“In a letter written to a friend in 1850, Gustave Courbet announced that "in our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly." These words shed considerable light on Courbet's art - and not just because Courbet's subjects aren't always the predictable, socially acceptable ones. There's something direct and even savage (if by that we mean unconventional) in the way Courbet attacks the canvas: in the way he sponges or scrapes the paint, juxtaposes areas that are more or less realistically handled, and frames or arranges figures and objects in unexpected ways.
"The risk factor in Courbet's work is, aesthetically speaking, very high. And the high-wire excitement of all those risks being taken all at once was a part - a big part - of what held us in the Courbet retrospective that was at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this winter [written in 1989]. It was exciting to try to figure out how Courbet achieved some of his effects - how he worked the paint to get those textures of water or snow; how he orchestrated his colors to create those mysteriously beautiful flesh tones or those lowering gray-day-at-the-beach skies. And what pulled us deeper and deeper into the work was the extent to which, more times in paint than we would imagine, the gambles panned out, and the crazy handling, the odd perspectives, the idiosyncratic color combinations coalesced into masterpiece-level paintings. There were many, many points in the show where Courbet seemed to be telling us, "To hell with convention." Still, the Brooklyn retrospective was one of the most totally civilized art experiences that we've had in New York in a very long time. Courbet challenges - and defies - our expectations; but he does so in the name of preservation and continuation. The approach to painting is radical; but - in the sense that Courbet is trying to find new ways to attain the heights he recognizes in Rembrandt and Chardin - conservative, too.
A Burial at Ornans
"In Brooklyn Courbet's paintings were hung intelligently, in thematic groupings that extended their meanings. Despite regrettable absences, there was a sense that the works had been chosen in order to illuminate one another. There was no overkill-there was just enough to take in during a reasonably long visit. This was a show to put alongside the Chardin retrospective held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1979 and the Watteau retrospective held at the National Gallery in Washington in 1984. Taken together, these shows form a triumvirate that presents French easel painting in all its unbeatable glory. In French painting, paint is emotion, the manipulation of materials is the expression of feelings. Sitting on the bench in the last gallery of the Courbet retrospective, surrounded by the tragic Self-portrait at Ste. Hagie (c. 1872), in which Courbet shows himself in prison following his involvement with the Commune of 1871; by a host of nudes, including the famous study of lesbians, The Sleepers (1866); and by the still lifes of apples, which look back to Chardin and forward to Cezanne - surrounded by all of this a museum-goer felt happily overwhelmed, but also happily clear in the head.
"Because of the impossibility of obtaining the loan of certain major paintings that are in France, the Brooklyn show couldn't give a particularly clear picture of the days in the early 1850s when Courbet, who was in his early thirties (his dates are 1819-1877), was making his most audacious assaults on conventional taste. Without the two oversized compositions of the 1850s, The Burial at Ornans (1850) and The Painter's Studio (1855), and some of the studies of peasant life, The Stone Breakers (1850)and The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair (1850-55) Courbet was made to appear a more private personality than he obviously actually was. And yet the very absence of The Burial at Ornans and The Painter's Studio had the effect of highlighting what many of us already believed, which is that Courbet's greatness is not really based on a few large, invented figure compositions but on the high level of originality that he brought to a wide range of subjects, generally treated in easel-painting sizes.
"The Burial at Ornans isn't really top-notch Courbet; the downbeat mood of the story is carried over too much into a pictorial dullness - that dark frieze of figures just goes on and on, uninteresting, uneventful. And while The Studio is, area by area, a succession of little masterpieces, it never really adds up to a masterful whole. (Linda Nochlin points out in her catalogue essay that The Studio is unfinished.) In the context of the galleries of the Louvre, where The Burial and The Studio hung before their transfer to the Musee d'Orsay, it was quite clear that Delacroix, not Courbet, was the final artist to feel at ease when working on a monumental scale. Tackling a ten-or fifteen-foot canvas in The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) and The Massacre at Chios (1823), Delacroix is totally in control - his arabesques and twisting rhythms expand to fill the space. Courbet's grasp of composition is more episodic and eccentric; his finest paintings have an effect of strangeness and surprise that's probably irreconcilable with the idea of the wall-sized masterpiece.
"Courbet painted landscapes, portraits, nudes, and still lifes off and on all through his life. And from the very start of the show, where we see a wall of youthful self-portraits, to the very end, where we see the paintings of heaps of apples, he manages to give each subject a unique, freestanding value. Even when he's working on various versions of a single motif - as in the seascapes - he avoids formulaic solutions. He certainly, never expects the kinds of techniques or structural ideas that work in a seascape to work in a landscape or a still life. He puts us in touch with the strangely awkward beauty of the landscape where he grew up - the Jura plateau in eastern France, through which the Doubs River winds, creating dramatic gorges and waterfalls. And he brings an equally deep but different sensitivity to the misty immensities of the Atlantic Ocean, which he visited as a tourist. Everywhere, one feels his supreme sense of scale, how the relation of tiny boa is to enormous cloud formations in the seascapes is every bit as exact and poetically right as the relation of trees, towns, and rock formations in the paintings of the Jura plateau. Courbet responds as completely to the frozen loneliness of an animal foraging in winter - in The Snowy Landscape with Boar (1866-67) - as he does to the little fishing boats at the Cliffs of Etretat, just after a storm.
"In a sense, Courbet is a promiscuous artist: he likes to imagine himself in the landscape of childhood, or in the hostile world of winter, or at the seashore. And this promiscuity jibes with the largeness of the personality that we know from the history books - of the man who got involved and messed up in political developments around the Commune, and who made dramatic gestures, as when, in anger over the rejection of some paintings from the Universal Exposition of 1855, he opened his own pavilion. But what the public histories don't really tell us is the extent to which the man could be authentic in different situations. That's what the paintings tell us. The bravado of the paint handling resolves into a perfect transparency of expression..."
- From Jed Perl, "Gallery Going"