Gustave Courbet – L’atelier (concluded). La Baigneuse Endormie (the Sleeping Bather)

THE strange thing about the exhibition of 1855 is that the artist himself repudiated the label with which he had ticketed it. “The word realist,” he said in the preface to his catalogue which he drew up with the help of Castagnary, ” has been forced on me as the word romantic was forced on the men of 1830. Such titles have never given a just idea of the work to which they are attached; if they could and did, then there would be no need for pictures.” And when he looks round for a formula with which to explain his intentions he can find nothing more exact than this: “To endeavour to translate the manners, ideas, the aspect of my generation, to set them forth as they have seemed to me, to be not only a painter but also a man, in a word, to create a living art, that is my aim.”

The sound doctrine underlying this manifesto was given a form so confused that it could not but strengthen the eternal misunderstanding (which still subsists) between the partisans and the adversaries of realism.

The heated arguments that took place on varnishing day were, according to those who were present, irresistibly comic: classics and moderns, bohemians and respectable persons, looked each other up and down for a space, and then gradually carried the dispute to such a pitch of fury that Champfleury—who must have heard many such discussions—went home in dismay, feeling that ” he knew nothing-at all about art.”

The following days were less amusing : visitors became fewer and fewer, and though the entrance fee was reduced to fifty centimes, Realism made no more money. Poor Courbet was very far indeed from the 10o,000 francs he had counted on.

We cannot leave the 1855 exhibition without comparing the beautiful nude of the “Atelier” with a study which is worthy of such a comparison in its masterly freedom, its supple handling, the brilliant freshness of its modelling. It is not known for certain that it was hung by the great picture in the exhibition in the Avenue Montaigne, for it is not easy to identify Courbet’s innumerable bathers and sleeping women, but it clearly belongs to the same period, and was obviously painted from the same model.