AMONG Courbet’s most active partisans, Alfred Bruyas of Montpellier (1821-1876) calls for special mention. In Rome, whither his parents had sent him for the sake of his health, his compatriot, Cabanel, the painter, brought him in touch with the young artists of the Villa Medici, and it was there no doubt that he discovered his vocation as a Maecenas. From that time on he set aside a portion of his large fortune for the formation of a collection of pictures by contemporary artists. By gift (1868) and by his will (1878) one hundred and forty-eight pictures collected by Bruyas were given by him to the Montpellier Museum; The whole French school of the time may be said to be represented in that eclectic collection, from David to Millet, including Géricault, Delacroix, Ingres, Tassaert, Corot, Diaz, Bonvin and many others.
Courbet holds a privileged position since he is represented by thirteen pictures, including “L’Homme à la Pipe,” “Les Baigneuses, “La Fileuse,” “Baudelaire,” “La Rencontre,” and we must add three portraits of the donor, for it was one of his foibles to have himself painted as often as possible.
In 1857, Champfleury, who had stayed with him, published in the “Revue les Deux Mondes,” much to Courbet’s annoyance, a “Story of M. T.,” in which those who knew had no difficulty in recognizing Bruyas and his Narcissus weakness. The patron of the arts was drawn to the life with his bright red beard and hair, his misty blue eyes and pale complexion. Champfleury maliciously belauded his aristocratic hands with the little finger curving out, and their precious intaglio rings, and their whiteness which Bruyas loved to have admired. “He is discreet, solitary, melancholy,” said the writer, he has the soul of a pretty woman who is bored, combined with mysticism and sensuality.”
Théophile Silvestre who, in 1876, published a fully annotated catalogue of the Bruyas collection, gives a much more flattering sketch of Courbet’s patron. If he often had his portrait painted, he explains, it was because he wished to show, by letting many different painters use the same model, the craftsmanship and temperament of each of them.
So it is, according to Silvestre, that in his three portraits, in spite of his affection for Bruyas, Courbet put something of his own vanity and peasant cunning. But the collector gave his painters entire freedom. In one of his three portraits signed by Courbet he is represented with his hand on a pamphlet entitled: “A Study of Modern Art, and a Solution, by Alfred Bruyas.” The “solution” consisted in opening his gallery to every talent without distinction.