Home News Courbet, French realist and ‘enfant terrible’

Courbet, French realist and ‘enfant terrible’

Published on October 15, 2007

PARIS (AFP) — Gustave Courbet's best-known work "The Origin of the World", an up-close painting of a woman's pudenda, parted thighs and torso, was considered so scandalous it was kept hidden from public view for 120 years.

Jean Desire Gustave Courbet

For the first time in three decades, a major retrospective of the 19th-century French artist’s work, opening in Paris this week before going to New York, explores how Courbet’s taste for rule-breaking influenced his generation and the next.

“Courbet was both probably the last great classic painter and the first of the moderns,” said Laurence des Cars, one of the curators of the show at Paris’ newly-renovated Grand Palais, featuring some 120 works by Courbet (1819-1877) and dozens of drawings and photographs from the period.

As a painter of landscapes, portraits, nudes and narratives, Courbet was determined to explode the rigid codes of classical painting taught at the Paris Beaux Arts, which decided what subject matters and styles were appropriate.

Paresse et Luxure ou le Sommeil

When he painted women, he gave them fulsome curves and life-like milky translucent skin, but also body hair, corset marks, and signs of age, as in his 1853 work “The Bathers”, totally unlike the ethereal idealised female figures common in the art of his day.

“He really was the first to do that — and it caused an appalling scandal. All of his nudes did. It went completely against the rules of his time,” said Cars.

Painted to order in 1866 for a Turkish diplomat named Khalil Bey, “The Origin of the World” did much to fuel his sultry reputation, even though it was never shown in public until 1988.

Until then it was kept ritually concealed: behind a green curtain in Bey’s private dressing room and under a sliding painted panel in the home of its last private owner, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

“But people still heard about the painting in Paris circles. He had painted the unshowable,” said Cars.

Experts believe the truncated, close up shot is doubtless inspired by the pornographic photos circulating in Paris at the time, although Cars argued “the title takes the work far beyond that to make it a symbol, a metaphor.”

Courbet also shattered the mould — and shocked his contemporaries — by choosing real-life, mundane subject matters, often from his home region of Franche Comte near the Swiss border, such as the wall-sized work depicting a humble village burial, “A Burial at Ornans”.

Soon the Paris art world was divided into pro- and anti-Courbet. “He was the man behind the first scandals of modern art,” said Cars.

“Courbet knows he is going to cause a commotion, get kicked out of the Paris Salon”, the annual establishment art show which dominated the French art scene in the mid-19th century.

When “The Painter’s Studio,” a wall-sized, allegory showing Courbet at work surrounded by the people and influences in his life, was rejected by the Salon in 1855, Courbet set up a rival, private show called the “Realism pavilion.”

“No artist had ever done that before, he was taking control of his own works and their media exposure. Courbet was the first, followed by Edouard Manet and later the Impressionists, who went on to organise their own Salon.”

“He thought, since the system rejects me, I’ll get organised and manage on my own — that kind of independence is deeply modern. For the younger generation, such as Manet who worked alongside him in the 1860s, it was a source of inspiration.”

Courbet remained influenced by the themes of Romanticism, absorbed during his youth in 1840s Paris: the self-portrait called “The Desperate Man” used for the show’s catalogue is a classic portrayal of the doomed artist.

But for Cars his technique was “deeply revolutionary, a clean break with the porcelain-like knife work taught at the Beaux Arts. He works with thickness, with the density of the paint.”