Realism – G. Courbet

BY the middle of the nineteenth century, in France as well as in England, the achievements of science and mechanics and the newly developed sense of individualism had dominated the spirit of the age. Dogma was discredited; the old belief under-minded; the world was looking for “truth” in the perceptible facts of knowledge; religion was being desiccated by rationalism or discarded in favor of materialism. In the specific field of painting the representative of this changed attitude toward life was Gustave Courbet (1819–1878) .

At the World’s Exposition of 1855, Courbet was dissatisfied with the official treatment of his pictures. Accordingly he removed them and exhibited separately outside the grounds in a wooden hut, which bore the conspicuous legend, “Realism G. Courbet.” This was four years after the appearance in the Salon of The Stonebreakers and Funeral at Ornans. He had come up to Paris in 1839. Refusing to submit his independence to the control of any teacher, he made the rounds of the galleries and from the example of the old masters gradually acquired a style of his own. Mean while, his criticism of present and past artists was outspoken and scathing. He admired Ribera, Zurbaran and Velasquez, was drawn toward Ostade and venerated Holbein ; but could not tolerate Raphael, whom he held chiefly responsible for “the fever of imitation” which, he asserted, was prostrating the art of France. To-ward the end of the forties when Ingres was at the height of his power and Couture’s Decadence of the Romans had created a sensation and Jean Louis Hamon (1821–1874) and others of the so called “Neo Greek” group were producing their pretty little china painted pictures of classicalistic idyls, Courbet’s tirades against authority and classicalism had made him a marked man. Students gathered round him and echoed his free-thought. For as yet Millet, working quietly in Barbizon, was unheeded, and the time demanded somebody who would trumpet the claims of the modem naturalistic spirit. The man was found in Courbet.

Courbet announced himself a realist ; and possibly he was one in the sense which has been defined above, al-though his theories of art may at first sight suggest that he was an out-and-out naturalist. For he is on record as declaring that “the principle of realism is the negation of the ideal.” But in this repudiation of the ideal as something which the painter should shun, he must be understood to refer to the kind of ideal that was held up as a nostrum by the. academicians of his day, as it still is in ours. Courbet had no use for nymphs in cheese-cloth draperies, posing in allegory; nor for religious pictures representing after the Italian manner men and women supported on clouds, angels and views of Heaven, nor for the posing and paraphernalia of resuscitated historical scenes. For, as he said, “realism can only exist by the representation of things which the artist can see and handle. Painting is an entirely physical language, and an abstract, invisible, non-existent object does not come within its province. The grand painting which we have stands in contradiction to our social conditions; and ecclesiastical painting, in contradiction to the spirit of the century. It is nonsensical for painters of more or less talent to dish up themes in which they have no belief, themes which could only have flowered in some spot and epoch other than our own. Better paint railway stations with views of the places through which we travel, with likenesses of great men through whose birthplaces we pass, with engine-houses, mines and manufactories. For these are the saints and miracles of the nineteenth century.” In fact, it was with pseudo-idealism, the threadbare left-over of the past, that he quarreled. Meanwhile, his allusion to the “saints and miracles” seems to show that he could view the facts of things in relation to what he conceived to be the highest good of humanity. For he lived to “arrive at the emancipation of the individual and, finally, at democracy.” That was his ideal to which he sought to correlate his life and work. Whether or not he would have admitted it, he was an idealist in what is coming to be the modern understanding of the word; one whose ideal is the betterment of the race and who looks for its fulfilment in the actual facts of life. As he said, “My object is to be not merely a painter, but a man. In a word to practise living art is the compass of my design.” These are live words and almost sufficient of themselves to prove that Courbet was a realist idealist.

But let the evidence of his paintings speak. The Stonebreakers an old man resting on one knee as he raises a hammer over a heap of stones and a young man adjusting his sinewy frame to the weight of a basket, filled with broken stones represents the studied observation and truthful rendering of facts. For this reason the critics found it “an excessively commonplace subject.” But already in the figure of the younger man may be discerned something of the joy in physical force and wholesomeness which is characteristic of this artist’s work, himself a man of size above the average and possessed of great bodily strength as well as mental vigor. It is, however, mental force rather than the physical which characterizes the other picture of the same year the Funeral at Ornans. For Courbet stripped the subject of all sentiment and ceremony ; bared it to the bone; and in doing so has lifted its significance above the local and the personal. For death, viewed in the large, is but a temporary disarrangement of the routine of life; a momentary cessation from activity on the part of the living, while they pay their last respects to the dead, and then an immediate resumption of life’s routine. Meanwhile, behind this particular group of folk, gathered in front of the grave at Ornans, extends a high horizon line of hill, interrupted only by a slight depression. Its monotony is eloquent of that indifference of the outside world. One death more or less, what matters? We must all die; the world is for the quick, not the dead.

But the critics were even more scandalized by subjects such as Grisettes Lying on the Bank of the Seine. Where was the trite coquetry with which other painters had invested these young persons, as they tripped the streets with piquant demureness and lifted their skirts to reveal the neat shoes and a hint of stockings? Courbet has “intentionally placed these girls in the most unrefined attitudes that they might appear as trivial as possible.” One can fancy Courbet retorting that many of these girls are trivial and that when they get away from the city they lay aside their little artifices and sprawl in simple animal contentment. They may not be refined, but they are natural and wholesome. So too are Courbet’s nudes.

The example, Le Reveil, has been selected for reproduction here (p. 161) because, while one of the figures illustrates these qualities the other is curiously and unusually classicalistic in pose and feeling. It reminds one of the fact that it was through study of the old masters that Courbet graduated into his naturalistic style. And here something of the process still lingers in the result. Meanwhile, the recumbent figure in pose and treatment recalls the superb nude which has been lent to the Metropolitan Museum. It is a panegyric on the glory of sound, abundant physicality ; the basis on which rests the highest steeple-building of the race. What says Browning; himself a man as well as a poet, speaking through the mouth of Fra Lippo Lippi —-

“The beauty and the wonder and the power, The shapes of things, their colors, lights and shades Changes, surprises and God made it all!”

In his ability to realize this through the human form Courbet takes rank as one of the greatest painters of the nude during the nineteenth century.

Probably, however, it is in his marines and landscapes that Courbet reaches his highest expression. They are entirely free, from the suspicion, occasionally suggested in the figure subjects, that embêter le bourgeois was lurking in the artist’s mind. The finest of them are equally free from local suggestion; they are abstracts of the elemental in nature; of force, vastness and the solemnity of silence. His seas are not invaded by ships; no dwellings interrupt the solitude of the shore; shore and sea wage conflict or lie placidly the one by the other in sole presence of the sky. Again, what a suggestion of immemorial age, hidden vastness and unbroken solitude pervades his forest glades! The deer rest under the shadow of the fern or bask in the patches of sunlight; the stags at rutting time meet and fight; over the carpet of snow the doe seeks the watering-place. Sometimes the hunter wakes the silence with his horn and his hounds violate the solitude; but for the most part Courbet’s forests are the undisturbed haunts of the forest creatures, as if man were not.