Musée d'Orsay: Reception of courbet's work

Reception of courbet's work

"If you want to see a gaudy flower bed, look at Monsieur Courbet's paintings" advised a perfidious critic in 1853. Ten years later, Manet's paintings were met with the same derision.

Gustave Courbet in Le Messager de l'Assemblée (25th and 26th February 1851) : "I heard the comments of the crowd in front of the painting of Burial at Ornans, I had the courage to read the nonsense that was printed regarding this picture, and I wrote this article ..."


Gustave CourbetChampfleury© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Champfleury, On Realism, Letters to Madame Sand, 1855
"At the moment, Madame, in the avenue Montaigne, just near the Painting Exhibition, one can see a sign with the words: REALISM. G. Courbet. Exhibition of forty paintings. It is an exhibition in the English style. A painter, whose name has become widely known since the February Revolution, has chosen his most significant paintings, and has had a studio built to exhibit them.
It is an incredibly audacious act, it is the subversion of all institutions associated with the jury, it is a direct appeal to the public, some are saying it is freedom.
It is a scandal, it is anarchy, it is art dragged through the mud. Others are saying these are fairground pictures [...]br />Courbet was considered a troublemaker because he produced honest, life-size paintings of the bourgeoisie, peasants and village women. That was the first point. People could not admit that a stone breaker was worth as much as a prince: the nobility objected to him according so many metres of canvas to ordinary people; only sovereigns had the right to be painted full length, with their decorations, their rich clothes and their official expressions. What? A man from Ornans, a peasant in his coffin, dares to draw a large crowd at his funeral: farmers, people of low estate ..."

Théophile Gautier

Félix NadarThéophile Gautier in a white shirt© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Théophile Gautier liked some Realist painters, but not Courbet, denouncing the vvulgarity of his paintings. He did however appreciate the landscapes, and supported the painter at the 1851 Salon.

Théophile Gautier, La Presse, 15th February 1851: "There have always been two schools of thought in painting: that of the Idealists and that of the Realists [...] Monsieur Courbet belongs to the second school, but he differs from it in that he seems to have taken an ideal opposite to the usual ideal: whereas the straightforward Realists are happy to copy nature as they see it, our young painter, parodying for his own benefit the verses of Nicolas Boileau Despréaux, seems to be saying: "Only the ugly is beautiful, only the ugly is likeable." It is not enough for the people to be common; he selects his subjects and then deliberately exaggerates their crudeness and vulgarity."

Charles Baudelaire

Félix NadarPortrait of Baudelaire© Musée d'Orsay
Baudelaire and Courbet liked each other. However, the poet and critic wrote little about the painter's work, and notably, after the 1855 Salon, did not follow up a draft of an article entitled "Since Realism exists...". As he considered "the imagination to be the queen of faculties", Baudelaire could not appreciate Realism.
Charles Baudelaire in Le Portefeuille, 12th August 1855: "Monsieur Courbet, too, [Baudelaire had previously been commenting on Ingres] is a powerful worker, he has a wild and patient will; and the results he produces, results which for some have more charm than those of the great master of Raphaelesque tradition [...] doubtlessly because they display a sectarian spirit, a butcher of faculties. Politics and literature, too, produce these vigorous temperaments, these protesters, these anti-Supernaturalists whose only justification is their sometimes salutary, reactive spirit. Providence, presiding over the interests of painting, gives them accomplices in all those who are tired or oppressed by the predominant, opposing idea. But the difference is that the heroic sacrifice that Monsieur Ingres makes for the honour of tradition and Raphaelesque beauty, Courbet accomplishes in the interests of external, positive, immediate nature. They have different motives when waging war on the imagination, and the two opposing obsessions lead them to the same immolation."

Eugène Delacroix

Léon Riesener
 Full face portrait of Eugène Delacroix, head and shoulders
 H. 6; W. 4.3 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Léon RiesenerEugène Delacroix© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda
The reaction of the Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix was clear: he liked the powerful sculptural nature of Courbet's painting, whose technique he also admired, but criticised his inspiration, and above all the Realist painter's lack of discernment. Delacroix also used this criticism to deny photographers the status of artist. According to him an artist should avoid any "copy, which is false because it is exact."

Eugène Delacroix in The Journal, 15th April 1853: "I went to see the paintings by Courbet. I was astonished by the vigour and the relief of his vast picture; but what a painting! What a subject! The commonness of the forms would not matter; it is the commonness and uselessness of the thought which are abominable [...] Oh Rossini! Oh Mozart! Oh geniuses inspired by all the arts, who draw from things only the elements that are shown to the mind! What would you say before these pictures?"

Jules Castagnary

Gustave CourbetJules-Antoine Castagnary© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Franck Raux
François Sabatier-Ungher, a friend of Alfred Bruyas, Zacharie Astruc, Edmond About and Jules Castagnary defended Courbet unconditionally. In the preface to the catalogue for the posthumous Courbet exhibition held at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1882, Jules Castagnary said "If Courbet could only paint what he saw, he saw wonderfully, he saw better than anybody else. His eye was a subtle and assured mirror, where the most fleeting sensations, the most delicate nuances became clear. With this exceptional ability to see, came an exceptional ability to render what he saw. Courbet used paint thickly, but without harshness and without roughness: his pictures are as smooth as ice, and shine like enamel. He achieves relief and movement at the same time by using just the right shade; and this shade, put on flat with a palette knife, acquires an extraordinary intensity. I have never seen any richer or more distinguished use of colour, nor one that gains so much with age."

Emile Zola

Edouard Manet 
 Emile Zola
 Oil on canvas
 H. 146.5; W. 114 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, donation of Mrs Emile Zola, 1918
Edouard ManetEmile Zola© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Emile Zola, My Salon, (1868), "The Actualists"
"I don't need to plead for modern subjects here. This cause was won a long time ago. After those remarkable works by Manet and Courbet, no-one would now dare to say that the present day is unworthy of being painted. [...] We find ourselves faced with the only reality: in spite of ourselves, we encourage our painters to portray us just as we are, with our styles of dress and our manners [...]"

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