Andy Warhol once said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.” Warhol could easily have been thinking of the father of self-marketing art—Gustave Courbet. Courbet’s cozy relationship with the press and his manipulation of his art and his artistic persona to further his career go under the microscope in Petra ten-Doesschate Chu’s The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture . “I am the proudest and most arrogant man in France,” Courbet wrote to one of his friends in the press in 1853, wearing his arrogance proudly as a badge of honor as well as his ticket to fame and fortune, posing and preening in Self-Portraits such as Despair (above) that advertised his persona as much as his talent. Chu follows Courbet’s rise within the nascent media culture of 19th century France as well as his tumultuous fall thanks to that same hubris.
When Courbet first arrived in Paris, he gravitated not to artistic circles but to literary ones. “It was in the open and anarchic bohemian world of these aspiring writers,” Chu writes, “rather than in the closed, regulated environment of a teaching atelier that the young Courbet found his friends and companions.” Cultivating relationships with figures such as Charles Baudelaire, Courbet networked his way to mainstream status in French culture while maintaining his bohemian credibility. Chu sees Courbet recognition of art as a commodity, similar to the newspaper’s ability to transform literature into a product, as the source of his originality. “If I am making art, or rather, if I am attempting to make it,” Courbet wrote, “it is first of all to make a living from it.” Courbet sells the idea of freedom in his art. As Chu puts it, “Outrageousness to Courbet is both medium and message: it is a means to publicize his art as well as the very essence of his endeavor as an artist and human being, namely to provide ‘an example of freedom and character.’”
Courbet’s calculations become clearer through Chu’s tracing of the evolution of the artist that would become “Courbet.” In works such as Self Portrait with Black Spaniel in a Landscape (above), Courbet poses as a Romantic lover of nature, seemingly just startled from a reverie upon nature’s beauty accompanied only by his pet. Later, Courbet assumes the guise of the maddened Romantic genius in works such as Despair (top of post). “To be considered a great artist who could move the public through the powerful expressions of different feelings and emotions,” Chu argues, “it was crucial to ‘pose’ as a man or woman who had experienced such feelings in person.” Romantic, madman, lover, artist, free spirit—Courbet tries each of these hats on for size. The plasticity of his persona invites caricature by others, which he welcomes and even encourages as additional free publicity. “My mask belongs to everyone,” Courbet boasts.
Courbet further tried to define his public persona by the company he kept, creating a series of portraits of prominent figures starting with Baudelaire in 1847 and ending with Henri Rochefort in 1876. Piggybacking on the fame of his sitters, Courbet further insinuated himself into the limelight. “Without exception,” Chu maintains, “[Courbet’s subjects] were republicans, opposed to the imperial regime of Napoleon III and his politics.” In these portraits, Courbet “construct[s] his own, subjective account of the era.” If history is written by the winners, Courbet was going to decide who those winners were, namely the progressive intellectuals and the hard-working, simple folk they championed against the regime. In The Painter’s Studio (above), Courbet gathers the gang all around, placing his prominent friends on the right side, the simple people on the left, and himself and his model in the center of all the controversy. Courbet creates a pantheon of his own choosing, knowing that those heroes will reflect back on him.
Chu then examines the rhetoric behind Courbet’s major Salon paintings, decoding the secret language Courbet spoke under the cover of irony and misdirection. Courbet’s “skillful visual rhetoric allowed him to make powerful, even controversial visual statements in indirect and ambiguous ways,” Chu proves. Because of this “interpretive ‘slipperiness,’” Courbet wins the best of both worlds—“maximum discussion” and no fear of censorship. Works such as Woman with a Parrot (above) stir passions at the Salon, subverting the tradition of the Salon nude, yet retain enough of the tradition to avoid total censure. Courbet offers the forbidden fruit that’s not completely forbidden, and thus the most desirable. Other works such as An Afterdinner at Ornans and A Burial at Ornans hark back to Courbet’s rural roots and subvert the conventions of traditional history painting, another favored genre of the Salon, by placing common people in the privileged positions of high art formerly dominated by the ruling elite. As long as Courbet could continue to argue that such works are simply realistic depictions of real people and events, the revolutionary subtexts could be allowed to remain in the critical confusion.
