Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Happy Birthday, Monsieur Courbet
June 10 is the birthday of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), easily one of art history's most groundbreaking and controversial painters. Audiences in his time either loved his work or loathed it, and now, of course, he enjoys a special place in textbooks as the founder of the French Realist movement in art. "Show me an angel and I'll paint one" is one of his famous quotes, making the point that painting should celebrate all that is real and modern. In the textbook I use for art history survey, "The Burial at Ornans" (1848) and "The Stonebreakers" (1849) are featured; it takes some explaining to demonstrate why those particular examples were so scandalous back at the Salon of 1850, but they were. Requiring no explanation -- and maintaining their shock value -- are other of Courbet's canvases, most notably "L'origine du monde" ("The Origin of the World"), an up-close-and-WAY-too-personal painting of a woman's hoo-ha. (I don't show that one in class!) Today "L'origine du monde" hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and it's one of those artworks where it is really, really fun to watch people come around the corner and encounter it.
Van Gogh was a great admirer of Courbet and mentions him several times in the letters to Theo. In December 1888, van Gogh and Gauguin traveled from Arles to Montpellier to see the Bruyas collection housed in the Musée Fabre (still there), including the pictured painting, "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet" (1854--click image to enlarge). Courbet stands at the right with walking-stick; he's come to the south of France on a painting expedition. Collector Alfred Bruyas is the redhead in the center (van Gogh muses in his letter to Theo that he somewhat resembles Bruyas). Perhaps the most tame and least controversial of all Courbet's paintings, "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet" was one of the most famous canvases of its day.