This self-portrait is one of the rare mementos that Courbet directly left concerning the events linked to the Commune and its suppression. This charcoal drawing was produced just before the artist's arrest on 7 June 1871. In this respect, the anonymous note written on an old label stuck to the back of the mount would seem to be genuine: Self-portrait by Courbet drawn during the Commune in 1871, while he was in hiding from the police who were looking for him for his activities as a communard. He had shaved off his beard to avoid being recognised if he were to be discovered.
On 23 May, just as "Bloody Week" was beginning, we know that the painter had taken refuge in the house of a certain A. Lecomte, a musical instrument maker who lived near to the Bastille. This portrait was referred to in a statement by Courbet's lawyer, contained in the Castagnary papers now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (French National Library): "Lecomte explained that he had never been in trouble because of politics, but he did not think that he would be able to refuse to help someone who he had known for twenty years. Therefore he arranged for Courbet to stay with him, with the artist spending his time working on a portrait in charcoal, and reading. I make this portrait available to the court".
This description of its origin is borne out by the appearance of the work. The face corresponds with that in contemporary photographs of Courbet, even though he was fatter, and his features more evident without the beard. Courbet was no longer trying to present a fine image, nor resorting to the different personae in the self-portraits of his youth. On the contrary, the clumsiness of its execution emphasises his confusion and anxiety, further confirmed by his sideways glance. Only the suggestive way he holds his pipe manages to bring a familiar note into the uncertainty of the moment – an echo of his former, daring self-confidence.