The Most Arrogant Man in France. Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture

Author : Petra ten-Doesschate Chu

The Courbet retrospective and its catalogue will not be covered in this article as both present an excellent account of current knowledge and, except for laboratory exams, do not claim to offer any new information. Their work provides a complete range of sources and includes findings by Hélène Toussaint, Jean-Luc Mayaud, Michèle Haddad and Henri Loyrette as well as interpretations by Linda Nochlin, T. J. Clark, James Rubin and Michael Fried. But the dominant source for the catalogue, it would seem, is the more recent contribution by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu. It is true that her edition of the painter’s correspondence shook, in a profound and healthy way, studies on Courbet after 1992. Subtle, ironic, sensitive, sensual, somatic, political, these numerous and varied letters demolished forever the legend of the uncouth stutterer and uncultured savage. In them the painter is shown as a well-off son, from a family of notables, a provincial man driven by unrelenting ambition to succeed in the capital and extremely lucid as to how he should go about it in the Paris of the 1840’s-1870’s. The other lesson garnered from this correspondence concerns the uneven or repetitive character of the artist’s production, who was able to alternate provocative originality and commercial convention when pressured by need and by his love of money. Courbet’s corpus includes an extensive number of portraits and landscapes, the most lucrative genres in the XIXth century, which add nothing to his glory. The exhibition presents several examples. But should we expect a retrospective at the Grand Palais to highlight the weaknesses, of any kind, of their hero [1] ?

This disciple of Proudhon was also a business man of flexible economic choices, bowing to the laws of a still fluctuating market, but more aggressive during the Second empire [2]. Taking this realistic approach into account, as Jérôme Poggi does, is a sign of a changing perspective, that Petra Chu reinforces and amplifies in her new book. In 1998, at the time of the exhibition Courbet artiste et promoteur de son œuvre at the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, the author drew her initial conclusions from the painter’s letters, which she had just translated and edited. What was only a blueprint then is fully developed in The Most Arrogant Man in France. Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture. The title and sub-title, by contrast, clearly indicate how it is impossible to separate Courbet’s bluster and the new media environment that helped to make it stand out. Reconciling artistic independence, celebrity and wealth, were the real stakes in the painter’s career. Although apparently contradictory, these goals in fact worked in his favor : money freed him early on from any servitude to public commissions and the reputation he forged acted exponentially to spread his work and raise its price. Just like Napoleon III, with whom Chu audaciously points out more rapprochements than differences, Courbet addressed himself directly to those who could best procure power and success for him. Modern and democratic, but fundamentally more liberal than socialist after 1855, he uses all the mechanisms available in advertising and exhibitions, to achieve his means, at a moment when the mass printed media was enjoying a spectacular development and the Salon de Paris was no longer the only place for exchanges between painting and art lovers. Production, reception and publication, of works as well as pictures of the artist, all changed in the years following Courbet’s arrival in Paris in 1839. To be exact, one should evoke a long cycle, a strong tendency which began after the revolutionary break, even a little before that if one takes into account the changes in the Salon and art criticism at the end of Louis XV’s reign. If there were time here, one could pursue the analogies in Courbet’s and David’s careers.

