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Gustave Courbet

February 27–May 18, 2008

The Triumph of Realism

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."