Edgar Degas said that looking at Gustave Courbet’s paintings made him feel as if he were being nuzzled by the wet nose of a calf. That’s an apt analogy for a tremendous Courbet retrospective that invades the Metropolitan Museum with pungencies proper to barnyards, bedrooms, and buggy dells. Courbet is the most purely forceful—because he’s forcefully impure, spitting on purity—painter of all time. (Among the Old Masters, only Tintoretto comes close.) “Realism,” his byword, describes less his method—a talented mélange of cunning and not so cunning, brazen artifices—than effects that stupefy the mind as only reality, when it overloads the senses, can. (Peter Schjeldahl review of the 2008 Courbet retrospective)
Courbet's study may be the only painting in western art to show that women do possess something extraordinary. So why is it so seldom shown (in painting, that is). Contemporary porn is another matter as it seems to consist solely of close-ups of female genitalia. Courbet's model has her legs spread, her shift pulled high enough to uncover her breasts and cover her face, and her cleft is open to our gaze. Still, it is what it is and not some other thing, as Bishop Butler said, and Courbet tacitly concedes that realism is not enough by giving the work the preposterously inflated tide The Origin of the World. (It is appropriate that this work comes from the private collection of Jacques Lacan.)
Courbet relished scandal as a shortcut to prominence at a time when, for artists, official honors and patronage were losing cachet to notoriety in the popular press and success in the commercial markets. His calculated affronts flaunted his impunity as a bona-fide hero of French culture.
In the autobiography, “The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture” (Princeton; $45), by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, a Dutch-born American scholar of nineteenth-century European art, details the rise, the fall, and the tireless machinations of art’s first recognizably modern careerist. (The title is Courbet’s contented characterization of himself.)
But the autobiography gives short shrift to Courbet's talent as a painter.
The fact that many of Courbet's works were made in a studio negates his often bombastic claims of realism. Some of his outdoor scenes are unconvincing and artificial. His light is often took black, the dreary dullness of a poorly lit indoor studio.
But there is nothing fake or artificial about his painting of trout, hooked and bleeding, done in 1873 when Courbet was crushed by the humiliation of imprisonment. His crime was to have written a letter to the Government of National Defense, proposing that the column in the Place Vendôme, erected by the Napoleon I to honour the victories of the French Army, be taken down.
On 16 May, just nine days before the fall of the Commune, in a large ceremony with military bands and photographers, the Vendome column was pulled down and broke into pieces.
"The Trout" is an allegory of Courbet himself, crushed by the cruel retaliation of the French government. They were going to make him pay for a life time of rebellion and in particular, for his part in the Paris Commune of 1870. It is painted in an unflinching realist style. Signed on the lower left in red oil paint, it is also inscribed with the Latin phrase "vinculis faciebat: (made in bondage)"
On 4 May 1877, Courbet was told the estimated cost of reconstructing the Vendome Column; 323,091 francs and 68 centimes. He was given the option paying the fine in yearly installments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years, until his 91st birthday. On 31 December 1877, a day before the first installment was due, Courbet died, aged 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking.
One may question aspects of his persona, much of which was necessary to get publicity in the competitive art world of the time. But it is relevant that this self-described socialist's career opened with the Revolution of 1848 and closed with the Paris Commune of 1871.
"[They] call me ‘the socialist painter.' I accept that title with pleasure. I am not only a socialist but a democrat and a Republican as well--in a word, a partisan of all the revolution and above all a Realist ... for ‘Realist' means a sincere lover of the honest truth." Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue (New York: Hatje Cantz, 2008) p. 19. (Quoted from Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Correspondences de Courbet, 1996, p. 97.)