delegates, to be appointed

enslaved, subject to feudalism, until she could be rallied to the

the next day, to re-establish the museums of Paris and the annual

Federation. Through the Commune, Paris would become “the

exhibition of the Champs-Elysées without delay.

international European city,” offering its many resources to the art, industry, and commerce of all nations.

The principles were the free expansion of art, freed of all governmental supervision and all privileges; the equality of rights

The Fine Arts section of the Institute would be eliminated, as well

amongst all members of the Federation; the independence and the

as the School of Rome and the École des Beaux-Arts; but the

dignity of each artist safeguarded by a committee elected by

premises of the latter would be given to the students who would

universal suffrage among the artists.

elect their teachers. The general assembly of artists and the jury would give cash prizes; the croix d’honneur and the medals would

On the 16th of April, in the complementary communal elections

be abolished. The dissidents would exhibit in a nearby gallery.

of the 6th arrondissement, Courbet was elected a communal

Private industry would be given premises for its exhibition; a raffle

counsellor. The committee, not wishing to replace Nieuwerkerque

and the surplus from receipts would make it possible to refund the

officially, decided that the title of member of the Commune would

entrance fee; each prize would entitle the winner to a painting.

confer no special privilege upon Courbet. But the Commune

After the Salon, the location would be used for a permanent

appointed him delegate for Fine Arts.

exhibit of classic and modern paintings. This was the proposal presented by Courbet to the assembly of the 10th of April, which

Beyond these official duties, Courbet had to remove many of his

decided that the Salon would be organised independently of all

paintings to safety, and he stored them with Monsieur Durand-Ruel.

government influence. On the 21st of April, the Commune named Courbet a member of On the 12th of April, the Commune issued the following decree:

the Education Commission.

“Single Article. — The column of the Place Vendôme will be The session of the 27th of April was particularly important. First


Courbet protested against the conduct of Thiers, who considered This decree carried no signature. Public gullibility, which later

Paris to be insurgent, whereas it was actually at war, and under

made Courbet the scapegoat, because the crowd always prefers

the law of nations, the status of insurgency ended after the first

123. The Trout, 1873. Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 98.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 210



Gustave Courbet



days of battle. Then, towards the end, “he requests that the

eliminated, as well as official commissions; the architecture

decree of the Commune on the demolition of the column be

service should be reorganised introducing the principle of

carried out. We could perhaps leave the base of the column,

competitions, freedom and responsibility. Courbet further

where the bas-reliefs deal with the history of the Republic; the

proposed to exhibit the paintings currently in storage in the

imperial column could be replaced by a figure representing the

Louvre, although this was abandoned owing to the excessive cost

Revolution of the 18th of March.”

of acquiring adequate space.

Courbet always claimed that the minutes had inaccurately

The 16th of May was a day of storms and battles. By morning, the

recorded his words, as so often happened. This seems possible,

inhabitants of the area around the Place Vendôme, as far as the rue

given that he’d always proposed putting the panels of the Column

Royale and the Place des Victoires, had glued strips of paper over

in Les Invalides.

their windowpanes, to reduce the effects of impact. Teams of workers were creating an open space in the direction of the rue de

On the 30th of April, Courbet wrote that he had been unlucky,

la Paix, spreading a bed of rubble, faggots, and straw intended to

having lost both of his studios. The one in Ornans had been

cushion the bulk of the colossus and keep it from bursting the

pillaged by the Prussians, whilst the one at the pont de l’Alma had

sewer lines and shaking the buildings. They had intended to saw

been used to make barricades after he had had it taken to La

into the column horizontally and then cut it on an angle on the

Villette. But what did it matter since the Commune was victorious?

other side. Cables had been attached below the statue, and

Personally, he was in public service up to his neck, holding, by the

connected to capstans, then fastened to the ground at the entrance

will of the people of Paris, four very important offices; president of

to the rue de la Paix.

the Federation of Artists, member of the Commune, delegate to the City Hall, and delegate to Public Education.

Did Courbet attend the event? Some say they saw him with the other members of the Commune, wearing a straw hat, and

At the meeting of the Commune of the 1st of May, Courbet

playing with a cane worth forty sous. Others, such as Castagnary,

proposed that certain expressions no longer be used; “Public

denied it.

Safety”, “Montagnards” and “Girondins”, which no longer corresponded to the current situation and were appropriate only to

Suddenly, the capstan in use broke, and the cables, which had been

the Revolution of 1793.

taut, went slack. Quickly a winch was requisitioned on the banks of the Seine, hastily installed, and the operation begun anew.

On the 2nd of May, the Federation of Artists abolished the École des Beaux-Arts, the Fine Arts section at the Institute, the School

Around five o’clock, a sudden crack was heard; the giant swayed,

of Rome and the School of Athens. It proposed the creation of

leaned, broke into three pieces, and collapsed in a storm of white

communal schools of professional art in the barracks, which

dust. The statue of the Imperator lay on the remains of the

were no longer necessary. State subsidies for the Salon should be

barricade, and its head rolled into the gutter.

124. The Woman in a "Podoscaphe", 1865. Oil on canvas, 170.5 x 208 cm. Murauchi Art Museum, Tokyo. 213

Gustave Courbet

125. The Waterspout, 1866. Oil on canvas, 43.2 x 65.7 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. 214


The Fall

The Arrest

Courbet was paraded in a carriage, taken to Headquarters to verify his identity, then to the cells at the Prefecture, where he was jailed

The day following the collapse of the column, the Federation of

as prisoner number 24, and interrogated by Monsieur Berillon,

Artists took up the question of the replacement of the curators of

police commissioner of the Palais de Justice.

the Louvre and the Luxembourg, whom the Commune wished to suspend, suspecting them of corresponding with Versailles.

The order to investigate Courbet was signed by Monsieur Appert on the 17th of June. In a letter addressed to a magistrate

While the Tuileries were burning, and the incendiary fury of the

responsible for investigating his case, Courbet complained of the

Communards was placing the monuments of Paris in great peril,

“snuffboxes” in which he was forced to live with his oversized

Courbet, unlike Brives, did not leave his post at the Louvre,

form. He was subject to apoplectic fits and intestinal

striving to the very end to preserve the collections of the nation. It

inflammation, and complained further of the “vermin” around him

was, as we now know, on the 28th of May, at around three o’clock

and of the trip in a prison van, between Paris and Versailles, and

in the afternoon, that all resistance stopped. That same day, the

back to Paris on the 30th of June, in handcuffs, and of being

town council of Ornans decided that the Bullhead Fisherman

exhibited in the streets of the capital. Apparently in Versailles he

would be removed from the fountain of Iles-Basses and returned to

was even insulted by children, and a young woman struck him

the painter’s family.

with her parasol.

