Writing about his 1855 painting The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life (a detail from which is above, from 1855), Gustave Courbet dared viewers to “work it out if you can.” In Abbeville Press’ mammoth, slip-cased, new tome Courbet, Ségolène Le Men points out The Painter’s Studio’s problematic subtitle, evoking the mysterious “real allegory” of Courbet’s life that pervades Courbet’s entire oeuvre and makes his art so compelling still. “The work of no other painter has led to such a divergent range of interpretations inspired by current trends in art history,” Le Men writes. “This is why, in France at least, the debate on ‘over-interpretation’ has become polarized around the figure of Courbet.” Like a epistemological bar of soap, Courbet slips from each critic’s grasp just at the moment he or she believes they have a firm grasp on just who “Courbet” is. Le Men sees such frustration built into Courbet’s art by conscious design. “I shall argue that Courbet himself implanted the contradictory readings and fables in the structure of his works and in the way individual paintings relate to each other,” Le Men states from the very beginning. Breaking down Courbet’s career into rough chronological periods, Le Men leads the reader on a critical chase of the elusive artist that is simultaneously a scenic tour of one of the truly great artists of the nineteenth century.
Le Men begins with Courbet’s youthful Romantic phase, showing quaint childhood works rough in execution but telling in subject matter as harbingers of things to come. Writing of Courbet’s decision to go by his last name only, Le Men states that, “[f]rom the start, Courbet expressed his intention to be seen as a great artist, a self-made man freed from his social origins, whose name would become legend.” That legend begins in many ways with Courbet’s Self-Portrait with Black Dog (above, from 1842), his first work accepted by the Salon in 1844. Self-Portrait with Black Dog sets off a chain reaction of landmark self-portraits hidden within genre and landscape paintings “like an open secret.” “As with Goya,” LeMan writes, “the shadow here reveals the truth that lies behind a face, which is only a façade and a social mask.” Hence, Courbet harks back to Goya while simultaneously addressing modern critical concerns of identity. Once part of the Parisian scene, Courbet embraces la vie boheme, assuming the next role in the great pageant of his life. Courbet’s works soon become even more “puzzles… legible for those who took the time to decipher them but utterly ‘sauvage’ (wild, unfathomable) for those who did not understand,” Le Men writes. Courbet soon marries “image play deriving from popular culture and satrical sketches for the press” with “an execution inspired by the style of Dutch and Flemish masters from Rubens to Frans Hals.”
In retracing the familiar ground of After Dinner at Ornans and A Burial at Ornans, Le Men recaptures the moment of controversy those revolutionarily realistic works generated by recreating the spirit of the moment with enlightening context. Even more stirringly, Le Men recreates the psyche of Courbet himself. “Far from perceiving violent reactions to his painting as a faiure,” Le Men writes, “Courbet took them as confirmation of his success, and he would deliberately exploit them for self-promotion through his provocative attitude and his later submissions to the Salon.” Courbet scores a marketing coup when his friend Francis Wey seeks out the opinions of the twin towers of French painting at the middle of the nineteenth century—Delacroix and Ingres. This “bipolar couple” see two different Courbets that each affirm his greatness. Delacroix loves Courbet—genius praising genius—while Ingres fearfully turns away—the dead past unable to comprehend the future. Courbet finds crossover appeal with the masses through such painting. “This was an art espoused by patriotic republican humanism according to the three criteria of generation, epoch, and country,” Le Men writes of Courbet’s pull with the people. Soon, however, Courbet pushes the envelope of reality “to the level of fantasy” in works such as Sleep (above, from 1866) and the notorious The Origin of the World, which remained unseen by the general public until 1988. “With their variety of materials and colors, these props all serve as foils to the magnificently rendered skin of two abandoned bodies, emanating like an aura the drowsy calm of an erotic dream,” Le Men writes of Sleep in a beautifully evocative passage characteristic of the entire text, especially when speaking of the works themselves.
Le Men succeeds in presenting the diversity and amazing inventiveness of Courbet through little-known works as Fantastic Landscape with Anthropomorphic Rocks (above, 1873), in which Courbet playfully places human faces within the landscape for inquiring minds to find. While most surveys of Courbet jump between the greatest hits, Le Men’s work finds wonder in such smaller masterpieces. “The phenomenon of the hidden images allows us to see how the type of Realism that [Courbet] practiced as he moved away from Romanticism, is also inscribed in the emergence of Symbolism, and thus how his work could interest the artists of that generation,” Le Men asserts, presenting the case for how artists such as Gauguin, Redon, Magritte, and Picasso all took inspiration from Courbet. “For Courbet, natural images were like ‘readymades’ that he found in the middle of nature,” Le Men adds, invoking the name of Duchamp among Courbet’s clan. In pulling together all of Courbet’s works, no matter how diverse, Le Men follows Courbet’s own cue when he described his oeuvre as a “cathedral”—complex in construction and full of multiple side chambers, yet all belonging under one roof. Only by seeing Courbet whole, by giving him a full-body workout, can we ever begin to understand.
Courbet’s mother died in 1871, followed two years later by his exile from France thanks to the change in political fortunes that struck Courbet and his allies from the heights to which they had risen. Sunset on Lake Leman (above, from 1873) “becomes a bloodied horizon” during Courbet’s exile, Le Men writes. From that sad ending, Le Men raises Courbet from the ashes and reaffirms his central role in not only nineteenth century art but all modern art, even today’s. “Courbet… invents the notion of contemporary art,” Le Men argues, “based on two premises: first, the artist interprets his time, and second, the singularity of his individual style arises from a dialogue with art, without distinguishing the present from the past or hierarchizing forms of artistic expression.” Through an amazing array of big, beautiful reproductions—many of which focus on details that often get lost in the greater panoramas—and Le Men’s encyclopedic, critically engaged, yet highly accessible and beautifully written prose, Courbet shows Courbet the artist to be a man of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with a review copy of Ségolène Le Men’s Courbet and for the images from the book above.]