THE fine pictures just mentioned ought to have convinced Courbet once for all that there was no need for him to be everlastingly running after celebrity in order to achieve fame. Unfortunately circumstances provided him with more perilous opportunities than ever for standing in the limelight.
At that time he was living with his friends, Castagnary and Carjat in the overheated atmosphere of the Café de Madrid. With Gambetta, Floquet, Spuller, he hobnobbed with the future leaders of the Commune: Delescluze, Paschal Grousset, Raoul Rigault, and Jules Vallès, the warm-hearted man of letters, the future editor of the “Cri du Peuple,” of whom he painted a fine portrait (now in the Peytel collection). Courbet had no difficulty in proving a match even for the most visionary and hot-headed. “Between one pipe and the next,” said Hetzel to Mme Adam ” in the café, one could lead him on to the greatest extravagance.”
This was shown to be true when the Government was induced by the success of “La Vague” to realize one of Courbet’s dearest desires by giving him the Cross of the Legion of Honour. Prompted by his comrades the painter suddenly perceived that it would mean dishonour for him to accept this distinction from the enemy and he replied with a vehement refusal. His action was immediately rewarded with a veritable triumph.” Never,” he wrote, “never has there been such a success as that which I have enjoyed this year, with my seascapes the year has been in every way perfectly splendid forme.”
It was, alas, Courbet’s last splendid year. In opposition his tactlessness made no great matter, but the fall of the Empire suddenly placed him in a position of apparent power. He was appointed President of the “Commission des Artistes” in September, 1870, and would have filled the office creditably enough if he had not come by. the unfortunate idea of pandering to the republican hatred of the Vendôme Column, the detested symbol of War and Empire. “Knock down the Column ” was at that time a commonplace threat. The idea seemed to him so magnificent that he drew up a petition recommending it to the Government of the National Defence. The project went so far that on April 12, 1871, the Commune ordered the monument to be removed. Courbet, who was elected a Commune deputy and a delegate of the Fine Arts a few days later, urged that the Commune should carry its decree into effect. On May 16, amid the plaudits of the mob, the Column was sawn through at the base and toppled down into a dung heap.