Since the 28th of May, the most contradictory rumours about

Courbet used his forced idleness to defend himself. He wrote to a

Courbet had been circulating. Some said he had poisoned

magistrate, as we have just seen, and explained how he happened

himself at Satory, others that he had been shot at Versailles or on

to have the two statuettes belonging to Monsieur Thiers. He had

the barricades. The police didn’t believe any of them. On the

gone to the latter’s house, but arrived too late to stop its complete

30th of May they seized a trunk containing Courbet’s papers. A

destruction. He saw these two terracotta pieces in the rubble, and

search had been made to verify that Courbet had not stolen

took them, “in case they had sentimental value for Monsieur

paintings and objets d’art from the public collections and those

Thiers.” As for the Column, he had always insisted that its bas-

of Monsieur Thiers. It turned up “an antique figurine and the

reliefs be taken to Les Invalides.

head of a statuette,” from the belongings removed from the On the 21st of July, an order was sent to take Courbet to Versailles

Thiers residence.

permanently. To add to his suffering of body and spirit came the The painter was arrested on the 7th of June. Courbet’s political

very intense sadness caused by the death of his mother. Since her

life was over. One cannot help comparing it to that of David

son’s arrest, the poor woman had languished in a chair, crying and

during the Revolution.

repeating the same phrase, “My son is unhappy!”

126. Sunset, Trouville, c. 1870. Oil on canvas, 71.8 x 103.2 cm. Private collection. 215



Gustave Courbet

127. The Wave, 1869. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. 218


128. The Rocks at Étretat, 1866. Oil on canvas, 92 x 114 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 219

Gustave Courbet

She soon died of sadness. Shortly thereafter, on the 25th of July,

me and gives me as much food as she can, in spite of the rules.

Monsieur de Planet, acting on the order of the general in

We’re on the best of terms.”

command of the 1st military division, issued his report of the Courbet case. It concluded as follows; “Therefore, our opinion

He congratulated himself for having Lachaud as his lawyer,

is that the prisoner known as Courbet, Gustave, should be

“given to him” by Monsieur Grévy, and who was “privileged to

brought before the war council for: Firstly, participating in the

have the ear of all involved”. He deluded himself that if he were

uprising intended to change the form of government, and

exiled, he would make no appeal, and would not seek a pardon,

inciting citizens to take up arms against one another; secondly,

so that those “who had the cheek to come after me, after giving

usurping public office; thirdly, becoming an accomplice in the

such distinguished service as I have, cannot have another shot at

destruction of a monument, the Vendôme Column, built by

me for so little trouble.” If he were acquitted, he would go

public authorities, by knowingly assisting the authors of this

bathing at the seashore for two reasons. Firstly, because he

crime in the acts which prepared, facilitated and consummated

needed to bathe, “not having had a bath this year,” and also to

same.” This report was in fact relatively mild; it recognised that

give a piece of his mind, from a distance, to the town council

Courbet had voted with the minority against using the name

before returning to Ornans, whose orders would have had him

Committee of Public Safety and that he had then concerned

shot, if he hadn’t been hidden.

himself mostly with the affairs of his arrondissement and his responsibilities as director of Fine Arts. Also that the decree for

When the artist first appeared in court, everyone who saw him was

destroying the Column had been given before his election; that

struck by the change. “He has turned completely white, wrote a

he had wished the bas-reliefs to be taken to Les Invalides after

reporter to the Journal de Lyon. His short beard, his grey hair, and

disassembly, and not demolition, and that he had offered to pay

a sickly look make him hardly recognisable. He is demoralised, ill,

for its restoration at his own expense, if it could be shown that

and has lost much of his previous robust serenity.”

he had been responsible for this demolition. Finally, it said nothing about the alleged theft from Monsieur Thiers.

Courbet’s hearing took place on the 14th of August. Torrential rain helped to cool the courtroom slightly, which was overheated by the

Courbet’s worsening illness made it necessary to transport him

sun and by a crowd of witnesses, guards and spectators, all packed

to the military hospital in Versailles. A letter of the 27th of

into the tiny space.

August to his sister Juliette shows his satisfaction; “I was very glad to be brought to this hospital. I have completely

When questioned, Courbet answered that he joined the Commune

recuperated from the suffering in the prison cells. Solitude

to pacify it; that he had proposed moving the Column to Les

weakens the mind. This makes three weeks of misery avoided. I

Invalides, not destroying it, that he would have protected

am as skinny as the day of my first communion; you will be

Monsieur Thiers’ house if he hadn’t arrived too late. He stated that

amazed. Sister Clotilde looks after me; she is extremely good to

he had only belonged to the Commune from the 26th of April to

129. The Hounds of the Comte de Choiseul, 1866. Oil on canvas, 81 x 117 cm. Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis. 220




the 12th of May; and although he had signed the minutes from the

president of artists, approved by the government, he had

22nd of May he was only there to defend a friend, as it had been

contributed to safeguarding their rich collections. As a member of

agreed amongst the members of the minority. He had not criticised

the Archives commission, he had recognised that the imperial Fine

the Column as a “monument of our national glory, but as an

Arts administration had done nothing wrong.

emblem of the Empire and its despotism,” and which was of no artistic interest in any case.

The decision was rendered on the 2nd of September; the council found Courbet guilty “of having, during the month of May, 1871,

Then began the testimony of witnesses. There were two witnesses

in Paris, become an accomplice, through the abuse of authority, to

for the prosecution. The many defence witnesses were almost all

the destruction of the Column of the Place Vendôme, a public

present. Monsieur Camille Pelletan, of the Rappel, swore that he

monument.” They sentenced him, unanimously, to a penalty of six

had received, for publication, the group resignation of the

months in prison, and a fine of 500 francs. Furthermore, he was to

minority members of the Commune from the hands of Arnould,

refund the costs of the trial to the Public Treasury out of his

Arnold and Courbet. The latter said about the majority:

personal wealth, present and future.

“Those people are mad, vilely playing roles learned in the

“They’ve killed me, my poor Monteil,” lamented Courbet, “these

repertory of the Revolution of 1793.”

people have killed me, I can feel it; I will never again do anything worthwhile!”

The witnesses’ testimonies ended with this quotation. All had been favourable to Courbet.

The following day, Sunday the 3rd of September, he announced his sentence to his family and friends. “Those people wish to

Maître Lachaud presented his defence on the 31st of August. He

mollify the public. When it had been proven that I had nothing

began by praising the painter’s talent, the head of a movement,

to do with the destruction of the column, they nevertheless

who had achieved fame by dint of his enormous work. Some called

maintained that I had taken part, in spite of the assertions of the

him proud, but he was merely aware of his own merit. Others

accused themselves, and in spite of the decree, which had been

called him jealous, but of whom would he be jealous, because he

given before I joined the Commune.” He thought that he would

was unanimously thought of at the forefront of his field? He had

be pardoned, or that his prison sentence would be commuted to

been called political, but all the witnesses certified that he had

exile; his colleagues were sentenced more harshly than he, to the

never engaged in politics, showing him to be a naïve boy, capable

penal colonies, and two of them to death. The general opinion

of making beautiful art, but unfit for writing a constitution. His

was that he would be acquitted.

one, small political act was in refusing the decoration; it was because he believed that the medal of honour belonged only to the

Soon afterwards, Courbet was transferred to the Orangerie of

soldiers who won it on the battlefields. Since then, in his role as

Versailles with Monteil, Maroteau, Gromier, and others. Then the

130. The Beggar’s Alms at Ornans, 1868. Oil on canvas, 210.9 x 175.3 cm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. 223

Gustave Courbet

131. The Change, Scene from a Deer Hunt in Franche-ComtĂŠ, 1866. Oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm. Ordrupgaardsamlingen, Copenhagen. 224


132. The Deer Kill or Hunting Scene in the Snow, 1867. Oil on canvas, 355 x 505 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. 225

Gustave Courbet

painter was brought to Paris on the 22nd of September, to serve

window, looking out on the courtyard of Sainte-Pélagie, where

out his sentence at Sainte-Pélagie prison.

the trees are caressed by the rays of the setting sun.

