In this bust-length portrait, Courbet depicted a man with swept-back white hair wearing the black coat and tie of the bourgeoisie. The back of the green upholstered chair visible over his shoulders is turned three-quarters to the left, but he tilts his head forward slightly and to the right. Although the sitter is advanced in years, his pose makes clear that he remains agile and alert. His face, modeled with impasted flesh-tones brought to life through a vigorous play of light, is rich with distinctive features: the prominent brow, long and pointed nose, the line of the mouth extending down around the cleft chin, and the crevice below the cheekbone. His bespectacled gaze appears to meet the beholder’s with a concentration equal to the painter’s scrutiny of him.The Subject:
Martin François Suisse (ca. 1781–1859) was a native Parisian who trained as a painter but was better known as an artist’s model. He posed for all the figures but one in Eugène Delacroix’s first Salon picture, Dante and Virgil in Hell
, also known as the Barque of Dante
(1822, Musée du Louvre, Paris). Above all, he is recalled as the founder and director of an informal but influential art school, the Académie Suisse, which reportedly opened in 1808. Did Courbet begin the Met’s portrait in Suisse’s lifetime and complete it afterward, in the same year, 1861, that he founded his own teaching studio? Or is it a posthumous likeness? It is impossible to be certain based on available information. Posthumous portraits are rare in Courbet’s oeuvre, with only one other example known, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1853
. Painted in 1865, shortly after the socialist philosopher’s death earlier in the year, it is now in the Musée du Petit Palais, Paris.
The Académie Suisse was located at 4, quai des Orfèvres on the Ile de la Cité. Courbet drew and painted at the Académie Suisse for several years beginning in 1840, shortly after his arrival in Paris late in the fall of 1839. The school would play a formative role in the development of legions of artists, including painters who came to the fore in Courbet’s wake, such as Camille Pissarro, Edouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet. Whether as an adjunct to more formal training or in place of it, artists could hire models to pose for them for a small fee and without professorial oversight. Artists tended to work there and then move on to the ateliers of successful painters and to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, though the lack of enforced pedagogy at the Académie Suisse allowed artists to develop their skills independently if they were so inclined. The Académie Suisse’s informality contributed to its notoriety in its time, but that same quality has resulted in gaps in its history and the biography of its founder. Martin François Suisse retired in 1858, ceding direction to his nephew, the painter Charles-Alexandre Suisse (1813–1871), a former pupil of Antoine-Jean Gros who began to exhibit at the Paris Salon in 1833. In 1870, the younger Suisse sold the establishment to the Italian sculptor Filippo Colarossi (1841–1906), who moved the school to 10, rue de la Grande-Chaumière, where it closed in the 1930s.History of the Painting:
The first known reference to The Met’s portrait appears in the catalogue of the one-man exhibition Courbet organized in 1867 to coincide with the Exposition Universelle, for which the artist borrowed it from a Monsieur Brivet. The painting was simply entitled M. Suisse
and dated “Paris, 1861.” In the nineteenth century it was customary to identify a portrait solely by the sitter’s honorific and last name in the context of an exhibition. (M. is the French abbreviation for Monsieur
.) The convention conveyed respectability, if not familiarity. This was hardly a rule, however, and the 1867 catalogue supplies given names for a number of portraits, irrespective of the sitters’ notoriety.
Courbet’s 1867 show featured one hundred fifteen exhibits. The catalogue is arranged primarily by subject, the most numerous, with twenty-five works, being portraits. In addition to self-portraits and family portraits, the majority of the sitters were people in Courbet’s personal orbit. They included his oldest friends, Urbain Cuénot, Adolphe Marlet, and Alphonse Promayet (see The Met 29.100.132
), the collector Alfred Bruyas, Proudhon, the painter Amand Gautier, the writer Champfleury, and the composer Hector Berlioz. The portrait of Berlioz (1850, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) may be regarded as an antecedent to the Suisse portrait, not only in scale but through the sitter’s pose and the painting’s sensibility. By evoking the artist’s milieu over the course of his career, this assemblage of likenesses may invoke, albeit silently, a major painting that Courbet witheld from the exhibition, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life
(1854–55, Musée d’Orsay), which he had completed for his earlier solo show in 1855. Thus, Monsieur Suisse
came at least as close as any other work on view in the 1867 show to suggesting the world of the artist’s studio.Related Work:
There is a version of The Met’s portrait (private collection) in which the pose is the same, but in which Suisse is shown without eyeglasses. The late Courbet scholar Robert Fernier called this second painting a “collaboration” between Courbet and his pupil Hippolyte Margottet (1848–1887) and dated it about 1871 (Fernier 1978, p. 240, no. 2). The painting’s origins and its relationship to The Met’s picture are not fully understood and merit further study.
Asher Miller 2021
 Paul d’Ivoi, “Feu Suisse,” Le Figaro
, December 25, 1859, p. 6.
The author gratefully acknowledges Stanislav Volkov for providing information about the Suisse family (emails, 2019–21, Department of European Paintings files).