Exhibitions/ Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

February 27, 2008–May 18, 2008
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This is the first full retrospective of the French artist Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) in thirty years, presenting some 130 works by this pioneering figure in the history of modernism, from his seminal manifesto paintings of the 1850s to the views of his native Ornans and portraits of his friends and family. The exhibition also includes a selection of nineteenth-century photographs that relate to Courbet's work, especially his landscapes and nudes. The works are drawn from public and private collections in the United States and abroad.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), the self-proclaimed "proudest and most arrogant man in France," created a sensation at the Salon of 1850–51 when he exhibited a group of paintings set in his native Ornans, a village in eastern France. These works challenged convention by rendering scenes from daily life in an emphatically realistic style and on the large scale previously reserved for history painting.

Courbet's career was punctuated by a succession of scandals, which were usually cultivated by the artist and always welcomed. After a public fight with the all-powerful superintendent of fine arts, Comte Nieuwerkerke, several of his works were refused display in the great Salon and Universal Exposition of 1855. Courbet countered with his own Pavilion of Realism, audaciously built within sight of the official Salon, where he exhibited, among other works, a monumental canvas, The Painter's Studio (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). The accompanying exhibition catalogue included his "Realist Manifesto," in which he declared his aim "to be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation." The press had a field day, and Courbet immediately became the most controversial artist in France.

A new generation of painters, among them Manet, Monet, Fantin-Latour, Degas, and Whistler, were drawn to Courbet's outsize personality and his realism. As a painter of landscapes, he developed a radical vision, expressed in tightly focused views of his native Franche-Comté as well as his "landscapes of the sea," which profoundly influenced the next generation of artists, especially Cézanne.

In 1870, he rejected the coveted award of the Legion of Honor, proclaiming his freedom and independence from any form of government. His involvement with the short-lived, socialist government, the Paris Commune of 1871, led to imprisonment and, ultimately, self-imposed exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877. Through his powerful and idiosyncratic realism and his courtship of the press and controversy, Courbet became a pioneering figure in the history of modern art. His paintings, which moved Picasso, Derain, Dalí, and Balthus, still resonate among contemporary artists.


The exhibition is made possible by The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation and the Janice H. Levin Fund.

Education programs are made possible by The Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the Communauté d'agglomération de Montpellier/Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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Between 1842 and 1855 Courbet executed about twenty self-portraits, both painted and drawn, in a process that he likened to writing his autobiography. Self-portraits dominated his artistic production during this period, and, appropriately, his first accepted Salon painting was Self-Portrait with Black Dog, exhibited in 1844. Courbet's scrutiny of himself is steeped in the Romantic emphasis on self-exploration, a notion advocated by the literary and artistic circles that the young artist frequented in Paris. The self-portraits on view reveal his evolution from an early exploration of Romantic, troubadour-inspired imagery to the Realist aesthetic that would define his career.

Courbet assumes a range of personae in his self-portraits, posing as a musician, a wounded lover, and, most dramatically, as a man driven to the edge of sanity in The Desperate Man and The Man Mad with Fear. In addition to role-playing, many of the self-portraits reflect Courbet's stylistic emulations of works by Renaissance and Baroque masters, especially Titian and Rembrandt. Doubtless, too, he sought to evoke Rembrandt's precedent as a self-portraitist.

In 1855 Courbet exhibited a group of these self-portraits in the retrospective of his own work that he staged at his Pavilion of Realism. Confronted by so many incarnations of the artist, the critic Maxime du Camp complained, "Courbet waving, Courbet walking . . . Courbet everywhere, Courbet forever."

Courbet's identity as an artist is inextricably linked with his roots in Ornans, a village in eastern France surrounded by the Jura Mountains. As a young artist in Paris during the 1840s, Courbet cultivated his status as a provincial outsider whose discernible accent signaled his origins in the Franche-Comté. It was Ornans that provided Courbet with his imagery—from portraits of his family members and childhood friends to views of the valley of his birthplace, with its distinctive limestone cliffs. From Paris, he returned regularly to Ornans to visit his family and to immerse himself in the landscape that inspired so many of his canvases, which he often painted from memory in his Paris studio.

At the Salon of 1849 Courbet received a gold medal for After Dinner at Ornans (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille), a work that launched an unprecedented series of paintings depicting life in Ornans. These works, which included The Stonebreakers (1849–50; now lost), an unsparing depiction of rural labor; A Burial at Ornans (1849–50; Musée d'Orsay, Paris); and The Young Ladies of the Village (1851–52), shocked his contemporaries, who were unaccustomed to the emphatic realism and crude brushwork of Courbet's style, rendered on a scale previously reserved for history painting.

His paintings of Ornans brought Courbet the fame that he had predicted for himself in 1845: "I want all or nothing . . . within five years I must have a reputation in Paris." He aggressively courted the notoriety associated with his art: "When I am no longer controversial, I will no longer be important."

