When Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) began his career in the late 1840s, French painting was dominated by two competing styles: neoclassicism, exemplified by Ingres,and romanticism, exemplified by Delacroix. Courbet, a dynamic and boundlessly self-confident man, proud of his rural origins and guided by his strong Republican beliefs,quickly established a third way. Rejecting the historical and literary subjects of the prevailing styles as too remote from actual experience, Courbet instead depicted scenes of everyday life, particularly among the peasants and the working class, with a naturalism then considered shocking. His paint handling was correspondingly direct: disdaining equally the idealized contours and cool tones of the neoclassicists and the expressive line of the romantics, he laid on his colors almost roughly, often with a palette knife instead of a brush. While CourbetGÇÖs brand of realism bears a family resemblance to those of his contemporaries Daumier and Millet, its scope is much broader: his masterworks range from the Burial at Ornans (1850), a heroically scaled depiction of a villager's funeral, to the very different Origin of the World (1866), a detailed close-up of the female anatomy, and he also painted many straight landscapes, portraits, and stilllifes.
This lucidly written monograph from noted art historian Segolene Le Men provides a new understanding of how Courbet's life and milieu shaped his vast oeuvre. Le Men organizes her text both chronologically and thematically: while the five chapters correspond to the successive phases of Courbet's career, each comprises several subsections that discuss individual aspects of his work. This hybrid approach allows Le Men to present an expansive and multifaceted view of Courbet's realism, emphasizing its evolving relations with the various ideas and artistic currents of its time. With some three hundred stunning color illustrations, including all of Courbet's most important paintings and many fine examples of his draftsmanship, this is the definitive study of a painter whose spirited pursuit of an independent aesthetic path has led many critics to call him "the first modern artist."
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Segolene Le Men, a graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieure, has been director of literary studies at that institution, as well as a researcher at CNRS. Presently she is professor of art history at the University of Paris X-Nanterre, an instructor at the Ecole du Louvre, and a member of the Institut Universitaire de France. Professor Le Men is the author of numerous publications on nineteenth-century French art.
The reputation of Gustave Courbet (1819 1877) as a great artist has rested mainly on his major manifesto paintings, his defense of Realism in the 1850s, and his contribution to the dismantling of the academic system of genres, an event that revolutionized Western art. His eventful life, his selfish and provocative nature, and the dramatic events of the final years of his career all played a part in the myth that sprang up around his life and art a myth to which he himself contributed no small part. His career is generally considered to have followed a series of major stages, determined by the art institutions and market. First, there are his difficult early years in the 1840s, submitting portraits and self-portraits to the Salon; then a period of scandal and glory, marked by what Michael Fried referred to as his breakthrough pictures” of the Second Republic, through to the solo exhibition of 1855 and its Realist Manifesto”; followed by his later years as a master painter specializing in landscapes and portraits, working on commission, submitting numerous works to exhibitions and enjoying the fruits of success; and, finally, the end of his career, in exile, denied official recognition after the failure of the 1870 revolution. Nevertheless, most of the critical attention so far has been devoted to the great Realist masterpieces A Burial at Ornans (plate 108) and The Painter’s Studio (plate 149), to the point of blurring or distorting the reception of his overall oeuvre. In recent years, however, art historians have begun to reassess other aspects of his painting.
The reception of Courbet in the postwar period began in 1948, the centenary of the 1848 revolution. This significant date led to a new political reading of the artist, presented in the exhibition La Revolution de 1848. An earlier reading that was also to prove influential was Meyer Schapiro’s article Courbet and Popular Imagery” in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Insitutes (1940 41). Schapiro, a medievalist, discussed how the artist drew on popular imagery in his paintings and lithographic work. This approach inspired Linda Nochlin’s 1967 study on The Meeting (Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet) (plate 143), which identifies Courbet as the Wandering Jew, a popular subject who also represents a Romantic myth of the artist. The retrospective held at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1977 1978 renewed interest in the debate. An exhibition within the exhibition, presenting a study on The Painter’s Studio by Helene Toussaint, gave a Masonic reading of the manifesto painting as a collective portrait a clef. The catalogue was also the first to show caricatures next to Courbet’s paintings. Drawing on a review of the exhibition that criticized it for failing to place the artist in his historical context, Werner Hofmann, writing in Kunstchronik, developed a new line of research in historical contextualization. This led to the exhibition Courbet un Deutschland, presented in Hamburg and Frankfurt in 1978.
