Gustave Courbet – L’atelier (the Studio)

A SHORT time before the opening of the exhibition at the beginning of 1855, Courbet suddenly remembered M. de Nieuwerkerque’s friendly attitude towards him, and wrote a long urgent letter to his friend Français, asking him to obtain a few small favours for him from the governing body. He wanted an extra time allowance of a fortnight before he had to send in the great picture on which he was at work. ” It is a picture about the size of ‘L’Enterrement,’ if not larger, with thirty life-size figures. I have had three months wasted by illness. . . Perhaps you would like to know the subject of my picture; it would take so long to explain that I leave it to you to guess when you see it; it is the history of my studio, and all its moral and physical happenings. It is rather mysterious, and he must read the riddle who can.” (From the collection of artists’ autograph letters in the Doucet library.)

The title of the picture did not throw much light on the picture : “The Painter’s Studio : A Real Allegory Setting Forth a Seven Years’ Phase of My Artistic Life.” It is necessary to consult the information collected and annotated by G. Riat to find any interpretation of the various intentions concealed in this strange picture.

In the middle of his studio the artist is painting a Franche-Comté landscape under the admiring gaze of a little shepherd boy and a nude woman. (The symbol of Courbet’s personal and realistic art.)

In the group on the left a poacher and his dog (Hunting) are gazing contemptuously at a sombrero, a guitar and a dagger (Romantic Poetry). Further back a skull on the “Journal des Débats” symbolizes the Press, while Poverty is incarnate in an Irishwoman grovelling on the floor. A lay figure, loosely tied to a post, represents Academic Art, while in the middle distance Oudot, the vine-grower (Work), is surrounded by a mob of the exploiters of humanity; a Jewish broker (Commerce), a clown (the Theatre), a priest (the Roman Catholic Religion), and a prostitute (Pleasure). A careful scrutiny reveals figures representing Jewish Religion, Death, Unemployment, etc.

On the right are the friends and champions of the artist, some of them anonymous, like the family in the foreground, who represent society patrons of the arts, or the couple embracing by the window (Free Love); but we are able to recognize Baudelaire (Poetry), Champfleury (Prose), Proudhon (Social Philosophy), Promayet ( Music), Max Buchon (Realistic Poetry), and Bruyas (the Maecenas of Realistic Painting).

Only Courbet could have imagined that people would take the trouble to decipher this extraordinary logogriph. In spite of its admirable qualities the picture was rejected by the exhibition, and the artist had to find some other way of showing his work to the public.