He didn’t care about any of that, he wrote on the 29th of September

Courbet also thought of painting Paris, as seen from the roof of his

to his sister Juliette; they could do whatever they wanted to him,

prison, but General Valentin refused permission, saying that he

“cry it in the streets with drum rolls, preach it in the pulpits”; they

was not there to enjoy himself. The painter told one of his friends,

could not ruin his name. Many congratulatory letters were arriving

an artist from Dijon who was visiting him when the answer came,

from Germany, England and Switzerland. He was going to ask to

how sorry he was. “I would have painted it like one of my

be allowed to paint; perhaps they might also let him be treated in

seascapes, with an immensely deep sky, with its monuments,

a hospital. He asked the prison director for permission to receive

buildings, and domes resembling rolling ocean waves.” This was

an easel, canvases, brushes, and paints. This was refused at first, it

certainly an interesting and unique idea, since Courbet had never,

was not long before it was granted.

before or after, thought of including Paris in his work as a landscape artist.

He painted a whole series of flowers and fruits, with a lively feeling for their special beauty. They were strongly drawn,

A letter dated the 28th of December describes how his illness had

vigorously coloured, but in a sombre style, reminiscent of his

grown worse, and that he was going to have to be operated on by

early work; his thoughts, like his cell, were dark. We see apples,

Nélaton. At the doctor’s request, the painter would be moved, on

pears, oranges, chrysanthemums, dahlias, a bowl of grapes,

parole, to Dr. Duval’s clinic.

pomegranates, chestnuts, lots of fat, red, juicy apples, painted with love as he recalled the apple trees he had planted in his

It’s a “paradise,” Courbet wrote to his family. He had never been so

orchard in Ornans.

well off in his life, in a beautiful room, with spacious grounds to walk in. He took his meals with the family and there were often

He also did some figures, though he was not allowed to bring a

dinner guests; time went quickly while he talked and painted and

model into Sainte-Pélagie. As he was lonely, he painted a

the last seven weeks of his captivity were to fly by like the wind.

magnificent head of a girl on the wall next to his bed, with a

“I will have been rescued by the two most famous men in Paris;

flower in her hair. She seemed to be lying on the pillow, and the

Messieurs Lachaud and Nélaton. The journalists of the opposition

director, fooled by this trompe-l’oeil, nearly swooned at the sight

are furious.”

of a woman lying in one of the prisoners’ beds, then burst out laughing when he realized his mistake. He did an excellent self-

Concerning the “disasters” of his studio in Ornans, he found the

portrait, now housed in the Ornans town hall, showing himself

estimates by his father to be quite insufficient. The end of the

from the waist up, wearing a brown suit, a red cravat and a

letter shows that the deep wound inflicted by the town council

beret, in profile on the right, leaning against the bars of his

of Ornans had not healed; it never would be. The list of odds

133. Poachers in the Snow, 1867. Oil on canvas, 102 x 122 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome. 226



Gustave Courbet



and ends from the studio also shows how much importance

Courbet finished serving his sentence on the 2nd of March. An

Courbet lent to things that were hardly worth it. Indeed, all his

exhibition of some thirty paintings at Durand-Ruel’s celebrated

life he would show a similar interest in trivialities. Rather

the artist’s liberation. A journalist, Monsieur G. Puissant,

than concentrating on his rehabilitation and the safety of his

reported on him the following day; “his complexion has taken on

paintings, he was often seen worrying about minutia,

saffron and white, almost bluish, shades; his forehead is

compromising his rest, upsetting himself needlessly and

wrinkled, the cornea of his eye is streaked with yellowish fibrilla,

allowing his boat to take on water through little cracks and

his beard salt and pepper; but his eyes are still soft, his lips

big ones. He always wanted to be a philosopher but lacked

sardonic, and his laughter deep; he has kept his irony and his


nonchalance. He needed them to bear all the horrors that have happened to him; prison, theft, the looting of his studio of

Meanwhile the operation for which he had gone to Dr. Duval’s

Ornans, which the Prussians turned into a stable for one

clinic took place in late January. The painter withstood it with

hundred horses and a tobacco shop.”

great courage, even refusing chloroform. For the moment, he worked by necessity in his studio-bedroom, “Ah! my friend, what an artist this Nélaton is!” he exclaimed to

where apples, pears, quinces, and oranges rolled around on the

Carjat, who came to see him the next day. “When he had finished,

furniture. Now, Courbet’s obsession was “to walk, to run, to

I really thought I was seeing angels!”

breathe deeply, to roll in the grass... He wanted to grasp the soil of the fields by the handful, kiss it, breathe it in, bite it, drum on the

He passed the time. He painted Apples, Pears and Primroses

trunks of trees, throw stones into water holes, wade in the brooks,

on a Table (p. 241), Garden Table in the same way and

eat, and devour nature!”

Hollyhocks in a copper vase. There was also Portrait of Monsieur Coquelin; Dr. Duval’s English Horse; a landscape for

He would have been happy, if another very discouraging event hadn’t

Dr. Nélaton, who had refused any compensation for his

occurred. “Some of the paintings, which I had hidden in the cellars

operation; a Seascape at Saint-Aubin and a Seascape at Etretat

of the passage du Saumon, were stolen from me while I was a

amongst others. All in all there were forty-one paintings,

prisoner; two enormous crates of the finest have gone to America.”

including those from Sainte-Pélagie. Amongst these works were Mère Grégoire (p. 47); Landscape with In February, Monsieur Durand-Ruel received Peasant Girl with

Dead Tree and Hunted Hare. He managed to retrieve Breton Spinner,

Flowers; Three Young Englishwomen by the Window (p. 201), a

which showed a sky boiling with “pink, pearl grey, lilac, and

charming work where the different skin tones and hair harmonise

nuances of lacquer and mother-of-pearl,” all very delicate. He also

delicately; Shepherdess with her Sheep and Dogs; The Source of the

found Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Flower Gatherer, the bust of a beggar

Loue (p. 156); and The Great Oak (p. 195).

and The Stormy Sea.

