Gustave Courbert: A life full of-turns and twists

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Courbet’s Self-Portrait with Black Dog Giclee Print

Not the art alone, but the whole being of this artist was conquest. There is nothing timid, childlike or good-natured about Courbet. He was the individualist with strong elbows. Corot accepted long obscurity as natural, Delacroix smiled disdainfully at it, Millet sighed over it. They lived with their art, they were the children of their Muse, and bad business men. Courbet defended himself tooth and nail. He made a way for himself with unexampled ruthlessness. He was the first “manager” of modern art. Ms pupil Wliistler adopted his methods, but made them subtler and more modish.

Courbet divided his time into two halves, painting in one, and theorising in the other, and as a fact, he did the same thing in both, for his pictures were the documents of his teaching. He did not confine himself to art, but extended his system to all attainable fields, was a politician, and the first artist-cosmopolitan. His subtlety was his brutal boorishness. Nothing could have been better adapted for a new departure. In Paris this unpolished fanatic was like a bear in a nest of bees. He had to pay for his escapades. I think it was less triumphant detestation of his politics after the downfall of the Commune, than fury against his personal art that caused the disastrous prosecution over the Vendôme column, the last nail in the master’s coffin.

Never was there a less Parisian painter. Turn and twist him as we will, we shall find all sorts of things in him, save only the typical French qualities. Nothing classic, nothing lyrical, nothing decorative after the manner of the great eighteenth-century landscape painters; no trace of the playful charm of the Watteau school, nor of Delacroix’ dramatic quality. Camille Lemonnier has drawn him as the antithesis of this latter in a brilliant essay.

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