An Obsession with Nature

John Haber
in New York City

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet has come to stand for Realism, a label he did not always accept. He gave the activities of plain people the scale of history painting. His muscular and unrelenting brush helped give landscape the same dignity and place in the history of art.

If one had asked him for a label, he might have said only artist, and he would have meant it as a boast. He might not have minded, though, had one called him the first modern artist—and, he would insist, a great one. Gustave Courbet's Young Women by the Banks of the Seine (Petit Palais, 1856–1857)

There are as many first modern artists as there are definitions of modernity, and Courbet supplies quite a few all by himself. Cubism and contemporary art still confuse and anger people, but one can easily take modern art for granted. Most people take Impressionism as second nature. The Met has the virtue of making him strange again—as strange as his own obsessive personality. Its Courbet retrospective does not follow his career any too well, but it does trace a twisted trail from Romanticism to the new century. It gets one thinking about what happens when a painter takes desire seriously.

Third nature

Modernism had not yet littered art history with one movement after another, and this artist loved to stand alone. When he painted himself in his studio—flanked by friends and fantasies, poets and philosophers, dark shadows and plain folks—he asserted that the only art movement that mattered met in his head. He also leaves one unsure how long their meeting will last. The cast packs closely together, as in a Renaissance frieze or Courbet's own dark and stately Burial at Ornans, but each person broods alone. The artist's nude model has her feet on the ground, but her upper body entirely within the borders of the canvas and an apparent landscape.

As early as 1998, a gallery show in New York gave Courbet back his strangeness. It brought together late work as fine as the portrait of Jo the Irish Girl combing her luxuriant red hair, from Kansas City. It imagined an isolated Romantic digging deeply into the earth, while the artist had gone into exile in Switzerland, and while French politics and art had largely forgotten him. Later the same gallery covered decades of landscapes still in private hands, before bankrupting itself through too much expensive real estate and too many promises.

Oddly enough, the Met's huge retrospective offers up the strangest version of Courbet yet. It can claim to supply balance and context. However, it cannot bring the large paintings that stopped French art in its tracks. The sober burial scene and the enigmatic Studio of the Artist cannot leave Paris, and Allied bombs destroyed his majestic Stonebreakers during World War II.

It disrupts chronology in order to arrange his work by theme, and it comes late to his most famous subject, landscape. It pounds each motif into one's head, like the pounding of the surf in his seascapes or the violence of his streams. With dozens of photographs throughout, it documents Courbet's realism. The photographs also demonstrate his close connections to the popular imagination. However, that makes it all the harder to think of him as painting solely from nature. If Impressionism is like second nature, Courbet's realism seems like a third, fourth, and so on to infinity.

Courbet typically represents the textbook new direction after French Romanticism and the precursor to Impressionism. Here he becomes an artist defined by his obsessions—with himself, his family, his small-town origins, his battered hopes of success, and his endless self-creations. It shows him turning again and again to the forests and cliffs of the Franche-Compté, in eastern France. It shows him tracking roaring streams to their origins, as if unable to let go. It shows hunting scenes, depicting another kind of obsessive search. It includes more than one version of Jo and several other paintings, and one gets to sort out how much that repetition hinged on market demand and how much on his inability to let go.

Where obsessions turn up, sex cannot be far behind, and the Met includes his painting of a woman's crotch, almost as shocking now as to his contemporaries. It hangs near similar photographs, boxed as in a peep show. Family portraits, landscapes, animals after the hunt, and idyllic but odd-shaped young women alike become objects of desire. So does an ambitious scene of ghostly women in white that could represent preparations for either a wedding or a funeral. In the hunt, Courbet often omits the hunters, marking himself and the viewer as protagonists. He had to insist so much on realism, the Met suggests, in order to keep his own wild imaginings in check.

From portrait painter to revolutionary

For the public, Courbet had only one true obsession, himself. He reveled in politics, so long as he could have his own party. He disdained the judgment of critics, to the point of mounting his own exhibition within hailing distance from the official Salon. His paintings created scandal after scandal, which simultaneously outraged and pleased him. Yet he could listen endlessly to compliments, and he might have loved that Gustave Caillebotte borrowed his Floor Scrapers for Impressionism. He could also supply proper portraits or copies of his own work on demand.

He stood with the Paris Commune, while the rest of the country reeled from defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Yet his radicalism had its roots in his hometown, Ornans, and he never let one forget it. His republican politics sent him first to jail and then into exile, but the rocks, trees, and streams of eastern France permeate his art up to his death in 1877. He shows up now and then bearded like a prophet. Critics made fun of one hiking scene as Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet.

The Met might as well apply that title to its first room, almost entirely of self-portraits. They show a young man, born in 1819, trying on different roles and a young artist trying on different styles. The roles and styles all, however, have to do with the rebel and Romantic on the make. He plays the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, but also the confident artist, the musician, and the handsome bourgeois with his black Labrador. The next rooms extend some of the same roles to friends and family, as the Met dances around works it has to omit. It does, however, reproduce the Studio, alongside such studies for it as a portrait of Charles Baudelaire.

Pablo Picasso made a distinctly modern point when he said that great artists do not borrow but steal, and Courbet has much the same attitude. He will not copy the Old Masters, but he is not above Titian's brushy shadows, Rembrandt's murky color and palette knife, and an urn right out of a nude by J. A. D. Ingres. Landscape starts to appear, as does Courbet's hesitation between reality and something approaching Surrealism. More than one person next to me voiced the same thought I had, that a portrait of his younger sister looks as if Balthus could have painted it, and sure enough the catalog finds a close match. Conversely, Pierre Prud'hon, the philosopher and socialist, wears a peasant smock.