134. The Poor Village Woman, Ornans, 1866. Oil on canvas, 86 x 126 cm. Private collection. 229

Gustave Courbet

Another disappointment added to his troubles. Courbet had

Louis XV clothing. Courbet believes he must be of his time and

submitted Woman seen from the Back, also known as Woman from

paint his period. He paints life-size, in the prodigious ease of his

Munich, and Red Apples on a Garden Table to the Salon, but the

art. He takes on all genres and proves to be as fertile and varied as

paintings “were not accepted by the jury.” When he walked in

nature itself. What’s more, he is independent. He rejected the

front of the works by Courbet, Meissonier exclaimed:

Legion of Honour, in which Meissonier is an officer; he would have refused to paint The Emperor Solférino (Napoleon III at

“Gentlemen, we needn’t bother looking at that; here it’s

Solferino), unlike Meissonier; he never dined at the Tuileries or

not a question of art but of dignity. Courbet must be

with the princess, as Meissonier did.” Courbet’s response was

excluded from the exhibitions; from now on he must be

rapid and direct. To make the public judge the matter, he showed

dead for us.”

Fruit, at the Durand-Ruel gallery, and Woman of Munich, at the Ottoz gallery. The two paintings drew crowds of both the curious

Eugène Fromentin rose up vigorously against this theory,

and art lovers alike. The apples were declared admirable, and

maintaining that the mission of the jurors should be limited to

critics compared the nude woman to Correggio’s Antiope.

judging the merit of paintings. Eighteen votes went against his, and Robert Fleury disapproved of his nobility and his

The painter began again to stroll about Paris, but with

magnanimity, siding with this act of injustice, pettiness and hatred.

circumspection. Many pretended not to recognise him, or to

The artists couldn’t forgive Courbet for his independence and his

recognise him too much. He rejoined his old friends, as cordial as

success. When Castagnary proposed to Daubigny that they should

in the past, at Frontin’s, at the Cave, where Carjat, Castagnary,

send a message supporting him, before the Versailles trial; “We will

Ranc, Spuller, and Adrien Hébrard gathered. Then, a sudden urge

collect three signatures,” the landscapist had answered; “mine,

took him to go home. But it was not without a certain emotion that

Daumier’s and Corot’s; not a single one more.”

he left his comfortable retreat in Neuilly, where he had been pampered and spoiled.

The jury’s action aroused noisy arguments. It was on Sunday the 26th of May that the painter came back to Castagnary, in the Siècle, issued the most vicious response.

Ornans, accompanied by his father, his family and friends, who

“Meissonier said what he thought. For him, Courbet is a

rode to town in four carriages. These were left at the edge of town

monstrosity. Courbet has not understood that in a world of

and the group went to the Café de l’Annette, Courbet’s regular

bankers and prostitutes, one becomes great only by making

watering hole, where he was met by many comrades who were

painting less important [...] Courbet hasn’t realised the role that

eager to show that they did not side with the town council.

photography can play in painting, how useful it can be, and how it eliminates the need for invention. Nor did he ever imagine that

A period of relative calm was beginning. There were days of brilliant

to make characters interesting, it was enough to dress them in

springtime, coolness, and freedom following the darkness of the

135. Deer in the Snow, c. 1866. Oil on canvas, 54 x 72.5 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. 230



Gustave Courbet



winter and the weight of his imprisonment. He enjoyed the comfort

overthrow the Republic once they decided on the regime to succeed

of the old family home, the emerald-green flow of the Loue, the leafy

it. The painter went to Besançon in the first week of February to put

solitude of the Puits Noir, and the vivifying air, brushing past the cliff

his assets in safekeeping in case, out of revenge, he would be

of Young Women from the Village (p. 71). He was far from the noise,

implicated in the costs of reconstruction of the Column, as a group

the excess, the artificiality, the scheming, the dangerous

of parliament members and hack writers were beginning to advocate.

relationships, the nerve-jangling cafes, the irritating and useless arguments. The deep peace of the Franche-Comté mountains once

On the 12th of February, Castagnary complimented Courbet for

again soothed and healed, at least momentarily, their son and poet.

being of the same mind, that is, preferring not to send A Burial at Ornans to Vienna. He advised him against coming to Paris, “too

This period of relative tranquillity was not to last, and at the

obviously inhospitable”. Perhaps he should settle either in London

beginning of 1873 the troubles returned. Courbet had decided to

or Brussels; “you must not let yourself go, you must gather your

send paintings to the Vienna Exhibition. Castagnary, on the 23rd

strength, regain your energy. And then you have another pleasure

of January, strongly encouraged him to do so; “You must show in

to pursue, avenging yourself on your adversaries. You can do this

Vienna at all costs. Not being seen Paris, even in France, but to be

by means of masterpieces, and this means is in your hands.”

seen abroad, and everywhere, that should, for the present, be your On the 19th of February, Castagnary announced that the bill on

guiding principle.”

the Vendôme Column had just been placed on the parliamentary But in a letter of the 31st of January, he informed him that Du

agenda. There was talk of seizing and selling the assets of Courbet

Sommerard and Meissonier, both relentless in their rancour, were

and his accomplices. Monsieur Legrand, an employee with

blocking his access to that exhibition. They would be dealt with as

Monsieur Durand-Ruel, had to move the entire studio in the rue

they deserved, when the occasion arose. Courbet’s response to that

Hautefeuille, without delay, as well as the warehouse in the rue du

would be to show at the Cercle de Vienne (Vienna Circle), which

Vieux-Colombier, in spite of objections by Reverdy.

was making itself available; but best not to send A Burial at Ornans, which had been intended “for a certain audience; its time and

Courbet was, at that time, extraordinarily busy. “There are a

place are in France; it must stay here [...] to avoid reviving old

hundred paintings to do; the community wants to make me a

controversies.” Nor would The Painter’s Studio be fitting. Courbet

millionaire [...] These are painters from Vienna who are putting on

chose eleven paintings to send.

my exhibition at their expense, without official support.” Three assistants were helping the master keep up with the demand.

Castagnary’s political warnings impressed Courbet, who was learning in the newspapers about the reactionary movement, beginning

However, his enemies were not about to forget him, waiting only

among the legitimists, orléanistes and bonapartistes, who had become

for the right moment, which was not long in coming. In the partial

alarmed by Thiers’ liberal concessions, and who were ready to

election, which took place in Paris on the 27th of April, Monsieur

136. The Source of the Loue, c. 1864. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 137.5 cm. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. 233

Gustave Courbet

Barodet, a radical and former mayor of Lyon, backed by Gambetta,

shares, cash, valuables, paintings and others objects belonging to

was elected against Monsieur de Rémusat, Minister of Foreign

him.” Amongst the third parties were Durand-Ruel, the Banque

Affairs, and personal friend of Monsieur Thiers. Following this

de France, the Paris-Lyon-Mediterraneé Railroad, along with

defeat, which would put the President of the Republic himself in

those of the North, the East and the West, and Messieurs Reverdy

an awkward position, a rightist agenda, sponsored by Messieurs

and Bain. The railroad companies were forbidden to ship

Batbie, Ernoul and de Broglie, was adopted by 360 votes to 544.

anything on behalf of Courbet, and the concierge in the rue

Monsieur Thiers resigned his office immediately; Marshal

Hautefeuille to let anything leave the studio. Finally, the State

MacMahon was elected in his place, that very day, and the Duke de

asked the Civil Court to decide if Courbet was liable for the

Broglie became President of the Council and Minister of Foreign

reconstruction of the Column.