The first chapter in Petra Chu’s work outlines the various parameters of Courbet’s progressive Parisian breakthrough. The environment in Franche-Comté weighed more heavily than she mentions when entering this art world. But she is right in insisting on the importance of his ties to the major, and also the minor, press titles of the day in which criticism of Louis-Philippe’s different governments was in tune to the socializing utopias of the young artist and particularly to his republicanism “from birth”. There were many journalists in his close circle ; around 1848, he knew how to use Baudelaire, Champfleury and even Gautier, a prince among art critics, to make sure his setbacks and his achievements at the Salon were discussed far and wide [3]. In fact, Courbet also knew how to incorporate the categories and problematics present at the time in journalistic rhetoric, their acute concern for contemporary society and their view of a changing world. In a slightly provocative manner, the author insinuates that this realistic artist reacts less to his experience of reality and his visual environment than to the mandates of a mass press. Fortunately, the rest of her book does not insist on this excessive postulate, haunted by the « French theory », of Bourdieu and Derrida. Naturally, Chu broaches without delay the subject of the self-portrait alluding to literary studies about the rise in biographies and the cult of great men characteristic, once again, of democracy in modern times. Thus the fine publications of the late-lamented Loïc Chotard provide her with the basis for another approach to this corpus, which would be mistakenly described as uncontrolled narcissism. Courbet was handsome (although Francis Wey found his mouth less pleasant than his eyes and the upper part of his face), knew it and used it with a paradoxal charm when one thinks of the ugliness he was accused of in his painting. But this love of self, whose flaws and doubts are revealed in his correspondence, is less important than the way in which the artist enhances it and the perception of it by his contemporaries. Baudelaire was irritated by his aesthetic and political messianism, which Courbet cultivated in the 1850’s. It was all part of the business promotion the artist deemed necessary. Petra Chu compares, and confronts, this kind of autobiography in painting to the literary practices of the time (she quotes, for example, Champfleury mocking Musset and Gautier who disguised their “moi” in The Confession or Maupin). Courbet was more literary than he cared to show or than historians have seen, and sneaks in references to Goethe, Sand and Hugo. In this light, the words that Flaubert said to Baudelaire about the Fleurs du Mal also apply to our artist : Courbet “made Romanticism younger” at a time when the literary generation born around 1820 was starting to bare its teeth.

Chapter 3 examines what might be called the logics of differentiation which characterized post-revolutionary France. It was the era of typologies and pantheons of all sorts. And the cult of the great man, which originated during the Enlightenment (extolling of the useful or genial individual), transformed itself in the next century due to the increasing equality of society and its apparent democratisation. In order to understand itself in its blurred diversity and changing hierarchies, modern society multiplied its own image, surveys, inventories, visual representations. Difference was determined by the new media, newspapers, prints and soon photographs. With the rise of popular biography, so finely studied by Loïc Chotard, there is an increase of portraits in Courbet’s work, who represents his network of family as well as social and artistic contacts before reaching the luminous polarity of L’Atelier in 1855, autobiographical summary that Petra Chu compares to the literary pantheons of Roubaud and Nadar (whom the artist knew, of course). Moreover, this praise of the people in his circle goes hand in hand with the posthumous commemorations. On the one hand Baudelaire, Berlioz, his friends from Franche-Comté, etc ; on the other Proudhon post-mortem at the Salon of 1865, which was his Death of Marat. The painting shows the “great man” in 1853 wearing a painter’s frock, the year that La Philosophie du progrès was published, the first major text in which he dwells on the role of art in society : the painter is required to show modern life in all its aspects in order to “elevate” the public by compensating for the images that distort reality. There is an unsettling reflexitivity between Courbet’s painting, open to the world which consumes it, and the public, ready to either support it or denounce it. Even today A Burial at Ornans produces the effect of an inverted panorama in which we, the viewers, are the focus.

The question of the public and the advertising of this painting is at the heart of the following chapter. The access to the Salon was the driving ambition of the artist during the 1840’s : to exhibit, his art or himself. It was all the same. The important thing was to create a name for himself and become in painting the agent of modern change cultivated by the bohemians of the time. After the Romanticism of wounded knights, starrry-eyed dreamers and wizards, the time had come for ironic criticism and a greater objectivity in terms of the previous artistic codes. Petra Chu develops extensively this need for irony as an instrument of modernism, whether it be in Baudelaire, Champfleury, Nadar or the painter himself. We know by a letter addressed to Bruyas that Courbet placed his production of the early 1850’s in this perspective. According to the manuals on rhetoric of the time, for instance Fontanier’s, irony consists in scoffing without seeming to do so and practicing a form of language less assertive than it is contradictory, mixed with gaiety, anger, contempt and bitterness. In short, the significance of the images in Courbet’s work is no longer directly understandable and requires a new complicity on the part of the viewer, who confronts the representation as he would the reality that it translates, without detaining the ultimate key. Because Courbet’s irony stems from his personal knowledge of the subjects in his painting. Petra Chu very rightly calls it the look of an “insider”. For example, in the case of After dinner in Ornans (Lille, Salon de 1849) it means refusing the canons of the rustic pastoral scene, a genre painting full of condescendence towards the rural world, which some would prefer to believe frozen in time and carefree rather than undergoing a profound change (despite the elections in December 1848) [4]. The irony of The Burial aimed at the bourgeois from Ornans that are lined up in the picture should be treated in Balzacian terms : sum up a group of human beings or a historical moment without any side-stepping, thus the failure of the social republic of 1848, with its tensions, its mistakes, its ridicule and its unintentionally comic aspect. It is hard to follow Petra Chu here when she suggests that Courbet is attempting, irony of ironies, a caricature, thus joining those who originally criticized the work, although in another way. She is more convincing in her analysis of the Young Village Women from the Salon de 1852 which erases with a smile the line between Paris/Ornans and the Baigneuses of the following year, based on systematic inversion, from the lesbian allusions wrapped in a rococo air to the misleading references (Tondo Doni by Michelangelo, iconography of the Noli me tangere, etc.). The weighty presence of the flesh and the incorrect anatomy, in every sense, are not the only source of shock.

