Art In History Art Blog
I'm getting into this idea of successive "French Revolutions"; it's a bit too neat, but it reveals some interesting patterns. The first (David) was primarily a social/political revolution, with Neo-classicism as the engine. The second (Delacroix) was primarily artistic, a reaction against the strictures of Neo-classicism, though it clearly had its social side as well. With Courbet we will see again a primarily social/political revolution, that took Realism as its engine. The fourth would be Manet, whom I've already discussed, and his revolution once again is in the realm of art.
The lead image is Courbet's "manifesto", titled "The Studio: a Real Allegory". In it Courbet includes all the tenets of his revolution: the oppressed, the discarded trappings of Romanticism, the Nude (representing unvarnished reality) and the innocent eye of the child. To the right are patrons and kindred spirits, and at the center Courbet himself, with his enormous ego on display. Midcentury was the heighday of 19th century realism, both social realism and naturalism, and in another blog I will look at some of its other exponents. But none was a confrontational and scandalous as Courbet.
In fact Courbet's greatest contribution may have been his "art/political" revolution: the Salon des Refusees (Salon of the Rejected). At the time, there were no public ewxhibitions of art except the Salon de Beaux Arts, an annual exhibition controlled by the French Academy. An artist whose work was blackballed simply did not get seen. When Courbet's "Burial at Ornans" was rejected, he set up his own competing exhibition in a tent across the way, including any other rejected artist who wished to join. This was the break which allowed the impressionists, a generation later, to set up their own exhibitions.
I'll show two self-portraits as further indication of the ego we are dealing with. The "man with a Pipe" is ironically quite romantic in its approach, and except for the self-satisfied look, not an overt revolutionary statement. "Bonjour M. Courbet" shows a chance meeting between the artist and his main patron. The patron is of course not shown at disadvantage, but Courbet is clearly his equal; all the subservience comes from the servant and is directed at Courbet.
Courbet's first big scandal was his "Burial at Ornans". There was a long tradition of genre works showing lower class subjects, but never had they been elevated to an enormous canvas and shown life size, as if they were truely as important as heroes and nobility. This image is horrible, so I won't try to say much about it. We can get a better idea from "The Stonebreakers", which again shows peasants at heroic size, elevated to importance not through idealization but through natural monumentality.
Courbet extended his confrontation to sexual matters in a series of female figures which flaunted all social mores. I am showing you "The Sleepers", an innocuous title which can't disguise the fact that the subject is a Lesbian couple, in a pose which falls just short of total explicitness. The culmination of the series was a work called "The Origin of the World", so raw that I am not going to show it...you can look it up.
Courbet also made major contributions to the naturalism of the period. I am showing two landscapes to end with. I particularly love his many views of cliffs and rock faces, which have a substance and mass that very nearly become the rock itself. I also love his "Great Oak', which is a true tree portrait, and seems to elevate the importance of the natural world in much the saem way as "The Stonebreakers" elevated the staus of ordinary man.