A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to escape to Paris for a long weekend (though it’s not so much of an escape at the moment, as life in the UK City of Culture is pretty exciting!) and was lucky enough to spend a few hours at possibly my favourite art gallery, Musée d’Orsay. (I’ve previously written about my highlights of the museum and visiting in this post here: https://historylizzie.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/the-birth-of-modern-life-at-the-dorsay/) The most exciting thing here at the moment is that they have finished the restoration of Gustave Courbet’s huge painting L’Atelier du peintre, or The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life – so I thought this warranted a new blog post! (Sorry for being so quiet recently!)
Courbet’s realist work, executed in 1854-5, could be said to be the product of a frosty meeting with the Intendant des Beaux-Arts. In 1854, the Salon had been cancelled and was to be replaced with a Universal Exposition art exhibition the following year instead. Wanting to demonstrate a liberal attitude towards art, the Intendant invited Courbet for lunch with the intention of getting the artist to agree to cooperate with the state. Instead, Courbet disagreed, so was banned from exhibiting. Courbet wrote to his friend Bruyas:
“I went on to tell him that I was the sole judge of my painting… that I had practiced painting not in order to make art for art’s sake, but rather to win my intellectual freedom”.
What did Courbet do in response to this? Open his own rival exhibition, of course. He called it the Pavilion of Realism, and it contained 40 paintings and 4 drawings. Unfortunately, critics were not impressed by the exhibition. However, the artist Delacroix visited, and remarked of The Artist’s Studio that
“They have rejected one of the most remarkable works of our time, but Courbet is not the man to be discouraged by a little thing like that.”
He definitely wasn’t. Courbet had caused a stir with his huge paintings depicting highly realistic scenes from daily life, often set in his hometown of Ornans in eastern France. One such painting was his 1851-2 Young Ladies of the Village (held in the Met, find it in this post: https://historylizzie.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/a-whirlwind-visit-to-the-met/). He declared his new movement of Realism to be
“democracy in art”.
The Artist’s Studio is a particularly baffling work of Courbet’s. On a huge scale (361 x 598cm), Courbet depicts himself at the centre, surrounded by a varied cast of characters arranged in small groups. Even at the time, Courbet was aware he was presenting his audience with a cryptic challenge, writing to his friend Champfleury in 1854:
“Make it out as best you can. People will have their work cut out to judge the picture – they must do their best.”
It has been suggested that in order to veil some of his particular views, he used character types instead of recognisable people for some of the figures. The painting is roughly split into three parts: on the left, he presented the figures he believed were stuck in the past, and on the right are those he views as enlightened (so who shared his views and supported his work), with himself and his muse at the centre, absorbed in what he is painting and oblivious of the numerous people around him.
So who might some of the figures on the left be? In 1978, the art historian Toussaint wrote an extensive analysis of the painting for an exhibition catalogue, using letters to Champfleury amongst other sources to try and make some concrete identifications. For instance, the man with the dogs is suggested to be Napoleon III, whilst the ragged woman with the baby next to the artist represents Ireland and the potato famine. The strongman and clown are suggested to show the Turkey/Crimean War and trade with China, and other figures include journalists, people with dodgy political careers and other groups of people hoping for French support.
On the right, Toussaint also makes detailed identifications. Champfleury is the seated man to the right of the muse, put in a place of honour as he aided Courbet in writing the Realist Manifesto. The small boy drawing is suggested to be Courbet’s son, whom he taught to paint, whilst the plaster medallion on the wall shows Virginie Binet, the mistress who bore his son. Another interesting detail is the character of Charles Baudelaire (who wrote on the subject of modern life), who is the man reading the book at the right edge of the painting. Toussaint remarks that he was originally flanked by his mistress, who was later painted out.
All in all, it seems that Courbet has tried to represent the world around him – both his personal world and the wider political and social world – and has tried to make a subtle comment about the backwardness that he sees in it. It was in staunch contrast to the classicism seen in the work of Ingres or the Romanticism of Delacroix, providing a comment on the modern world that was picked up by Degas, Manet and other Realists.
I really recommend going to see this painting if you can – when we visited previously whilst the restoration was underway, it was laid flat on a platform which in itself was interesting to see. Now it is back up on the wall and is as impressive and as confusing as ever. The room it hangs in, towards the back left of the ground floor, near the smaller café, is a really good space and there is a lot of interpretive material there to help you try and decode it – as there are so many figures included!
Courbet was incredibly aware of what he wanted to do with art and that it could make a higher comment. In his exhibition catalogue, he outlined his intentions:
“…nor have I pursued the goal of art for art’s sake. No! I simply wanted to draw from a complete knowledge of tradition a reasoned and independent sense of my own individuality. I sought knowledge in order to acquire skill, that was my idea. To be capable of conveying the customs, the ideas and the look of my period as I saw them; to not just be a painter, but a man as well; in short to produce living art, that is my aim.”
- If you did want to try Toussaint’s exploration of the work, you can find it in the 1978 Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877 exhibition catalogue. I also recommend Linda Nochlin’s The Politics of Vision (1991), Petra Chu’s The Most Arrogant Man in France (2007) and J. H. Rubin’s Courbet (1997).