WHEN Courbet made his next public appearance in 1857, he had at least acquired a reputation as an incomparable craftsman. But the critics seem to have used the word expressly to deny him any higher ambition.
“To M. Courbet,” said Georges Niel, life is materialistic; he sees the outward form, and not the soul.” “If material cleverness were enough in art,” wrote Maxime du Camp, ” M. Courbet would deserve nothing but praise, for he paints materially a no man has painted in France these many years. . . . His hand is incredibly skilful, but he is absolutely lacking in soul. Whatever his subject may be, it is always still-life.” “His brush work is bold and vigorous, his colour is solid, his modelling is sometimes astonishing,” said Castagnary, who was soon to become the painter’s most devoted admirer, ” he paints excellently what he sees. But he does not go beyond that….”
Even more severe was W. Flauer, who declared : ” M. Courbet is no more a painter than a man who employs a builder is an architect. His distinguished use of the trowel has been amply recognized, and I am quite ready to admit that his paint is well mixed. But that is not even the beginning of craftsmanship, and even perfect craftsmanship does not make an artist”
If he paints a head,” said Zacharie Astruc, ” you can take hold of the nose with your fingers, and play with the modelling of the face. . . . His pictures are well-built monuments. . . . But they are always careless and reckless in the matter of composition.”
About devoted a most interesting essay to Courbet’s technique; it is very long, and deserves more than this summary quotation. Courbet, he said, ” hurls himself at Nature like a glutton; he grabs great pieces of it, and gulps them down without chewing them, like an ostrich. He grasps Nature not in her most intimate aspect, but in her most obvious…. His theory might be formulated in these words : One thing in Nature is as good as another for a painter. In his practice of this theory he paints studies, not pictures.. True, loyal, powerful, solid, M. Courbet has gone further than any of his contemporaries in his vigorous expression. His pictures have all the sublimity of still-life illusion; but since, in spite of his great talent, he remains a very ordinary draughtsman, he unconsciously dispenses with all the subtleties of art.”
In the light of these opinions let us consider a picture painted at this time (1857), the portrait of Mme Marie Crocq, which seems most masterly in its vivid, powerful craftsmanship. Nothing much is known of the history of the picture. It appeared, we believe, in the artist’s private exhibition in 1867, under the title of Mme M .. . C … It was formerly in the Durand-Ruel collection, but is now in Brussels.