DETAIL: Gustave Courbet* (French; 1819–1877). The Desperate Man (self-portrait), 1843. Oil on canvas; 17.7″ × 21.3″.
Copy write: Artwork is in the public domain.
Feelings in Art
About the Artist
French Realist painter, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), was the art star of his day. Born into wealth, he first came to painting as a teenager, learning from a local teacher before leaving home to study formally. At 20, he moved to Paris, where he haunted the Louvre copying old-master heroes such as Titian, Caravaggio and Velazquez.
His early self-portraits, such as this month’s Art Print selection, capture the drama and flair typical of the time period and flavored with the confidence and bravado of his personality. In a New Yorker article, journalist Peter Schjeldahl writes, “Courbet’s self-portraits rehearsed late-Romantic personae: dandy, dreamer, vagabond, mad-man.” (“Painting by numbers: Gustave Courbet and the making of a master,” July 30, 2007.)
In 1850–51, Courbet would cause the first of many scandal-sensations. In mid-century Paris, a painter had to submit work to the Salon, the official arbiter of taste and maker/breaker of careers. The prevailing style, large-scale paintings of historical, religious or mythological subject matter, were safe submissions. Courbet’s entries “challenged convention by rendering scenes from daily life on the large scale previously reserved for history painting and in an emphatically realistic style. Confronted with the unvarnished realism of Courbet’s imagery, critics derided the ugliness of his figures and dismissed them as ‘peasants in their Sunday best.’” (metmuseum.org) From this point on, he created and promoted a new style in art: Realism.
Courbet was never one to shrink in the face of rejection. Over the course of his career, he flaunted the Salon by promoting himself in the Paris media, snubbing it by setting up his own exhibition space, and purposely painting works, knowing they would be rejected. Of The Return from the Conference, Courbet said, “I painted the picture so that it would be refused. I have succeeded. That way it will bring me some money.” Given his market-savvy and innate skills at self-promotion, Courbet would feel right at home in the commercially driven 21st-century art world.
About the Artwork
In today’s social media-saturated world, selfies rule. And in this month’s Art Print, Gustave Courbet’s 19th-century self-portrait, A Desperate Man (1845), the artist presents himself with a brashness and emotion that stands apart from any self-portrait of the Romantic Era.
Courbet presents his image in extreme close-up, staring squarely at the viewer. Pulling at his hair, eyes wild and wide, blood risen in his cheeks, his choice of representation begs the question: Why so desperate?
Courbet once described himself as “the most arrogant man in France,” and this work, painted when he was in his mid-20s, reveals a self-confidence despite the title. “When you look at this self-portrait you do not only experience his desperation (as the title suggests), but you also get the idea of what kind of personality Gustave Courbet was himself. Bold, wily, radical, ambitious and determined. Determined to challenge established painting genres, protest against traditional clichés, and change the course of art history.” (galleryintell.com).
The New York Times writer, Roberta Smith, described the same portrait: “…like Johnny Depp’s pirate rendered by Caravaggio.” (“Seductive Rebel Who Kept It Real,” Feb. 29, 2008.)
The links to the Italian master are clear but not slavishly so. Courbet, who often copied works by Caravaggio in the Louvre, demonstrates his admiration most obviously via dramatic treatment of light and shadow, but also in his unabashed dedication to realism. That dedication would send shock waves through the Parisian art establishment and light the fuse of modernism.
by Colleen Carroll
From The April 2015 Issue Of Arts & Activities
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