The lack of definite meaning proposed to the viewer is at the very heart of the art history model that the painting evokes and revokes. Courbet’s redefinition of the feminine image and the transgression of boundaries are once again explored in the 5th chapter, devoted to paintings that proceed from a sexually undecided viewpoint. Courbet was aware of the fact that he was addressing a public of both men and women and acted knowingly. The Young Ladies on the Bank of the Seine, whose title intrigued instantly in 1857, can be interpreted on various levels at once by juxtaposing two antithetic images of the feminine. The question of knowing whether the figure in white is wearing a summer dress or a corset remains open, in our opinion. What is more important is knowing if Chu is justified in reading the painting according to Proudhon’s schema. Doesn’t that revert to associating the image with a moralizing dimension which did not concern the painter in the slightest ? Reading his letters shows that he did not use this language when addressing his correspondents on the subject. But when writing to Proudhon, he says what the misogynist philosopher wanted to hear. In this regard, The Woman with the Parrot, from the Salon de 1866, constitutes a very ironical answer to the criticisms of his early nudes. After all, Courbet adapts his vocabulary to the circumstances and the context with a flexibility that was dissembled for a long time by his legend as a hardliner. Chu devotes the last chapter to this flexibility, evident in all the genres that he abundantly produced. Thus she shows that the landscapes change subjects and form depending on whether Courbet paints them for people of his circle from Franche-Comté or not. In the same way, the hunting scenes intentionally allude skilfully, and more or less openly, to English painting (Landseer, etc.). Without the fluctuations that Petra Chu acknowledges in Courbet’s work, her own analysis might have frozen the artist as the king of marketing. On the whole the demonstration, as we have seen, does not always manage to avoid a systematic approach à la Bourdieu. Nevertheless, she opens a great number of fruitful leads, all the more useful since art history has until now tended to understate the production context in which this thunderbolt called Courbet irrupted.

Stéphane Guégan, mardi 1er janvier 2008


[1] Although it was important to point out certain more modest paintings, others require, in our view, more careful attention. This is the case for the supposed Portrait of Father Bonnet of Ornans (cat. 49), a work for which there is no historical background, where the medium and the strokes are far from being reassuring.

[2] We would also like to point out the initial work of Anne M. Wagner, “Courbet’s Landscapes and Their Market”, Art History, vol. 4, n°4, December 1981, p. 410-431.

[3] Chu, mistakenly, is surprised by the fact that the very discerning Courbet in 1846 requested Théophile Gautier for his support. For an opposing view, see Stéphane Guégan, Théophile Gautier, La critique en liberté, Paris, RMN, 1997, especially pp. 59-68.

[4] The text submitted to the administration at the Louvre in 1848, for its reproduction in the Salon booklet, insists on this moment, hence preceding the election of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (who, by the way, was for the most part supported by the canton for which Ornans was head city) : “A moment after dinner in Ornans-it was in the month of November, we were at our friend’s Cuenot, Marlet had just returned from hunting and we had asked Promayet to play the violin for my father.” This explanation, which was not included in the booklet, would have added significantly to the friendly warmth of the scene, to its slow rhythm, and also to the unsettling size of the figures as well as the strong presence of the dog in the foreground, a metaphor for this France who is determined to back the rebirth of the Republic.

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Publications : La collection Oulmont. Dessins, peintures et pastels du XVIIIe siècle

Next article in Publications : Deux siècles précurseurs and Mélanges en l’honneur de Bruno Foucart