Gustave Courbet – L’enterrement (concluded) The Artist’s Partisans

COURBET’S friends vigorously joined issue with the detractors of “L’Enterrement. Champfieury wrote several articles defending the `picture figure by figure. Less well-known, though perhaps better inspired, was the panegyric of Sabathier-Ungher:

Since the ” Naufrage de la Méduse ” nothing more powerful . . . or more original has been done in France… You say that the picture is trivial. It is our civilization which is trivial and brutal, that bids common men attend the worship of the dead. The grotesque has no more room in Courbet’s picture than it has in life. Beside the handful of mercenaries, whom custom has made indifferent, and the listless spectators, he has painted the calm dignity of the priest performing his sacred rite, the heartrending grief of the relations and friends. . . People have laughed at the cocked hats, gaiters and blue stockings of the two old peasants. Are they, for the antiquated fashion of their clothes, less contemplative and pitiful, or less noble or simply and humanly compassionate ?”

Parts of this picture are worthy of Titian or Zurbaran in the severity of their colour, the large simplicity of their drawing, the firmness of their design, the gravity of the attitudes of the figures. . . . There is no man living who can handle colour with more unity or more homogeneously manipulate light and shade.

“It is not an easy thing to lend dignity and style to these modern costumes. I use the word ‘style’ deliberately; I cannot find a single scamped detail; the form is always full and ample, and anything angular or awkward in our clothes is easily lost in the massing of the groups, which are bathed in a sombre harmonious tone. I maintain that, far from having lapsed into vulgarity and materialism, M. Courbet has idealized and given style to his subject, as far as possible.

“This picture vulgar! Just look at the solemn lowering landscape, the gloomy sky from which there seems to come a funereal harmony, the mysterious bars of this lugubrious song of death. The very grass grows sadly on the hills . . and the sun will soon leave the earth into which the corpse is to be lowered, there for ever to remain …. And the image of Christ crucified dominates the whole scene. In a century or two M. Courbet’s picture will find a place in some great gallery…. It will be a classic!

L’Enterrement did not have to wait so long to find the place which was its due. It was rejected by the Universal Exhibition of 1855, exhibited in the Avenue Montaigne in the same year, and, in 1882, was given by Mlle Juliette Courbet to the Louvre, where it is universally held to be one of the masterpieces of our time.