Gustave Courbet – Baudelaire

COURBET had a horror of “bespoke” portraits. “Women,” he said, “want images without shadows; men want to be dressed up in their Sunday best. It would be much better to do navvy’s work than to earn money in that way; at least one would not have bartered away his thoughts.

There was left him therefore only one honourable way of painting portraits, which was to take his friends as models, those of his friends who shared his realistic aesthetic ideas. Unfortunately the aesthetic ideas of his friends were apt to crumble away when they themselves sat for him and they complained of their portraits like the most ordinary people. ” They were not beautiful,” cried poor Courbet, ” I could not make them beautiful! ”

Among the malcontents was Baudelaire who is depicted in a strange canvas of this period which is now in the Montpellier Museum with the Bruyas collection. Does the fault lie with the capricious lighting which casts a brilliant illumination on to the poet’s brow, and most disrespectfully fastens on to the end of his nose, and leaves his mobile changeful face, the despair of all painters, in shadow ? Or was it the unstudied character of the composition that did not satisfy the model ? It is very certain that the picture gave him very little pleasure.

Charles Baudelaire was two years younger than Courbet and had joined forces with him in very early days. We know that the author of “Fleurs du Mal ” and the translator of Edgar Poe was also upon occasion an authoritative critic of art. He may be said to have been a partisan of Courbet’s even before he knew him, for he finished his famous article on the Salon of 1845 with these words : ” This man will be the painter, the real painter, who will seize upon the epic side of real life, and in colour and design make us see and understand how great and poetic we are in our cravates and polished boots. May the true seekers next year give us the singular joy of the advent of the new!”

The two young men were at first very intimate. Courbet for some time lodged Baudelaire in his studio. But they soon wearied of each other’s eccentricities. Did not the poet try to make his friend take down all the lucubrations that escaped him in his opium orgies ?

In writing of the exhibition of 1855, Baudelaire compared the drawing of Ingres with that of Courbet, certainly not without malice aforethought, and distributed his ironical praises equally between the heroic traditionalism of the one and the naturalistic fanaticism of the other.