Throughout Chu’s argument you never fail to wonder at the virtuosity of Courbet’s ability to play with the tastes of his public. Courbet’s “sensitivity to the reactions of different viewer groups to his paintings enabled him to manipulate public opinion with respect to his art, causing now some, then other groups to be pleased, bewildered, or outraged.” With the rise of a female audience in 19th century France, Courbet practices the new technique of “bisextuality” in which he “straddles the fence between femininity and masculinity” to reach the widest possible audience. This bisextuality perturbs contemporary male critics trying to understand Courbet’s new tactics. Courbet’s careerism leads him to cover all the genres, varying “not only in subject matter but also in palette and facture.” Courbet strives to be all things to all people, pleasing and displeasing everyone equally, as long as they keep buying. Works such as The Young Ladies of the Village (above) offer landscape for the landscape lover, a rustic genre scene for the rustically inclined, pretty young things for the gentlemen, and young country ladies dressed simply and unfashionably in defiance of the latest elitist fashions, thus making a political stand for the revolutionary minded. Courbet puts the “mass” in “mass appeal.”
Sadly, from the peak of his success in the late 1860s, Courbet had nowhere to go but down. Works such as The Meeting (above) show Courbet the artist encountering a potential buyer. While Courbet removes his hat with a flourish full of independence and freedom, his wealthy patron bares his in deference, bowing slightly before Courbet’s greatness. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, such deference disappeared. Because of his association with the Commune and his involvement in the dismantling of the Vendome Column, Courbet becomes a pariah. “In the conservative postwar climate, many remembered all too well Courbet’s continuous and ever well-publicized attacks of the status quo,” Chu writes. “The dismantling of the column came to be seen as both the summation and symbol of his lifelong antiestablishment position.” After decades of walking the knife’s edge of controversy in the name of commercialism, Courbet fell on that sharp edge, hard. Ernest Meissonier and other Salon artists exclude Courbet from exhibiting, arguing “This is not a question or art but a question of dignity. Courbet must be excluded from the Salon; henceforth, he must be dead to us.” The truly fatal blow comes from the press that he had relied upon so long. “He, who is so enamored with publicity,” says one critic, “must be published by public silence.” Courbet, to whom publicity was oxygen, suffocates in that silence. Imprisoned and then ordered to pay nearly 325,000 francs to restore the Vendome Column, Courbet works maniacally to raise the money, flooding the market with his work. He flees to Switzerland in 1873 and lives out his final three years in an alcoholic daze, disgraced and, even worse for him, ignored.
Despite the sad ending, Courbet’s life continues to have meaning in the revolutionary connection he made between media and art, bridging the gap between the public and the creative hand like never before. Courbet’s confidence served as a model for later artists struggling against the prevailing tides of art criticism and mainstream culture. By “encourage[ing] artists to be their own masters, to embrace the new, and to welcome criticism, even confrontation,” Chu argues, Courbet “pave[s] the way for modernism in art.” Today it is hard to imagine the stir such works as The Bathers (above) could cause by their subversive imagery and radical rhetoric, but that is mainly due to the utter pervasive influence of media on our consciousness. Like Jacques-Louis David before him, Courbet pioneered the use of art for propaganda, but more for his own individual advancement than any political cause. If, as Andy Warhol once said, everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame, later artists owe at least a few minutes of that to Courbet.
Petra ten-Doesschate Chu manages to show how Courbet evolved into a media phenomenon without reducing his art to a product of the hype. Chu analyzes Courbet’s “sizzle” but never loses the “steak” that has been the red meat of realists for more than a century. She reaches back in time and recovers Courbet’s moment in the sun and how he literally turned that sun upon himself, setting a new standard for artistic practice that artists still follow today. Call him hero or villain—the one thing that you can never, ever say about Courbet is that he deserved to be ignored. The Most Arrogant Man in France wonderfully reminds us of that.
[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book.]