Affairs, on the 24th of May. One could imagine the toll these events took on the morale of the Six days later, the National Assembly adopted the proposal to rebuild

painter, who was still not completely over his previous sufferings.

the Vendôme Column. The report by Monsieur Ernoul concluded

He was under no illusions that he would not be again convicted

that it should be capped, as before, with the statue of Napoleon I.

and confined, that he would see once again the hideous prisons

Unacceptable as written, this amendment was accepted in substance,

where he had nearly died, and where, this time, he surely would.

after a heated intervention by Monsieur Rouher. Monsieur de Thiéry,

He resigned himself to exile. On Sunday the 20th of July, he sent a

editor of the Pays, showed a way to implicate Courbet who, said he,

short note to Madame Lydie Joliclerc, of Pontarlier: “The time for

had been found guilty, jointly, as an accomplice in the destruction of

leaving has come; the tribulations are building, and will end with

the Column; he could be made liable, jointly, for the cost of

exile. If the Court, as everything indicates, sentences me to

reconstruction. On the 19th of June, Monsieur Magne, Minister of

250,000 francs, it’s the same as finishing me off. The problem now

Finance, an ultra-Bonapartist, had everything owned by the artist in

is how to to leave France; for after the conviction, it’s five years in

Paris and in Ornans seized in the name of the State. Four days earlier,

prison, or thirty years of exile, if I don’t pay.” And so, he asked her

in a frantic letter to his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, the painter

to come and get him in La Vrine, in a closed carriage, which would

begged them to send his old paintings to Dr. Blondon in Besançon,

carry them, “non-stop,” across the border.

and his own works to Morteau. He had left others with Messieurs Castagnary, Durand-Ruel, Georges Petit and Gaucher; they should be

The plan went off that way, “in the most absolute secret,” and

centralised and sent off by his friend Monsieur E. Cusenier, who had

without a hitch. After the goodbyes that can only be imagined,

his full authorisation. In addition, he announced that he would soon

the fugitive left his father and his sisters at two o’clock on

leave France.

Wednesday the 22nd of July. At five o’clock he met his friends, who were also very emotional, and shortly afterwards he arrived

More seizures were made on the 23rd of June on assets “in the

at Les Verrières, on the welcoming soil of Switzerland, where he

hands of various debtors, holders, acquirers or transferees of

would suffer still, and die.

137. Deer under Cover by the Plaisir-Fontaine Stream, 1866. Oil on canvas, 174 x 209 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 234





cradling or tossing the triangular sails that pierced the sky. The sky itself was an expanse of azure, turquoise, grey or white, depending

In Switzerland, Courbet first travelled restlessly, seeking a quiet

on the weather. It was rosy at dawn, and at dusk it glowed with the

dwelling. The painter finally found a calm and picturesque haven

entire spectrum of the Alpenglühn. In the background, nine

near the gates of Vevey, in La Tour de Peilz.

kilometres from his Swiss shore, was the blue-tinted bulk of the Savoy mountains, shrouded in mists, almost vertical, craggy and

He took lodgings at the home of the village pastor, an excellent,

sinister. There was the Grammont, which the folks from Vevey

very accommodating man, but whose meals were mediocre. He

called the Chaumainy, the Dent du Vélan, the Pic de Borée, the

therefore left him for the cooking at the Café du Centre, where he

Dent d’Oche, and, at water’s edge, these bright and charming

made friends with the proprietor, Monsieur Budry. Budry was a

villages whose very names are touching; le Bouveret, Saint-

former butcher who had retired to Vevey, and in those early days

Gingolphe and Meillerie.

protected the artist more than once against the animosity of the locals. Kind, charitable and affable as he was, the painter soon

The view of the Haut-Lac, on his left, attracted him even more.

became popular in La Tour, where he was pampered and became a

The great painter immortalised the beauty of this magnificent

source of local pride.

scenery in many works, for the most part worthy of his FrancheComté landscapes. To be sure, the artist’s creative spirit was no

Charmed by this welcome, he soon bought a fisherman’s house

longer as free as it had once been, tormented as he was by the

beside the lake, which had once served as an inn. Upstairs he set

relentless demands of the tax authorities. He often suffered from

up a museum of his works, and of several works from the

the lack of those points of comparison which stimulate one’s work

Planhol collection. It was behind a room jutting out over the

and keep one from growing complacent. Indeed, weighted down

water’s edge, which also served as gallery, drawing room and

by his worries, it often happened that he didn’t finish his works

studio. Courbet painted everywhere and never limited himself

and left this crucial task in the inept and inferior care of his

to working in the same spot. Nearby were the castles of

assistants, Pata and Morel, who coarsened the fluidity of his

Hauteville and of Blonay, which were surrounded by beautiful

colours and darkened them. Yet, despite unfinished or spoiled

parks and whispering waterfalls.

paintings, he generally succeeded in conveying his full emotion in witnessing this nature, and the full melancholy of his exile.

In front of his villa there was a shelter for fishermen in bad weather, and a shed for their little boats, in the shade of leafy

Amongst their number should be mentioned Courbet’s Terrace at la

walnuts and linden trees, between the bank where the

Tour de Peilz, Safe Haven of la Tour de Peilz, and several studies of

washerwomen did their laundry, and a large, semi-circular wall

chestnut trees. He also painted the Waterfall at Hauteville above

with a door in it. The lake was so varied in form and colour;

Vevey in white and blue, with huge green trees. There are also

sometimes still and flat, sometimes churned up and rough,

many views of the lake.

138. Portrait of the Artist at Sainte-Pélagie, 1872-1873. Oil on canvas, 92 x 72.5 cm. Musée Gustave-Courbet, Ornans. 237

Gustave Courbet

139. Fruit in a Bowl, 1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. Shelburne Museum, Shelburne. 238


140. Red Apples at the Foot of a Tree, 1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 61.5 cm. Neue Pinakothek, Munich. 239

Gustave Courbet

He also did several portraits in 1874, including one of his father. He

As well as his friends he also received many visits from

showed him three-quarter length, turned to the left, in a dark suit,

strangers, who contrived to be invited on the grounds of

with his handsome, energetic face, his lively eyes and his white beard.

viewing his picture gallery.

It is a finely drawn work, reminiscent of the painter’s best moments. A man from Munich, accompanied by a “lady friend from Courbet distracted himself by again taking up the chisel and

Bavaria,” left a particularly piquant account of his visit. They

sculpting an Emblem of Lake Geneva and Helvetia, a bust of the

were admitted by Pata, shown up a “rickety staircase,” and

Helvetic Republic. This depicted a woman with strong breasts on

suddenly found themselves faced with three hundred paintings,

which lay the cross of the Confederation. The head was strongly

for which the pupil gave them a handwritten catalogue. Their

built; the hair pulled off the forehead by the wind, around a

first impression was that of “the starving man before the

Phrygian cap. Courbet presented it to the municipality of La Tour

groaning board,” who has an “embarrassment of riches,” not

de Peilz, who put it on the fountain in the centre of town.

knowing where to begin. The second was their compassion at seeing these “two small, miserable and singularly low rooms,

Courbet’s life in La Tour was very simple. Occasionally he was

barely more than six feet high, with fraying rugs, a dirty pine

asked to stand up on the Liberty fountain, and “address the

floor, and low windows, starting almost from floor-level, keeping

people,” which he did in great vociferous bursts. Then, on

the light from coming in on any side, to the point that in spite of

beautiful summer evenings, the painter gathered his friends on his

the criss-cross of the sunbeams and the reflections off the water

balcony to admire the mountains of Valais, looming on the

of the lake, no painting could be said to be even passably lit.

opposite shore in the moonlight. Presently they would go their

Courbet joined them, greeting them cordially, and was “the most

separate ways, after the stirrup cup.

charming of guides,” unlike their preconceived notion of a “member of the Commune.”