In 1855 Courbet's monumental canvas The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life (1855; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) was rejected by the jury of the Exposition Universelle. Courbet retaliated by mounting his own exhibition at his Pavilion of Realism, audaciously built within sight of the official one, where he showed The Painter's Studio along with about forty paintings and four drawings. The Painter's Studio is so vast that it could not safely travel to New York for this exhibition.

Comprising thirty lifesize figures, the composition, which remains unfinished, is divided into three parts, as described by Courbet: on the left is "the world of commonplace life," signified by various types, including a priest, a hunter, a worker, and "a Republican of 1793"; on the right are "the people who serve me, support me in my ideas, and take part in my actions," based on portraits that Courbet had painted; in the center, Courbet represents himself, painting a landscape and flanked by a nude model and a little boy.

Courbet's use of the word "allegory" in his title has given rise to various interpretations. The painting has been read as a coded reference to Freemasonry, a lesson in governance intended for Napoleon III, and a political cartoon criticizing the imperial regime. Its meaning remains enigmatic. Delacroix, his own retrospective on view at the Exposition Universelle, visited Courbet's Pavilion of Realism, where he discovered The Painter's Studio; he marveled in his Journal: "His rejected painting is a masterpiece; I cannot tear myself away from it."

The scandals that defined Courbet's early career, which culminated in his Pavilion of Realism and accompanying "Realist Manifesto," gave way to a period of apparent conformity to convention. In 1857 Courbet exhibited six paintings at the official Paris Salon, including his first hunt scene, The Quarry, and his portrait of the singer Louis Gueymard as Robert le Diable. Champfleury, an early defender, later chastised him for catering to public opinion and wanting "to please."

During the 1850s Courbet embraced modern life, broadening his imagery beyond Ornans. Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine also exhibited at the Salon of 1857, was explicitly contemporary in its subject—suburban leisure—and its depiction of the fashions of the Second Empire, though the questionable morality of these women scandalized the public.

In 1865, while painting in Trouville, a popular Normandy resort, Courbet tried his hand at society portraiture, as seen, for example, in his depictions of the Nodler brothers. Courbet's activities in Trouville prompted a critic to announce: "Courbet has converted. He has sworn off his old genre in order to cultivate the neo-bourgeois."

At Trouville, Courbet painted alongside the young American artist James McNeill Whistler and became enamored of Whistler's model Joanna Hiffernan. Courbet's engagement with modernity resonated in the art of the next generation, including Manet, Monet, and the emerging Impressionists.

Courbet, "as much a hunter as a painter," according to an early biographer, drew upon his own experiences in his hunting scenes, which brought him critical and commercial success. As his first foray in this genre, he submitted two hunt pictures to the Salon in 1857. In one of these paintings, The Quarry, the lone huntsman bears the features of Courbet himself, suggestively conflating the identities of artist and hunter.

Courbet's paintings of the hunt fuse the genres of landscape and animal painting. The large scale of works such as The Death of the Wounded Stag (Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie, Besançon) and Spring Rut (The Battle of the Stags; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) rivals that of history painting. Courbet tellingly expressed his opinion that "the Battle of the Stags ought to have the same impact as the Burial [at Ornans], though in a different way." Courbet exploited drama and emotion inherent in his scenes of the hunt—from the frenzy of hunting dogs going in for the kill to the pathos of a wounded stag on the verge of death—to make monumental and moving paintings.

In his 1867 exhibition Courbet included a group of hunting scenes among his paysages de neige, or snowscapes. These innovative works, painted during the heavy snowfall that blanketed Ornans during winter 1866–67, prompted several young artists, including Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley, to experiment with the new genre. Cézanne later exclaimed, "He painted snow like no one else!"

On the eve of the Salon of 1853, Courbet declared his intention "to do nothing but nudes for the next Exhibition." The Bathers, one of two works in this genre that he exhibited, defied the current preference for timeless, idealized nudity. Eugène Delacroix, a member of the Salon jury, deplored the "vulgarity of the forms" in Courbet's painting, which occasioned a critical uproar. Defending the realism of Courbet's nudes, the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary countered, "He painted the real, living French woman."

During the 1860s Courbet painted a series of female nudes, in both landscape and interior settings. If the poses of his figures evoked Renaissance or more recent artistic prototypes, other details—such as his depiction of the models' discarded clothing, the marks left on their flesh by corsets, and their body hair—were unmistakably modern and transgressed accepted convention. Galvanized by the success of the nude Venuses and Eves by academic artists that proliferated at the Salon, Courbet vowed to paint a nude that its conservative jury would accept. The result, Woman with a Parrot, was shown at the Salon of 1866 (his previous submission to the Salon of 1864 had been rejected on the grounds of indecency).

