ANOTHER writer figured in the artist’s circle of friends from this time on. It was about 1848 that the painter met Pierre-Paul Proudhon, his compatriot (he was born at Besançon), and his elder by ten years. At that time, the celebrated socialist, who had become a deputy, after being in turn a drover, a waiter, a journeyman-printer and a clerk in a firm of tug-proprietors, had already published his famous works: “What is property?” (1840) and “The Solution of the Social Problem” (1848). He certainly developed Courbet’s democratic aspirations and helped to make him a vociferous, if not a dangerous, revolutionary. Most of all to be regretted is the influence that Proudhon’s mania for reading a moral into every one of the painter’s pictures had in urging Courbet indulge in the thesis pictures of which at intervals he was guilty. There are only too many men of letters of our time who have deprived us of good painting or good sculpture by trying to transform many of our best craftsmen into “thinkers.” When the misdeeds of these bad counsellors are written room will no doubt be found for Proudhon.
He had plenty of opportunity for discovering that his efforts had not succeeded in turning Courbet into a good logician. In 1863 the two men were collaborating in a philosophy of art. “It’s marvellously funny,” wrote Courbet with some justice. ” I am swamped by manuscript; every day I write between five and ten pages of aesthetics. . . . We are at last going to have a real treatise of modern art, and the way, pointed out by me, is to run parallel with the Proudhonian philosophy.”
The book was not published until after the death of Proudhon and was called: “The Principles of Art and its Social Purpose.” Courbet’s ideas do not seem to have occupied as much space in it as he had hoped. The philosopher was too little of an artist and the artist was too little of a philosopher for them not to exasperate each other when they discussed these matters. Sometimes Proudhon’s expressed opinions of Courbet clearly reveal such exasperation.
The portrait of the Proudhon family has a complicated history. It was begun about 1853, taken up again from memory after the philosopher’s death and exhibited, as here reproduced, in the Salon of 1865. But Mme Proudhon’s face was painted in provisionally, until she could give him a sitting, which she never-did, and it has since been erased. The picture was thought poor and dull and the adversaries both of the artist and the socialist writer joined in attacking it. It was sold for 1,500 francs in 1877 and was later given by Mlle Juliette Courbet to the citizens of Paris.