IN 1863 at Saintes, with a great air of mystery, Courbet began a new picture as large as “L’Enterrement” and “L’Atelier.” All that he would say about it was that it would be ” highly critical and comic.” The picture was begun in an unfinished building next to the Imperial stud. But the Director had no sooner seen the first sketch than he begged Courbet to take it away and finish it in some less official place.
Old Faure, the ferryman of Berteau, gave him the hospitality of a first-floor room in his house. He even procured a curé’s cassock and a nice little grey donkey which was with some difficulty hoisted up to the artist’s room. Courbet finished his picture in comparative secrecy and sent it to the Salon chuckling over the “uproar” he thought it would create.
He had his desire. The famous “Retour de la Conférence ” was returned incontinently “as an outrage on religion and morality” and he was forbidden to exhibit it even in the Salon of the Rejected. “Since they force me to it,” cried Courbet, I shall paint them ‘Le Coucher de la Conférence.’ ”
Meanwhile he hung the picture in his studio in the Rue Hautefeuille, opened the doors wide, and for several days there was a constant flow of interested spectators passing in front of the excommunicated picture.
It can be very shortly explained. On the Ornans road the priests of the deanery are returning to their curés from the ecclesiastical Monday conference. But apparently they have lunched overwell. . . That is the magnificent discovery which Courbet committed to a ten-foot canvas.
The indignation of the sober-minded over this enormous piece of facetiousness was responded to by the praises of the bolder spirits. Once more Proudhon scattered jewels of subtlety over his explanation of the scene: “An inevitable reaction of Nature against the ideal.” Castagnary, after an elegant résumé of he painter’s whole career, declared that Courbet had never in his life been so successful in composition.
Rubbing his hands with glee at the tumult, Courbet flunk himself into the most seditious utterances. Champfleury said with some asperity, “You-are talking too much and painting too little.” “Here’s another fellow sold himself to the government,” said Courbet.
“Le Retour de la Conférence” was sent out on a tour of Europe. It was shown at Ghent in 1868; but it has since been burned. There is a small replica in the Saint collection.