In the autumn of 1854, Courbet wrote to the art critic Champfleury:
My dear friend,
In spite of being assailed by hypochondria, I have launched into an enormous painting 20 feet by 12, perhaps even bigger than The Burial, which will show that I am still alive, and so is Realism, as Realism exists … It is society at its best, its worst, its average. In short, it’s my way of seeing society with all its interests and passions. It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted …
Courbet was describing The Artist’s Studio, whose subtitle A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life further reveals the painter’s ambitious, if somewhat narcissistic, aims.
However, it was rejected by the Salon jury (who said it was too big), prompting Courbet to organise, at his own expense, a one-man exhibition alongside the 1855 Universal Exhibition that he called ‘The Pavilion of Realism’. In the accompanying brochure (which he sold for 10 centimes), Courbet wrote:
I have studied the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns…. I no longer wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other…. No! I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality… to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation…
This brash declaration was typical of Courbet: he called himself ‘the most arrogant man in France’. With a private income and an enormous ego, Courbet never hesitated to challenge the artistic status quo, which he saw as static, conservative and passé. He relished scandal. And luckily for him, his era was one in which the official honours of patronage and the Academy were losing cachet to celebrity in the popular press and success in the commercial market.
So what is this painting about? Courbet himself explained: ‘on the right are all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers and art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life: the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death’. Of course, Courbet places himself at the centre of this universe – seated and painting in the company of a boy, a cat and a nude model, her clothes crumpled on the floor.
Around him, like a king surrounded by his court, are the figures of Courbet’s world: to the right, Champfleury sits watching the artist, while behind him one can recognise the hirsute profile of Courbet’s parton, Alfred Bruyas and behind him, facing the viewer, the philosopher Proudhon. There are two couples; one by the window representing free love, the other, in the foreground who are art patrons. At the edge of the canvas, Baudelaire appears intensely absorbed in a book. (While a friend, Baudelaire was not a fan of Courbet’s art, calling it a form of ‘fanaticism’ in a review of the 1855 Universal exhibition. His portrait here thus may be Courbet’s way of mocking the critic’s earnest integrity).
To the left is ‘everyday life’: a beggar girl and worker evoke poverty; a priest, a merchant and a hunter (who looks at bit like Napoleon III) suggest the bourgeois world; while the guitar, dagger, hat and the contorted nude male model seem to act as critics of academic art, as does the entire work. By presenting his own personal manifesto in the most prestigious of all genres, large-scale history painting, Courbet challenged the entire artistic hierarchy; something he would keep doing throughout his rebellious life.
He was as radical in politics as in his art, which would finally lead to the end of his revolutionary career. After participating in the destruction of the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, Courbet ended up in prison and eventually self-imposed exile in Switzerland, where he drank himself to death at the age of 58.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1855 Ford Madox Brown: The Last of England, Birmingham, Museums and Art Gallery