Honoring the Everyday : Notes on Gustave Courbet
June 10 is the birthday of an artist who gave ordinary life the scale and importance once largely reserved for royalty, religion and mythology.
Consider the introspective look on the face of Joanna Hiffernan in Courbet’s Jo, La Belle Irlandaise, c. 1865–6, seen below.
This portrait of Hiffernan gazing into the hand mirror “evokes the ancient themes of vanity, narcissism, and appreciation of female beauty,” Nancy Mowll Mathews observed in a 1985 article in the journal Source: Notes in the History of Art. (There is a link at the end of this essay with full details on this article and other sources used in my research.)
Courbet “compounds the meaning as Jo runs her fingers through her thick red hair, displaying its visual and tactile sensuality,” Mowll Mathews wrote.
That famous mane makes it easy for many people to know right away this is a portrait of Jo Hiffernan. Also called Heffernan, the Irishwoman may be more familiar to people in my city, Washington, D.C., from this depiction by her partner, the American expat painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
In this painting, Whistler plays around with interesting principles of design he had picked up by studying Japanese prints. Jo is an object on display in this painting, like the bear rug, like the white dress. Her face would almost blend in a crowd of Japanese manga cartoon characters.
In contrast, Courbet’s Jo is alert, curious, alive.
Courbet also painted his own handsome himself repeatedly, as seen in the examples shown below.
The painting below interests me for what it says about Courbet more than for its aesthetic quality.
We see Courbet meeting his patron Alfred Bruyas, a man who helped fund his work. Yet, who receives homage in this painting? It is clearly Courbet, shown holding the walking stick.
The jutting angle of Courbet’s beard is not a mistake or an artistic fumble.
It is a deliberate borrowing from the works of Assyrian art. Courbet was not a humble man. In painting a picture of himself meeting his financial backer, Courbet aligns himself with Sargon II, who reigned over Mesopotamian kingdom from about 722 to 705 BC, noted art historian Robert L. Alexander in a 1965 article, “Courbet and Assyrian Sculpture.”
Assyrian art was hot in mid 19th century Parisian art circles. French diplomat Paul-Émile Botta excavated major works of Assyrian art while stationed in Mosul, a city then part of the Ottoman Empire and now part of Iraq. By 1847, the Louvre in Paris opened what it called the first “Assyrian Museum.”
Assyrian artists managed in their bas-reliefs to show people on a grand scale while also capturing intricate details that hold viewers interest well beyond an initial glance. Courbet later applied lessons from these ancient works in his painting, while also taking hints from the works of Spanish painters displayed at the Louvre.
Courbet was a pioneer of the realist movement, saying he would paint only what he could see. That was a break with longstanding French academic style of painting, which favoring religious and literary subjects — Madonna, gods, scenes from antiquity, larger-than-life portraits of royalty.
Courbet was smart enough to use the tools of earlier artists while building a movement dedicated to portraying everyday life, noted Alexander in his article, “Courbet and Assyrian Sculpture.”
Alexander opens this article with a famous quote by Courbet, which the art historian describes as the painter “taunting officialdom with this quip.”
“ I traveled through tradition as a good swimmer would cross a river; the academicians all drowned in it (J’ai traverse la tradition comme un bon nageur passerait une riviere: les academiciens s’y sont tous noyes),” Courbet said.
Born in Ornans in eastern France, Courbet’s principal instruction in art came through long study of works in the Louvre in Paris. His studies as a young man included hours spent copying the paintings of Spanish, Venetian, and Dutch masters found there.
But Courbet also drew great inspiration from his hometown. It was the setting of a work that is said to have marked a turning point in 19th century French paining.
A Burial at Ornans (Un enterrement à Ornans) c. 1849–1850, shows how well the painter borrowed techniques from the past to capture the present. The muted colors are said to reflect ones Courbet studied in the Louvre’s Spanish gallery. Alexander, author of the article “Courbet and Assyrian Sculpture,” sees in this painting techniques used by the bas-reliefs of Mesopotamia for showing processions.
Before Courbet made his mark, the lives of ordinary people such as the mourners at Ornans had been considered fit ony for smaller works, classified as genre paintings. French painting had tended before this to reserve monumental canvases for scenes from the Bible or historical events, such as Jacques-Louis David’s 20ft x 32 foot depiction of the coronation of Napoleon.
Courbet’s “A Burial at Ornans” rivals the David painting for size. It sweeps a little over 21 feet in width and 10 in height.
Yet, it’s not clear who is being buried. Historians have wondered if the theme referred to Courbet’s maternal grandfather, who died in 1848. But the painting has a deliberately generic title. It is “A Burial,” not any one person’s internment.
Courbet was joined in his embrace of realism by several fellow French artists including Honoré Daumier (1808–1879). The clever 1865 lithograph below by Daumier suggests a change in the tide of French taste away from fanciful academic works.
In it, one gallery visitor says to another in French “Still more Venuses this year… always Venuses!… as if there were any women built like that!”
And yet, for all the distinctions drawn between Courbet and the work of earlier more traditional artists, the pioneer of Realism painted the essence of Venus in his portraits of beautiful women. The nude seen below is said to be Jo Hiffernan, the subject of Courbet’s painting of a woman peering into a mirror.
Are these beautiful portraits of a woman with whom Courbet almost certainly had an affair truly different from other portraits of Venus? Or it that Courbet simply stripped away the artifice that painters had used in adorning women they admired?
Is Courbet’s “Woman with a Parrot” all that different in the end from an older depictions of the embodiment of love, or at least lust? Compare his “Woman with a Parrot” to the Louvre’s “Venus, Cupid and a Satyr,” c. 1524–1527, by Antonio da Correggio. It seems likely da Correggio knew his Venus as well as Courbet knew Hiffernan.
Still, to me, there is something nicely honest in a painter being able to put his lover on canvas without invoking mythology.
The title “realist” had been applied to Courbet early in his career as a criticism by artists sticking to more traditional forms of painting. Over time, Courbet grudgingly embraced it and put out what’s considered a Realist manifesto in 1855. Below is an English translation of his statement, as it was posted on the website of the Musée d’Orsay:
“I have studied the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice. I no longer wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial goal of ‘art for art’s sake’. No! I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality.
To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art — this is my goal.”
Click here for a bibliography of works I’ve used to research essays on European painters, including Courbet.