From time to time, Courbet broke the monotony of this life by running away to Geneva, or elsewhere in French Switzerland,

When they expressed surprise at seeing so many landscapes done

particularly the canton of Fribourg, where he was made a member

so recently, the painter exclaimed that it was more through

of all the societies. He also went to German Switzerland on trips

necessity than virtue. “They took everything I had to rebuild the

that sometimes lasted so long that his friends began to worry. He

Column; consequently, I must work to live.”

left without any baggage, just a spare shirt wrapped in a newspaper, buying what he needed along the way and leaving it

Thus the painter’s life in La Tour would have been, if not quite

behind in hotels. This was to the great consternation of his

pleasant, since nothing could compensate for being exiled, at least

household who had no address to which they might forward his

bearable, if the persecution by the tax authorities and the political

mail, which sometimes included large sums of money, showing his

parties hadn’t poisoned his existence with their relentless

total disregard for his own comfort or for money.


141. Apples, Pears and Primroses on a Table, 1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 73 cm. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena. 240



Gustave Courbet



On the 26th of June 1874 Courbet’s enemies triumphed when the

“Moral Order”, and since it had been censured by the elections, its

State asked the Civil Court of the Seine to validate the seizure of

work should be stopped. Amnesty was refused. Dark thoughts

Courbet’s property it had made and honour the principle of the

preyed upon the painter’s soul; “we must think of writing our

painter’s liability by ordering him to pay damages. Courbet filed

wills,” he wrote to his sister Juliette.

an appeal against this and on the 6th of August came the ruling by the Court of Appeal. The presiding judge, adopting the

Still, he continued to fight. On the 29th of August, he sent a

reasoning of the judges in the first instance, confirmed the

long letter to the Count of Ideville in Boulogne-sur-Seine, in

sentence pure and simple. With this decision, the Civil Court of

which, after thanking him for a flattering article that this

the Seine had only to await the report of the costs incurred in

diplomat had just written about him, he protested against his

rebuilding the Column, and have them recovered by all legal

opinion concerning the dismantling of the Column. He

ways and means from the painter’s assets. But establishing these

collected all the evidence of his innocence in view of his

costs necessitated another legal action. It was as yet unknown

“exoneration,” with a force, steadfastness, and will to convince

just how much they would be.

which were truly touching.

The elections of 1876 brought Courbet a glimmer of hope. On

On the 24th of December, Courbet sent his father and his sister

the 30th of January, the right received only a slim majority in the

Juliette his New Year’s greetings in a letter which betrays a great

Senate and in the Assembly, 363 deputies amounted to a

bitterness. “I am still in negotiations with the government... When

compact and strong Republican majority. The painter began to

you are out of luck, nobody dares have anything more to do with

hope that an amnesty would be declared, putting an end to his

you. All the men in France whom I know, all my friends, none will

financial persecution. Unfortunately, the conservative parties

lift a finger, and each one is shaking like a leaf. All these people

cooperated to turn the clock back, on the pretext of restoring

want favours from the Republic. My friend, Jules Simon, who is

the “Moral Order” and the persecution started anew, as the

president of the ministers, is the one who will do the least for me...

public buildings section of the Ministry of Public Works blithely

I write all day long to this one and the other to no avail. Jourde and

delayed the settling of the cost of reconstruction, as though to

Castagnary, the editors at the Siècle, tell me that I can remain in

rub salt in the wound.

France, but not in Paris; how reassuring! Once in prison, with people like that, I could never get out... I have made a proposal to

In March Courbet decided to write a letter to the Senate;

the government to pay so much per year. We’ll see...”

Castagnary advised against it, as the time was not right. He persevered and sent the draft to his friend, who answered that the

However, the year 1876 ended on an optimistic note. At midnight

letter was bad, inopportune and incomplete. It left out the main

on the 31st of December the bust of Liberty, given by the artist to

point, which was that the vote in favour of the destruction was

the city of Martigny, in the Valais, was inaugurated with great

held on the 12th, four days before Courbet’s election to the

pomp. The band and torchbearers were grouped in two concentric

Commune; that the persecution against him was the doing of the

circles around the monument, and the mortars and fireworks

142. Branch of Apple Blossom, known as Cherry Blossom, 1871. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 243

Gustave Courbet

punctuated the interludes between the musical selections. After

Exposition. He also needed to organise his passport in Geneva

which, on the instigation of a citizen, the Marseillaise was sung by

and put his house in order, where everything was in disarray;

the entire crowd in Courbet’s honour.

“I don’t know where to begin; I’ve lost by bearings; I’m losing track [...] I can’t get anything done now [...] Be patient, please.”

On the 8th of January 1877, he wrote to his solicitor to protest

Obviously he intended to participate in the Universal

against the figure of 300,000 francs, which was being mentioned

Exposition of 1878, to which Castagnary advised him to send

as the price of the reconstruction; the work was worth 140,000 at

The Deer Kill (Hunting Scene in the Snow) (p. 225), Nap during

most. The cushion of dung had, in fact, saved the bas-reliefs from

the Haying Season, The Stormy Sea, The Cliff at Étretat after a

being ruined; and the sections of stone on the interior were little

Storm (p. 208), some still lives of fruits, a portrait, a painting of

damaged. The bronze of the column had been cast in open plaster

the Puits Noir, but not The Beggar’s Alms at Ornans (p. 222),

moulds; all the masters of the spiral panels were in the basement

because the work for this venue needed to be dignified.

of the Louvre. He hadn’t wanted to give them up to the Commune,

According to a reporter for the Sémaphore de Marseille, Courbet’s

and had proposed, rather, to take them to Les Invalides.

acceptance was hotly contested by Paul de Saint-Victor, and defended by the painter Henner, who exclaimed:

As talk began to grow of the settlement between Courbet and the State, it suddenly occurred to him that to accept would

“Sir, amongst men who are painters, there is and can be

amount to self-contradiction, and that by recognising his guilt,

only one opinion. If the Exposition was to include only

he would be acting “dishonestly” for the first time in his life. It

ten, Monsieur Courbet would be one of these ten.”

was a foregone conclusion that, since life is short, he would never be able to meet the payments they were demanding,

His acceptance was passed on this vigorous affirmation.

commitments tantamount to government speculation on art, which was something unheard of.

