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: A Portrait by Courbet


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
During the past month the Institute has had the good fortune to acquire for its permanent collection a portrait by Gustave Courbet, one of the great individualists in nineteenth-century French painting. This work, called The Grandmother, was painted in 1862 and comes from the collection of Madame Bally, the daughter of Madame Robin, the subject.It is a brilliant example of Courbet’s genius, and one that explains perfectly the comment that one’s eyes become fingers in looking at Courbet’s paintings. They have a more tactile quality than those of any painter of his period. One wants to touch the face of this delightful old lady; finger the fine lace at her throat and wrists; caress the gleaming black satin of her gown. Yet her personality is in no way overshadowed by the brilliance of presentation. She is a grand old girl, with a shrewd and kindly face, piercing dark eyes, and hair whose blackness is accentuated by the crimson flower worn above her left ear.Courbet has given, in this portrait, a dazzling exhibition of his skill with the brush. He had a way with paint equaled by few of his generation, and no one can look at his work without realizing the sheer sensuous pleasure he derived from applying it, rich and thick, in smooth sweeping strokes. He manipulated it with all the virtuosity of a master pianist dashing off a Chopin Ballade. Sometimes he applied color with the knife instead of the brush; a method which he was among the first to practice.Courbet’s technique is his outstanding quality as an artist, but it was his choice of subject that distinguished him in the eyes of his contemporaries. Rebelling against the romanticism of Delacroix and the classicism that preceded it, he depicted what he saw, and the shock was too much for the taste of his time. His landscapes, for example, such as The Roe Covert presented to the Institute by James J. Hill in 1914, repelled by their very naturalness.Courbet was looked upon as a revolutionary of the first order, and had it not been for the fact that he received a medal of award early in his career, thus guaranteeing his automatic inclusion in future annual Salons, his work would probably never have been accepted for exhibition in Paris.It was the famous Burial at Ornans, a group of nude Bathers, and the Après-dinée à Ornans that aroused public sentiment against him. He was called a debaser of art, and accused of being a socialist because he painted peasants. This latter rather took his fancy, because he was something of an exhibitionist and it pleased him to make himself conspicuous. Unfortunately, however, as he learned later, he had no wits for anything but painting, and it would have been better for him to concentrate on his profession than to try to cut a figure in politics.It is almost impossible today to understand why Courbet’s paintings provoked such universal animosity. And here we find a curious parallel between Courbet’s career and Eakins’. Both were individualists and both were realists, though Eakins was a purer realist than Courbet. Both chose for their subject matter the things they knew best: their families and friends, the country around them, and the things with which they had personal contact and which they knew completely. In both cases their public was unaccustomed to this commonplace aspect of art and resented it. Not until after both were dead did their work receive the universal consideration it deserved.Here, however, the parallel ends. Courbet’s work was more brilliant than Eakins’, and less sympathetic. It did not penetrate to such a depth in the depiction of character, and there is, now and again, a flavor of romanticism about it completely lacking in Eakins’ pictures. Personally, Courbet would probably have been very unsympathetic to Eakins, yet it is strange, considering their similarity in some respects, that the latter never spoke of Courbet during his years of study in Paris. Possibly this resulted from the fact that the Frenchman’s character was distasteful to him. Eakins was modest and reserved, and never performed with an eye on the gallery.Courbet, on the other hand, was boastful, loud, and generally offensive. As is the case with Wagner, one admires the work in spite of the man. His arrogance led him to remark: “I astound the whole world; I triumph not only over the moderns but also over the ancients.” He held to this belief and found in it the source of his strength. He was elemental and possessed of astounding energy, with a plain and earthy quality that compels attention. His appetite was prodigious. He ate a great deal, and it is said that toward the end of his life he used to drink twelve litres of beer a day.His character reflected the rugged and dramatic quality of his birthplace: Ornans in the Jura district. His father was quite a wealthy farmer, and he was meant to study law. He chose art, however, and had some preliminary schooling in Paris. But for the most part he followed his own bent, studying the work of the old masters in various galleries, and finding himself most drawn towards the Dutch and Spanish painters. His work is a logical continuation of theirs; a circumstance that makes his unpopularity still more incomprehensible to us.The Salon at which he received his first medal was held in 1849. There were shown his self-portrait known as l’Homme à la Ceinture de Cuir, and the Après-dinée à Ornans. In 1850 he showed nine pictures, including the Burial at Ornans. In 1853 he showed the Bathers, which apparently aroused the admiration of but one man, Alfred Bruyas, a wealthy collector of Montpellier who became Courbet’s patron.Such paintings, and the reputation of being a socialist, which Courbet did nothing to dispel, resulted in his being excluded from the International Exposition of 1855, where his Salon medal gave him no privilege of automatic acceptance. He was so enraged by this treatment that he erected a little shack near the grounds of the exposition and held a one-man show. Almost no one visited it, and his defiant gesture passed largely unnoticed. Delacroix, one of the few to look at Courbet’s work, was impressed by the painting of the Artist’s Studio, an ambitious picture now in the Louvre.In 1871, when the Commune occurred, Courbet, who had been in the public eye as a militant socialist, became President of a Commission in charge of the nation’s art treasures. During his tenure of office he had suggested that the Vendôme Column, as s symbol of the Empire, be taken down. When, in the Civil War of 1871, it was overthrown by the mob, he was held responsible. He was sentenced to prison and ordered to have the Column reconstructed at his own expense. Although a fairly wealthy man, this was quite beyond his means, and at the first opportunity he escaped to Switzerland, where he died in 1877.Fortunately, his politics and his desire to be clever seldom interfered with his art. In that he was always true to his creed: “To speak in his own language; to paint his own country; to interpret the customs, ideas, and aspect of his time—in a word, to make art living.”Referenced Work of Art
  1. The Grandmother (Madame Robin) by Gustave Courbet
    French, 1819-1977. Purchased from the Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "A Portrait by Courbet," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 29, no. 9 (March, 1940): 41-44.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009