“L’ENTERREMENT ” suddenly brought to a head the whole conflict of opinion concerning Courbet:
” The artist,” wrote Sabathier-Ungher, has made a place for himself in the French school like a cannon ball crashing into a wall.” To the majority of the public and the critics this masterpiece was only a piece of vulgar mystification and a lamentable lapse of taste.
The subject, it was said, was entirely unworthy of being treated on such a large scale. There was no perspective in it, no composition, no depth; the figures were drawn up in a line and set flatly against each other.
“However forbearing and indulgent the spectator may be,” wrote Claude Vignon, ” the impression produced is the same in every case; every one, from the most fantastic artist down to the most simple member of the public, turns away at once, saying: ‘Good Lord! How ugly it is!’
“It is impossible to know whether to laugh or cry,” said Gautier. … There are faces .. which remind us of nothing so much as the pictures outside a tobacco shop or a menagerie in the queer crudity of drawing and colour.”
“It is the glorification of vulgar ugliness! ” wrote Clément de Ris. “It makes one shudder away from the thought of being buried at Ornas (Ornans),” cried Courtois. “It is an ignoble, impious caricature,” declared P. de Chennevières.
L. de Geofroy, L. Peisse, Fabien Pillet, Pr. Haussard, G. Sand, were almost as severe, but there were a few who, however much they might be upset by Courbet’s aesthetics, were forced by the painter’s manifest talent to make important concessions.
Delécluze, for instance, though he was disgusted by the two beadles, profoundly admired the group of weeping women on the right, and concluded : “In the picture, which might easily be taken for a badly developed daguerreotype, there is the natural crudity which is always the result of taking Nature at first hand. . . . In spite of the gross defects which spoil M. Courbet’s huge picture, there are certain very solid qualities in it, and parts of it are too well painted for anyone to believe in the ignorance and rawness affected by this artist.”
Paul Mantz was willing to let “L’Enterrement” pass on condition that it were not emulated by a school. “It should remain,” he said, “the Pillar of Hercules of realism. It will never be surpassed, and the picture … will remain henceforth for posterity, like those mists which hover over deep and dangerous places and from afar warn ships that have lost their way to seek a safer track.”