Gustave Courbet

The Artist’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre) A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in My Artistic and Moral Life, 1855, 141.33” x s35.43”, Musee d’Orsay, Paris


You would think that artistic people were the last on earth to concern themselves with rules, but for the most part the opposite is true.  Artists, be they musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, or poets all adore the rules. Robert Frost moaned about poets writing free verse, saying that it was like “playing tennis without a net.”  No doubt older poets were equally horrified by blank verse which, despite its rigorous metrical structure, had the temerity to ignore rhyme at the end of lines.  Modern poets today struggle in arguments over how to recognize what is good from what is merely glib.

Rules help. Specifically, rules help the artistically maladept and immature types reassure themselves over the relative worth of something artistic or ephemeral. The world is chock full of people who cannot decide for themselves whether they like something or not. And it is full of practitioners of craft who reassure themselves that the thing they created is worthwhile because they have followed the rules. In turn these practitioners are supported by an industry of critics who protect their own reputations by staying comfortably inside the lines.  These worshipers of the rules cluster like grapes from the vine of a single genius.  They are the refiners of the original idea, the ones who ensured, for instance, that rules of perspective discovered by Giotto and refined by da Vinci and others were slavishly followed for years. Rules give you a way to measure the rightness of something.

Exasperated by a wannabe writer’s insistence that he divulge the “secret” to good writing, an established writer once answered, “Proper English sentences should consist of fourteen words and should start with the letter ‘p.’”

So rules let a community of artists rally around a definition, a template, so they can consider themselves a part of whatever movement is going on.  And woe be to the one who steps outside this box, for these communities are vicious in their defense.  The Italian Futurists were infuriated that someone would dare place Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 in a Futurist exhibition since the Futurists had dismissed the nude as “done.”  The only thing “nude” in Duchamp’s stunning painting is that word in the title. Likewise, cubists rejected the work because it was not formally cubist in approach. Duchamp was so angry and disgusted by the provincialism and childishness of these arguments he vowed to never again associate with any formal “school” of art and helped found Dada as a repudiation of all rule-hugging mediocrities.

But not all rule breakers are geniuses. Artists of sufficient genius usually change art through the force of their work. Gustave Courbet managed to do it almost as an act of will.  The art community reacted violently to his work. How violently?  Here is an excerpt from a review from one of his exhibitions written by Alexandre Dumas, fils:

From what fabulous meeting of a slug with a peacock, from what genital antitheses, from what fatty oozings can have come this thing called M. Gustave Courbet? Under what gardener’s cloche, with the help of what manure, as a result of what mixture of wine, beer, corrosive mucus and flatulent swellings can have grown this sonorous and hairy pumpkin, this aesthetic belly, this imbecilic and impotent incarnation of the Self?

Otherwise, how did you like the show M. Dumas?

Courbet declared the day of Romanticism to be done, and seemed to claim that it was over just because he said so. He showed no interest in genre painting or historic painting which was considered the highest goal for a painter in those days. He wanted reality, real people doing real things. He also wanted lots of pictures of himself looking heroic. Well, that’s cool. Still, one can only wonder what it must have been like the first time his  Origin of the World appeared in public. It hardly matters. The man was a rule breaker. He announced war against all that had gone before and somehow managed to impose his will on an art world filled with artists who were better than he. He paved the way for Manet and Monet. Monet actually includes Courbet in his own version of the Luncheon on the Grass as an homage to the great troublemaker.

The painting above is a kind of emancipation proclamation. Purposely large and difficult to display he is making a very aggressive statement. This is quite a swagger. The people to the right in this work are real people, the poet Baudelaire, the art critic Champfleury, and others were people known to the elite in Paris art circles. Their inclusion is carefully considered. I have very powerful allies, he seems to be saying. I intend to have my way.

This is from the Wikipedia page for Courbet which claims: on the left are figures (priest, prostitute, grave digger, merchant and others) who represent what Courbet described in a letter to Champfleury as “the other world of trivial life, the people, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, the people who live off death.” Well, I can’t argue with the man himself and if that’s what he said I believe it. But I never responded to the figures that way. I see the figures on the left as characters out of art’s antiquity. The man on the floor by the easel could easily be from Breugel. The others all smack of figures from other artist’s work: Rembrandt, David, Caravaggio, etc.  The painting seems to say to me that these, too, are on my side. They have helped me get where I am now and they are watching to see where I go next. At the canvas a child watches intently while a cat plays with a moth or something on the floor. A model stands draped unsure how she might fit into the work under Courbet’s hand.

And it is here that Courbet proclaims his liberation. He is surrounded by figures, by models, by ideas, by art. And what does he paint? Something completely beyond the studio, beyond all these figures: a landscape. It is something that exists only in the artist’s mind, a peculiar, personal vision we can learn only if he chooses to share it. I am the rule, he says. Just me. You, who linger in the margins, who almost have enough talent, you will watch. You will gnash your teeth and you will cry and you will complain, but in the end you will do what you always do. You will study my work and codify what I have done and you will declare, just as if you had the right to do so, this is the new rule.

But Courbet knows that time moves faster now, the world is smaller, things change quickly. There will be no century-long schools of agreement anymore. Not for art. Not for anything. Before you can blink twice someone new, perhaps this child right here, will take the old wood that is Courbet and break it across his knee into splinters and something new will rise and you will scramble all over again trying to understand it.

There will be new rules. And it will not matter. For the artists, the real artists, will have their way with them. And it will be glorious.

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