A detour brings him closer to the mainstream, with standing portraits. Finally comes the long onslaught of women and landscapes, and here things get really interesting. As usual, the Met will not admit when its portrait of the artist gets peculiar and selective. Only an alert visitor will notice when early and late landscapes hang side by side. Others will simply assume that Courbet evolved from society portrait painter to revolutionary. The artist might have found the story flattering.

Courbet loves so much the tactile sensation of things that he associates it with vision and art. Tradition opposes his grave Realism to Camille Corot and Pre-Impressionism. In Courbet hands, fuzziness adds texture rather than brightness. He works over rocks, trees, and waves until paint itself suggests the sensuality of looking at the world. He traces that sensation to its source, and he finds in it the source of his art and his life.

Pleasure and permanence

In the gallery exhibitions, also without his major histories and allegories, Courbet looked fresher than ever. I got caught up then in the different rocks and trees, almost akin to nude portraiture. Paradoxically, he turned into a painter of light as well. As his foreground presses out toward the viewer—at once the reality of paint and the illusion of a real object—the light from the upper left appears to have fallen onto the painting from outside. Tactility turns into vision. No wonder Realism, the art of looking honestly at the world, gets so disturbing.

At the Met, the same scenes seem to darken, bringing out the disturbance more than the freshness. John Constable painted clouds as tenderly as dear departed friends, even when he revised them from version to version. In much the same way, Impressionism could give every brushstroke and every sparkle of sunlight its individuality. Courbet's clouds mingle imposing reds and grays that look more like solid cliffs.

Then, too, as art historians insist, Impressionism recorded bourgeois life. When Corot hit the suburbs and Italy before that, his art went in search of leisure spots as much as the dead Italian masters. Courbet sticks to dark forests and unfashionable provinces. His castles and rocks might have been there forever. The Courbet museum is still at Ornans, the locale of his famous country burial scene.

Impressionism has long been associated with pleasure. Where their color is bright, in the Romantic tradition, Courbet runs in fear of primaries. If Renoir's nudes are "pleasingly plump," Courbet's are lumpy. When he paints the end of a hunt, the fox is dead and bleeding in the snow. When he traces a river to its source, it seems less a spring of life than an all-enveloping cavern.

In the gallery, too, one first saw Courbet's virtuosity. The somber green, blue, and gray of his late work has a shimmering depth all its own, quite on a par with the Impressionism that had almost begun. At the Met, one remembers more that sense of weight and depth as a harbinger of the future. For a Romantic, clouds were evanescent. With Claude Monet through his Water Lilies and others even before Georges Seurat and Seurat drawings, the casual moment took on permanence even as it marveled at its own reality.

Courbet served as that moment's inspiration. He was painting all-over paintings, on his own small scale, before Monet's Water Lilies. The tortured Romantic knew that Romanticism was over.

The sources of realism

The associations with sexuality and the nude come out most near the end of his life. Maybe Manet, the eternal dandy and often unwilling rebel, bears literal affinities to John Currin's playboys. In his own way, the earnest, clumsy Realist was onto the same thing.

He paints a river in his home province as it first emerges out of the rocks. He presents landscape not as an open expanse but as a dark, narrow, uncontrollable flow. He equates a look within a cave to a search for the origins of his art, and he finds in them both the tactility of that female crotch. Spread so that she falls toward the viewer's space, she has the very center of her body most exposed. Courbet called her The Origin of the World.

One already sees Modernism's turn against the viewer's desire, with all the dangerous otherness of Picasso's women. Appropriately, The Origin of the World long remained in private hands—the hands of Jacques Lacan, the psychologist at war with Freud, existentialism, and structuralism. Lacan describes a child's gaze in the mirror as at once a projection of one's desires onto the world and a discovery in others of oneself. Courbet imagines darkness as feminine, as an object of his deepest wishes, as a source of life, and as the spring of his own ego as well. He puts the male gaze on display, and it turns out feminine at its core.

A hint of feminine sexuality appears obviously in that portrait of his sister or in Young Ladies of the Village—again with his three sisters as models, from around 1852. They look well dressed enough, wearing broad hats, trailed by a cute dog, and bringing a gift to a peasant girl. However, if critics mocked them as ugly and ridiculously large relative to two cows, the disruption of scale and taste associates them with something female but not maternal. The term for young women, demoiselles, also seemed deliberately provocative, just as in Picasso's brothel, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Sexuality becomes most explicit, though, five years later in Young Ladies by the Banks of the Seine. Side by side beneath a tree, one in white and one covered in flowers, they all but melt into the grass.

Where a man and a woman having sex would relegate the viewer's lust to voyeurism, the women together subordinate the male gaze to feminine eroticism. Overlapping without touching, they do not necessarily count as homoerotic. One flaunts her indifference while rising up, while the nearer one bares her back and opens her dark eyes to the viewer without making the slightest move. Their bunched dresses hide their flesh but accentuate their midriff. Their unidealized poses further insist on their individuality, while flattening perspective and turning them into decorative objects. Courbet's almost shapeless composition pulls one into a tangle of textures and colors—not all that far from the mouth of a river or a tangle of hair.

Like Vincent van Gogh in the sanitarium or Paul Cézanne in Dr. Gachet's studio, Courbet may sound more like a case study than an artist. Like a patient in analysis, he was at war with the impermanence of his imagination. His talent was to turn that war into an encounter between vision, sex, and paint.

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Gustave Courbet ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18, 2008. His late paintings were on view at Salander-O'Reilly in the winter of 1998 and his landscapes there through November 29, 2003. I have made use of the earlier reviews of Courbet where I could.


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