The painter closely followed the events in France, which worried him. Castagnary was reassuring; the Assembly would reconvene

It was on Friday the 24th of May, in the First Chamber of the

the next day, the 16th of June. The Senate would undoubtedly

Civil Court of the Seine, that the final decision was at last made.

dissolve it, but it was almost certain that the country would re-

It declared that the debt owed by Courbet to the State amounted

elect the same deputies. The Marshal’s resignation should then

to 323,091 francs and 68 centimes, which Courbet could repay

follow, “and the uprising by the dukes will have served to shorten

“by yearly instalments of 10,000 francs.”

the formative period of the Republic by several years.” Consequently he advised his friend to await the outcome of this

“This disgusting trial is finally over,” he wrote to his father, on

incident before returning to France, and not to send any paintings

the 17th of May. He was anxious to go home, but he had to

until further notice, since they might be confiscated on the spot,

finish some snowscapes he had begun for the Universal

in case the first instalment had not been paid.

143. The Winemaker from Montreux, 1874. Oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne. 244


Conclusion: Death of a Master


ourbet’s subsequent letters show that his health was

Dr. Buchser. Buchser recorded the results of his second

declining progressively. “My brain is so tired that to

examination and sent them to Dr. Blondon, a friend of Courbet

answer one letter is an enormous strain; I have over a

living in Besançon, to urge him to come immediately for a

hundred important business letters still to answer.” He was also

consultation. He said the painter’s condition was “extremely

worried about the items confiscated from the studio in Ornans,

serious [...] The ascites had progressed during his time at the

and he wanted his solicitor in Besançon, Maître Fumey, to block,

baths […] His appetite is declining more and more; the

no matter what, the sale of a Tilbury carriage, which he had

secretion of urine is minimal, very concentrated; he is losing

designed, and which “is a work of industrial arts in progress. It’s a

weight rapidly, and, oddly, thinks he is doing better. Today his

tool; it’s as if they were taking an unfinished painting. In either

pulse was 99, respiration 22 per minute.”

case I would be denied the profit from the creation.” His correspondence is full of preoccupations of this kind, worrying

Meanwhile, as though to strike the final blow against the

himself over items of no importance.

painter, the sale of paintings, furniture and objets d’arts seized on the orders of the director of State Properties was held at the

His dropsy constantly increasing, he decided to undergo treatment

Hôtel Drouot, room nine, on Monday the 26th of November.

by a quack doctor in La Chaux-de-Fonds, who promised to cure

This sale was a scandal, as much for the time chosen as for the

him with steam baths. He left La Tour-de-Peilz on the 8th of

haste with which it was done, and the fiscal cruelty that it

October, and arrived at the clinic at 36A rue Fritz-Courvoisier,

demonstrated. The small room was overflowing with curiosity-

where a sign promised the “radical cure of all rheumatisms in

seekers more than with collectors. The furniture brought a

general, acute arthritis, etc.”

ridiculously small amount.

His condition did not improve, and he soon left this charlatan’s

Disheartened by this bad news, tortured by his illness, probably

establishment. Castagnary too had so advised him, begging him to

doubting he would improve after this appalling treatment,

come be treated in Paris, at the Dubois clinic, “because you need

Courbet decided to return to La Tour.

proper doctors and attentive treatment” since he now had the right to enter France and live wherever he pleased.

Dr. Blondon, who soon arrived, agreed in consultation with an elderly doctor from Vevey, Dr. Farvagnie, that fluid must

Courbet did not follow Castagnary’s suggestion, but, realising

be drained. Courbet experienced immediate relief, but only

his treatment was ineffective, on the 23rd of November he went

for half a day, after which his belly returned to its bloated

to the home of a friend in La Chaux-de-Fonds, who called in


144. The Château de Chillon, 1874. Oil on canvas, 86 x 100 cm. Musée Gustave-Courbet, Ornans. 247

Gustave Courbet

With his shrunken face, pale lips and thin nose, he resembled his

Monsieur Ansermet, a notary and officer of the registry, wrote

Courbet with the Black Dog (pp. 22-23); “even his eyes had lost

the death certificate; “On thirty-one December one thousand

their sparkle, and his cornea had a slightly jaundiced tint.”

eight hundred and seventy-seven, at six hours before midday, died, in La Tour de Peilz, of..., according to the medical

His money worries overtook him in fits and starts. Would he be

certificate, Courbet Jean-Désiré-Gustave, artist painter, son of

able to pay his first semi-annual instalment of 5,000 francs on the

Eléonor-Régis-Jean-Joseph-Stanislas, and of Suzanne-Silvie, née

1st of January?

Oudot, unmarried, of Ornans, in the department of the Doubs, France, residing in La Tour de Peilz, of catholic religion, born on

On the 20th of December, Dr. Farvagnie did a second tap. In a

the 10th of June 1819, according to the declaration of the

shaky and worried hand, Courbet scrawled these few lines to his

deceased’s father, Régis Courbet. Confirmed after being read,

family, no doubt his last; “Don’t worry at all, and stay warm and

Courbet. The officer of the registry, G. Ansermet, not[ary]. Sent

comfortable, if you can, in Flagey. I am going to pay the 5,000

to the department of justice.”

francs to the government, which will not listen to reason. I’ve asked Fumey and Blondon to be in charge of these negotiations,

The burial was delayed until the 3rd of January. Courbet was

as well as Castagnary. I can’t face all this foolishness anymore.

buried in a double coffin of oak and lead, so that it would be

I’m fed up with it after five years. I send you kisses with all

possible to exhume him later to return him to France. He was laid

my heart.”

out in the morgue of the cemetery of La Tour de Peilz, escorted by a large cortège.

His condition quickly became hopeless. The doctor wrote to his father, who hurried to his bedside through the snows of the Jura.

Nearly everyone in the village took part, and at the head of

On the 28th of December his look was wild, and his voice shaky,

the procession were the poor, to whom Courbet had instructed

although he still had a clear mind and refused to see the priest

a sum of money be given. Edgar Monteil spoke on behalf of

from Vevey.

art and artists; “It seems to me, gentlemen, that we cannot disband without bidding adieu to the great painter whom we

On the 30th of December he went to sleep at eight o’clock, after an

have just lost. I have occasionally dabbled in art criticism;

injection of morphine. Two hours later, he woke up, fell into

may I therefore be allowed to say in the name of artists, in the

drowsiness, then into a coma. The end began at about five o’clock

name of art critics, in the name of art itself, a supreme adieu

the next morning, and at half past six came death; calm, gentle,

to the one who is there, in that coffin, and who is certainly,

restful after so many storms, as shown by the mask made of his

such is my profound conviction, the greatest painter of

face by a refugee, Louis Niquet.

modern times.”

145. Panoramic View of the Alps, Les Dents du Midi, 1877. Oil on canvas, 151.2 x 210.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. 146. Self-Portrait, known as Portrait of the artist with a Striped Collar, 1854. Oil on canvas, 46 x 37 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. 248

Conclusion: Death of a Master


Chronology 1819

Birth in Ornans (Doubs) of Gustave Courbet, son of Eléonor-Régis-Jean-Joseph-Stanislas Courbet, farmer and landowner.


Courbet is a pupil at the lower seminary of Ornans, his artistic gifts develop and become apparent.