The Besancon symposium Les Realismes et l’histoire de l’art” explored forms of Realism from Courbet through Social Realism and Photorealism in American art, and sparked a debate on the Grand Palais exhibition, to which belongs Klaus Herding’s Realismus als Widerspruch (1978). In a period marked by the social discontent of 1968, and in a Western world divided by the Iron Curtain, this research into a nineteenth-century theme marked a turn toward an international reception of Courbet characterized by ideological schisms. In a way, the Chartres exhibition Les Realismes et l’histoire de l’art, which proved fundamental to the interpretation of Courbet’s art for the period 1840 55, can be seen as a continuation of the Besancon conference. T.J. Clark’s 1973 book Image of the People, which represents a major contribution to our understanding of Courbet, Realism, and the art of the Second Republic, was its key point of reference. It represented a new anthropological approach to the question of the mask worn by the artist, in the poses of his self-portraits and in his presentation of peasants at the Salon.
Michael Fried’s analysis, published in 1973, is based on a phenomenological reading, inspired by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, of a number of paintings considered to be milestones in a broader artistic journey. Fried begins with the notion of absorption,” which leads him on to that of anthropomorphism, basing his argument on Clark’s theses at times and challenging them at others, especially in the sections dealing with A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio. Whether we read this plurality of interpretations in terms of dialectic or controversy, it is bound up with the dynamic of readings of art, however contradictory they might be. This range of interpretations has also been apparent in recent exhibitions at museums in Brooklyn and Lausanne the latter shedding light on Courbet’s work after 1855 and France, with the Vagues exhibition in Le Havre, the various exhibitions held at the Musee Courbet in Ornans, and the two exhibitions at the Musee d’Orsay, including Courbet et la Commune. It has also inspired a number of doctoral dissertations, by scholars such as Ting Chang, Frederique Desbuissons, Michele Haddad, Fabrice Masanes, and Thomas Schlesser. A number of books have also been written on the subject, including feminist readings following the work of Linda Nochlin, Jean-Luc Mayaud’s and James Rubin’s historical and social interpretations, and Petra Chu’s work defining Courbet’s place in the media culture of his day. Robert Fernier’s catalogue raisonne was first published in 1977 78.
In terms of recent art history research, then, Courbet’s oeuvre has given rise to a number of studies that are both fundamental and highly diverse. The work of no other painter has led to such a divergent range of interpretations inspired by current trends in art history. This is why, in France at least, the debate on over-interpretation” has become polarized around the figure of Courbet, pitting curators against scholars, while deepening the divide between those art historians who focus on dating and attribution and those more interested in constructing a historical discourse. I will take this situation as my starting point to address the still-unanswered question as to why Courbet’s painting is so open to interpretation. In fact, I shall argue that Courbet himself planted the contradictory readings and fables in the structure of his works and in the way individual paintings relate to each other.
This book aims to take into account the full diversity of Courbet’s art. I have chosen a multidisciplinary approach to look at the body of work in terms of the relationship between different modes of artistic expression not only literature, history, and the social sciences, but even (through Berlioz) music and conducting. I discuss popular imagery and the culture of Romantic typologies. I have stressed the importance of Courbet’s home region of Franche-Comte in eastern France, both for his Naturalistic taste for landscapes and rocks with occasionally anthropomorphic motifs, and for the social context and the people he met there. I have developed a theory on pictorial genres and in particular the shift from paintings of people to forest landscapes and seascapes, taking into consideration issues of reception. I also suggest that the artist himself alluded to the game of interpretation in various ways in his works, as he implied for The Painter’s Studio ( guess as guess can”), leaving the spectator free to choose his own reading. This is particularly apparent in the various reactions to The Origin of the World over the years (plate 186).
In a brief review of the 1991 edition of Clark’s book in the Gazette des beaux-arts, I suggested that it would doubtless be of interest to look to Maisieres. This I have now done. In this house near Ornans where Courbet worked for some time, he would have met people from very different background from the familiar image of the Franche-Comte peasant, which was in any case already undergoing change. The existence of such a mode of provincial sociability highlights the need for a re-evaluation of Courbet’s career, looking at the networks, social milieus, and geography of his travels, with his native region always acting as anchor. Among the paintings still in Maisieres was one on coarse-grained canvas that Courbet had left in a preparatory stages which I found particularly fascinating and whose importance is confirmed in the artist’s letters.
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Description du livre Abbeville Press, 2008. Hardcover. État : New. book. N° de réf. du libraire M0789209772
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Description du livre Abbeville Press, 2008. Hardcover. État : New. N° de réf. du libraire DADAX0789209772