The text below is an excerpt of the book Gustave Courbet, written by Georges Riat, published by Parkstone International.
Child of materialism and positivism, Courbet was without a doubt one of the most complex painters of the nineteenth century. Symbolising the rejection of traditions, Courbet did not hesitate to confront the public with the truth by liberating painting of conventional rules. He became from then on the leader of pictorial realism.
The Vendôme Column
At the end of the deliberation of the armament committee of the 6th arrondissement, Jules Simon decided that the Napoleon from the column would be melted down, and the bronze used to cast the statue of Strasbourg for the Place de la Concorde with those of other cities of France. In a letter of the 5th of October, addressing the National Defence Government, and published the same day in the Réveil, Courbet strongly opposed this proposal. “This is what I was afraid of; a bronze statue! You say it will commemorate the glory of Strasbourg. Is history so forgetful, and have we forever lost the memory of the heart? […] The stone statue exists, respected and venerated by all. Leave it where it is, with its flags, its crowns, its maudlin crepe. Strasbourg merely did its duty, after all; it remembered that it was an integral part of France: it died as a true French citizen. Erect a statue to it if you will! But be logical and fair about it. Cast effigies also for Metz, Toul, Laon, Bitche, and Phalsbourg, for every city which will fall, as Prussia advances to crush them…” For him, it was preferable to add a marble plaque with a brief inscription on the pedestal of the existing statue and to save the bronze from the Napoleon to make new cannons, which were sorely needed.
While he was at it, he spoke out against the “fools” who hadn’t understood his proposal about the column; he had certainly never wanted it “smashed”; he only wanted “this pile of melted cannons, perpetuating the tradition of conquest, removed from a street named rue de la Paix (Street of Peace).” Democracy and universal socialism required no longer erecting monuments perpetuating hatred. Courbet’s opinion about the column, then, was very clear; it must not be destroyed since it was a work of art, albeit mediocre; but, since it glorified hatred, it should be removed from the street commemorating peace; its panels could be displayed in Les Invalides. Those demanding its total destruction were many, at the time; Courbet was not among their ranks, but rather part of the conservative minority of the new guard, as he would be later in the Commune.
On the 1st of December, Courbet and Burty resigned as members of the Archives Commission. The work of this body had lasted nearly six weeks; it concluded that the integrity of the functionaries in the Museums had been complete. The two dissidents did not contest this, but they distanced themselves from their colleagues so as not to have to approve the decision to renew the respective appointments of these men, who had shown themselves such faithful servants “of an odious regime.”
The case of The woman with the Parrot
The Woman with the Parrot has many parallels with Venus and Psyche; the model is in almost the same pose and it shows the same bed with spiral posts and a window opening, at the left, onto a beautiful distant landscape. The young woman is magnificent, plump and muscular at the same time, with admirably curvaceous hips and legs and delicate, firm breasts. Her head is thrown back, spreading her lush red hair over a white cloth, which she holds against her upper thigh in her right hand, while her left arm curves gracefully holding a turquoise macaw, its wings spread, over her head. It is a marvellous combination of colour in which the light and dark spots, so contradictory, nonetheless harmonise to the point of offering rest for the eye. The gaze moves easily from the white cloth to the rosy body, to the red hair, to the brown drapery, to the green countryside, in a symphony arranged with a virtuosity worthy of Titian and the greatest colourists.
With its warm and intoxicating voluptuousness, this work contrasts with the cool, restful charm of Deer under Cover by the Plaisir- Fontaine Stream. This is set in Puits Noir on a lovely, sunny day; the canopy of trees opens here and there on the blue sky, between the white or grey cliffs with their vertical ridges, which enclose the clear, shallow water, gurgling over the pebbles. On the right, a small brocket drinks from the stream while another crosses it, its head to attention. On the left, a stag nibbles on ivy under a large oak near a doe at rest, with her legs outstretched. Anyone acquainted with the site is unable to look at this interpretation without a surge of emotion, and it seems that everyone must experience the same, for the sincerity, the beauty, the reality and the poetry that the master painter has put in it are without compare. This is a work that can stand with the few uncontested masterpieces.
Meanwhile, the “two paintings” produced a considerable effect. “They are at last confounded!” cried Courbet, “All the painters, all of painting is turned upside down. The Count of Nieuwerkerque sent me a message saying that I had created two masterpieces and that he was delighted. The entire jury said the same thing with no objection. I am the success of the exhibition without question. There is talk of a medal of honour, of the cross of honour […] The landscape painters are knocked dead. Cabanel complimented the woman as did Pils and Baudry. I’ve been telling you for a long time that I have been sparing them this punch in the face; they got it this time.”
There were, however, some discordant voices: Lagrange (Correspondant) sounded the death knell of Realism, which, “brought down from the heights to which misguided friends had tried to elevate it […] turns out to be no more than a colour system. Instead of imposing impossible subjects on the good sense of the public, it takes its subjects ready made from the historical, academic or picturesque traditions, and it is only in their interpretation on the canvas that it innovates.” But the vast majority of articles and studies published about the Salon produced a harvest of nearly unanimous praise for Courbet.
The Origin of the World
During the month of August, Courbet was very busy. He wrote to his parents on the 6th of August, saying that there was nothing “so exhausting as making money,” and that he had to go to Trouville, to the Abbey of Jumièges, to see Monsieur Lepel-Cointet, then back to Paris, to finish the painting for Khalil-Bey. This painting that the painter had to finish was The Origin of the World.
Maxime du Camp described The Origin of the World disingenuously as “a nude woman, facing forward, unusually excited and contorted, remarkably well painted, ‘with love’ as the Italians say; the last word in Realism. Yet, through some unfortunate mistakes the artist, in copying his model from life, forgot to include the feet, legs, thighs, stomach, chest, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and the head.” However, crossing the line of taboo, what Courbet did not forget to show, was the lush bush of pubic hair. At a period when women’s legs were kept mysteriously behind vast quantities of material wrapped over crinoline cages, the very existence of pubic hair on a woman was a dark and shameful secret, possibly even unheard of by some married men. Thus the painting was long kept out of sight in private collections. Its last owner, the philosopher Jacques Lacan, brother-in-law of the surrealist painter André Masson, asked the latter to cover it using a frame with a false back and to paint another work over it. He did a snowy landscape, a surrealist, and much less explicit, version of The Origin of the World. And, when the painting was at last exhibited to the public for the first time, at the Musée d’Orsay in 1995, it once again created shock and controversy.
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