How French Painter Gustave Courbet Won the Media Over

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

How French Painter Gustave Courbet Won the Media Over


Byline: Stephen Goode, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Gustave Courbet was one of the great 19th-century French painters, one of those masters, along with Daumier, Ingres, Degas, Manet and a few others, who made the Paris of the time the indisputable center of the art world.

He was also by his own design a media celebrity of the first water, his latest works the subject of much talk and press attention, his daily comings and goings good copy eagerly sought by hordes of journalists.

In "The Most Arrogant Man in France," Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu takes up Courbet's relationship with the growing number of newspapers and journals of 19th-century France, and he shows how this clever artist made use of a very willing media to make his name a household word in France and elsewhere in Europe, and to increase the sales of his paintings.

Ms. Chu, author of "Nineteenth-Century European Art," is the editor and translator of "The Letters of Gustave Courbet." The title of her new book she took from a boast made by Courbet himself at the height of his fame, when he took great joy at indeed being "the most arrogant man in France."

Courbet was born in 1819 in Ornans, a village in Franche-Comte in the mountainous east of France, near Switzerland. His father, a well-to-do farmer, wanted his son to be a lawyer, but the young Courbet would have none of that.

Instead, armed with a good basic education and some training in art, he moved to Paris in 1839 at the age of 20, and he devoted himself to painting. Ms. Chu ably shows how many of his early friends in the capital were young men who wrote for the new newspapers and journals appearing almost weekly in Paris (and just as quickly closing up shop).

Besides Courbet, the most famous of these friends was the poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire, of whom Courbet was later to do a famous portrait.

In a Paris packed with talented artists, Ms. Chu notes that Courbet quickly realized that he had to strike a startling pose in order to make his own name stand out in the crowd. In part, she explains, he did this by making his anti-establishment sympathies well known to the press and anyone who might listen.

Courbet opposed the July Monarchy, and later the empire of Louis Napoleon. He was no friend of the Roman Catholic Church, but he did boast his support of the 1848 revolution and his Republican views. In 1871, he lent firm support to the Paris Commune, which was to prove his undoing.

His rebelliousness also appeared in his painting. Courbet was a realist who had no use at all for the huge paintings of historic events popular with critics of the time. He found them too gussied up, too idealized, too unreal.

Nor did he like the nudes of highly regarded artists such as Ingres, a leading figure. Too perfect, they bore no relationship to the women Courbet saw daily on the streets of Paris.

So Courbet determined to paint the world and women as he saw them. By 1850 he had become famous and soon was the most caricatured man in France, his face and increasingly stout figure familiar to millions of readers of popular newspapers and journals.

The best part of Ms. Chu's amply illustrated book deals with Courbet's strongest work. In his series of self-portraits, from the "Self-Portrait with Black Spaniel in an Interior" (ca. …

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