In contrast, Sleep and The Origin of the World, both private commissions, deviate from Courbet's Salon nudes in their explicit erotic content. Like that of the publicly exhibited works, however, their imagery derived from multiple sources, including contemporary prints and pornographic photographs, examples of which are shown in the exhibition galleries.

Landscape plays a central role in Courbet's imagery. From the outset, he identified himself with the topography of his native Ornans, its limestone cliffs looming over his image in his 1844 Self-Portrait with Black Dog. During the next twenty years, Courbet developed a repertoire of landscape motifs rooted in his native Franche-Comté. As he famously proclaimed, "To paint a landscape, you have to know it. I know my country, I paint it."

At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, Courbet garnered his first public success as a landscape painter with his Stream of the Puits-Noir, Valley of the Loue. Over the next decade he painted repetitions and variations of this site. Similarly, the source of the Loue River, a geological curiosity not far from his birthplace, inspired a group of canvases in 1864. In these works Courbet's unique vision of landscape emerges, evidenced by his predilection for tightly framed compositions, some of which verge on abstraction, and his handling of paint. His use of a palette knife to build up the surface of his canvases, the materiality of which evokes the varied textures of the landscape itself, elicited the admiration of Cézanne, who called him "a builder. ... He built like a Roman mason."

Visiting the south of France in 1854, Courbet produced a group of luminous, seemingly infinite views of the Mediterranean Sea. He did not immerse himself fully in painting "landscapes of the sea," as he preferred to call his seascapes, until subsequent trips between 1859 and 1869 to the Normandy coast, where he encountered Monet and Whistler in 1865. Courbet's dramatic wave paintings have captivated artists from Cézanne to Miró, who responded to their visceral quality. Miró recalled his experience: "One feels physically drawn to it, as by an undertow. It is fatal."

Courbet's coming of age as a realist painter coincided with the emergence of photography. Like other artists at the time, he kept a collection of photographs of female nudes in his studio that served as studies for his paintings. His detractors—reacting against what they perceived as the excessive realism of his style—likened his early paintings to the contemporary daguerreotype, which captured its subject in extreme detail.

Since many of the first-generation photographers were trained as painters, it is not surprising that a shared aesthetic between painting and photography emerged about 1850, especially in landscape imagery. In the late 1840s photographers, notably Gustave Le Gray, were drawn to the forest of Fontainebleau, following in the footsteps of the Barbizon School artists and photographing many of the same sites that these artists had painted. Courbet accompanied the Barbizon painter Camille Corot on painting excursions in the region. His Fringe of the Forest is not unlike the compositions of Le Gray's contemporaneous photographs of Fontainebleau or Henri Le Secq's images of the forest of Montmirail. Such similarities were not lost on contemporary viewers; a critic wrote of a photograph by Le Secq: "There is air, truth, and life in this print, which on canvas would become a charming landscape."

In the realm of seascape, Le Gray's photographs of the Mediterranean, which depict sea and sky as seemingly infinite expanses, particularly resonate in relation to Courbet's compositions. There is little doubt that Courbet knew of Le Gray's photographs, which were widely exhibited in Paris and abroad in the late 1850s, as certain paintings directly invoke Le Gray's precedent, especially his series of photographs of the Mediterranean Sea at Sète. Courbet's assimilation of photography, to the degree that it can be known, was entirely in keeping with his practice of borrowing from a range of sources, from Old Master painting to popular imagery.

Courbet's realist imagery—from the laborers of the The Stonebreakers of 1849–50 (now lost) to the rural bourgeoisie of Ornans—was almost immediately politicized by his contemporaries. Although Courbet himself, in an 1852 letter, denied "practicing politics in painting," his engagement with politics was evident. He called himself a "republican by birth" but, adhering to his pacifist beliefs, did not take up arms during the Revolution of 1848. In 1870 he flouted the authority of the government—not for the first time—by publicly refusing the award of the Legion of Honor, declaring his independence "from any regime except the regime of freedom."

He decisively entered the political arena on the eve of the Commune of 1871 and played an active role in the short-lived socialist government of Paris. For a time, politics displaced painting. With the demise of the Commune, Courbet was arrested and sentenced to six months' imprisonment for his involvement in the destruction of Paris's Vendôme Column, a symbol of Napoleonic authority.

During his incarceration, Courbet resumed painting in his cell, producing mostly still lifes. These self-styled "captivity paintings" directly invoked his experience in the Commune: many bore the inscription "Sainte-Pélagie," a reference to his prison. Similarly, his paintings of trout, whose inscriptions also allude to his imprisonment, have been read as metaphors of his suffering. Following his release in 1872, he attempted unsuccessfully to reinstate himself in official art circles; the Salon jury rejected the submissions of this "Columnard," as contemporary caricatures mockingly referred to him.

In 1873, fearing persecution from the newly installed right-wing government, Courbet voluntarily went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877.