Courbet is sent to the Collège Royal de Besançon by his father, in the hope that he will pass the preparatory course in Law. At the same time he trains in art at the École des Beaux-Arts.


Courbet moves to Paris, where he meets the realist painter François Bonvin. He discovers the old masters, particularly Velázquez and Zurbarán, who influence him greatly at the beginning of his artistic career.


Supposedly in Paris to study law, Courbet devotes most of his time to painting and copying masterworks.


His Courbet with the Black Dog is accepted for the Salon.


The works he submits to the Salon are refused.


Some of his previous works are exhibited and meet with great success. While visiting his family he paints The Stone Breakers, undoubtedly one of his finest works.


Courbet submits A Burial at Ornans to the Salon, which provokes a scandal.


The Bathers, a painting shown at the Salon, causes an uproar and shocks the middle-class public. He meets Jacques-Louis-Alfred Bruyas, who commissions a portrait.


Eleven of his works are submitted to the Universal Exposition. In protest for the refusal of one of his works, Courbet opens his own pavilion, which turns out to be a financial failure.


Courbet travels to Germany, where he is warmly welcomed by the artistic community.


The Return from the Conference is rejected by the Salon, as an “affront to religious morals”.


Courbet paints The Origin of the World for the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey. The painting is not seen by the public until 1995, when it enters the Musée d’Orsay.


Courbet is imprisoned for his political activities during the events of the Commune of Paris.


Courbet dies on the 31st of December in La Tour-de-Peilz where he was living. His remains are transferred to Ornans in 1919. 251

List of Illustrations A After Dinner at Ornans


Apples, Pears and Primroses on a Table


The Awakening


B The Bacchante


The Bathers


Beach in Normandy


The Beggar’s Alms at Ornans


Beneath the Trees at Port-Bertaud: Children Dancing


Bouquet of Flowers


Branch of Apple Blossom, known as Cherry Blossom


The Bridge


The Bridge at Nahin A Burial at Ornans

9 74-75

C The Cave Pool of Conche


The Change, Scene from a Deer Hunt in Franche-Comté


The Château de Chillon


The Clairvoyant, known as The Sleepwalker


The Cliff at Étretat after the Storm


The Covered Stream, known as The Stream of the Puits Noir The Crumbling Rock, Geological Study

160-161 152

D Dead Fox Hanging from a Tree in the Snow


Deer by the River


Deer in the Snow


The Deer Kill or Hunting Scene in the Snow


Deer under Cover by the Plaisir-Fontaine Stream


The Diligence in the Snow


E Entrance to the Strait of Gilbraltar


F Firemen hurrying to a Fire


The Fishing Boat


Flowers in a Basket


Fruit in a Bowl



G The Game of Draughts


The German Hunter, known as The Hunter from Baden or The Dying Deer


The Girl with the Seagulls, Trouville


Grandmother Salvan’s Tales The Grape Harvest at Ornans under the Roche du Mont

51 66-67

The Great Oak


Great Oaks, by the Water at Port-Berteau


H Hammock


Hind Forced Down in the Snow


The Hounds of the Comte de Choiseul


The Hunted Deer on the Alert; Spring


The Hunting Meal


I Immensity


J Jo, La Belle Irlandaise


L The Lady of Frankfurt


Lady with Jewels, Blanche d’Antigny


Landscape near Maizières


Laure Borreau


The Loue Valley in Stormy Weather


Louis Gueymard as Robert le Diable


Lovers in the Country


M Madame Auguste Cuoq (Mathilde Desportes, 1827-1910)


Madame de Brayer


Madame Proudhon


Maidens on the Banks of the Seine


Man with a Leather Belt, Portrait of the Artist


Man with a Pipe


Marc Trapadoux Examining a Book of Prints


The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet


Mère Grégoire


Mountain Landscape

163 253

N Nude Woman Sleeping


Nude Woman with a Dog


O The Oak Tree at Flagey, called the Oak of Vercingetorix


The Origin of the World


P The Painter’s Studio Panoramic View of the Alps, Les Dents du Midi Peasant Girl with a Scarf Peasants of Flagey returning from the Fair or Return from the Fair Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his Children in 1853

122-123 249 48-49 72 132-133

Poachers in the Snow


The Poor Village Woman, Ornans


Portrait of a Woman Holding a Parrot


Portrait of a Young Girl from Ornans


Portrait of Alfred Bruyas, known as Painting Solution


Portrait of Baudelaire


Portrait of Grandfather Oudot


Portrait of H. J. Van Wisselingh


Portrait of Hector Berlioz


Portrait of Juliette Courbet


Portrait of Paul Ansout


Portrait of the Artist, known as Courbet with the Black Dog Portrait of the Artist, known as Mad with Fear Portrait of the Artist, known as The Desperate Man Portrait of the Artist at Sainte-Pélagie

22-23 12 14-15 236

Portrait of Urbain Cuenot


Portrait of Zélie Courbet


Preparation of the Dead Girl


The Puits Noir


Q The Quarry


R Red Apples at the Foot of a Tree


Reflection, known as Meditation


The Return to the Homeland Reverie (Portrait of Gabrielle Borreau) The River Meuse at Freÿr

91 140 148-149

The Rock at Bayard, Dinant


The Rocks at Étretat


Rocky Landscape, near Flagey The Roe Deer

82-83 165

S The Sarrazin Cave The Sawmill on the River Gauffre 254

157 104-105

The Sculptor The Seashore at Palavas Self-Portrait Self-Portrait, known as Portrait of the artist with a Striped Collar The Sleep

24 84, 86 6, 44 250 180-181

The Sleeping Spinner


Small Portrait of the Artist with a Black Dog


The Source The Source of the Loue

33, 188 156, 232

Spanish Woman


The Spring Rut, Battle of the Stags


The Stone Breakers


The Stream (Le Ruisseau du Puits Noir; vallée de la Loue)


Study for The Return from the Conference


Study for Young Women from the Village


Sunset on Lake Léman


Sunset, Trouville


T The Three Bathers


Three Young Englishwomen by the Window


The Trellis or The Woman with the Flowers


The Trout


V View of Ornans


View of Saintes


Villager with a Kid


W The Waterspout


The Wave


The Wheat Sifters


The Winemaker from Montreux


Winter Landscape


The Woman in a Podoscaphe


Woman in a Riding Habit (L’Amazone)


The Woman in the Waves


Woman in White Stockings


Woman Sleeping by a Stream


Woman with a Cat The Woman with the Parrot The Wounded Man The Wrestlers

172 176-177 28-29 64

Y The Young Bather Young Women from the Village

189 71 255


orn of both materialism and positivism, Gustave Courbet stands out as one of the most complex painters of the nineteenth century. Rejecting tradition, Courbet confronted the public with the truths of his time as he liberated painting from the rules of convention in both subject and style, and established himself as the leader of pictorial realism. This study of Courbet meticulously retraces historical accounts of his contemporaries including the praises and critiques inspired by this controversial painter. Through his astute research as an art historian, Georges Riat offers a new approach to the work of an artist who embodied the decisive break with academic painting.

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Gustave Courbet  

French painting, art, painters

Gustave Courbet  

French painting, art, painters

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