March 16, 2008

Gustave Courbet at the Met

When an artist proclaims himself to be the "Proudest and most arrogant man in France" you figure he's got something to say, and until May 18th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see for yourself what made Gustave Courbet utter this statement

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was no stranger to scandal or controversy. Of course most of it was self-generated and only served to heighten his allure. Beginning with his "Realist Manifesto" in which he declared his objective "to be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation", Courbet set out to turn the art world upside down with his fresh and radical philosophy.

Now considered a proto-modernist, Courbet's novel approach to painting included portraits and nudes that were true to the sitter - flaws and all, landscapes and genre scenes from his native Ornans that showed how people really, truly lived - without embellishment, and over 20 self-portraits that depicted the artist in various costumes and emotional states from pensive to desperate (see the illustration).

Courbet drew his inspiration from the great masters such as Titian and Rembrandt, and also from the relatively new medium of photography, an aesthetic that bridged the gap between painting and real life and promoted his ideals of Realism. His work in turn had a significant impact on the Impressionists such as Monet and Manet, and Modern artists such as Balthus and C├ęzanne. His political activities (he was a well known Socialist and supporter of the Paris Commune of 1871) eventually forced him to move to Switzerland where he ended his days painting mundane scenes of the Alps and Lac Lemans - an ignominious end for this trail blazer of 19th Century art.

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