Late Courbet? It’s my impression that, unlike late Monet or late Cézanne, late Courbet is not a subject commonly given special attention, even by the artist’s admirers. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) has long been recognized as one of the greatest masters of 19th-century French painting, yet much of the last decade of his often turbulent career was-in everything but his painting-a debacle that ended in humiliation and disgrace.
It began, to be sure, with the clamor of acclaim. With characteristic bravado, Courbet had mounted a mammoth retrospective of his own work-it consisted of more than 100 pictures exhibited in a private pavilion-at the time of the Paris World’s Fair in 1867, and it proved to be a triumph. The painter who had earlier on been mocked as an oaf and an upstart was now embraced as a living master. As Jean-Jacques Fernier, curator of the Musée Courbet in Ornans, writes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of Gustave Courbet: Later Paintings , which has now been organized at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, “During the late 1860′s, Courbet was as famous in Frankfurt, Montpellier, Munich and Deauville as Picasso was on the Côte d’Azur, or Andy Warhol was in New York. Courbet was a ‘star.’” In 1870, he was even offered the Legion of Honor, which he grandly refused-though a year earlier he had readily accepted a decoration from the King of Bavaria, where his work had won the esteem of the leading German painters of the day.
Then came the Franco-Prussian War, in which France suffered a devastating defeat. Always something of a political radical, Courbet joined the revolutionaries of the Commune that temporarily attempted to govern the city of Paris. When the Commune fell, he was arrested and given a short prison term. Upon his release in early 1872, he found the official art world closed to him. Then a vindictive French Government imposed an enormous fine for Courbet’s alleged role in the destruction of a public monument while a member of the Commune. Never a teetotaler, he was also drinking too much, and his health was failing. He fled to Switzerland, where he set up a new studio in a small town on the Lake of Geneva. It was there that he died an invalid on the last day of 1877.
Yet, being Courbet-which is to say, a painter of irrepressible energy, ambition and genius-he continued in those last years to work like the inspired monomaniac that he was. According to Mr. Fernier, “Courbet’s production after 1870 is vast,” and it includes some of his loveliest and most original paintings. Most of these are devoted to subjects drawn from nature-landscape, water and sky-which are painted with a mastery that is all the more breathtaking when we come to understand the ordeal that Courbet was enduring at the time of their execution. It is only in certain of the “darker” paintings of the late period, in which storm clouds may be seen to portend a menacing fate and mountain peaks loom as symbols of an insurmountable destiny, that we may be tempted to see evidence of Courbet’s troubled state of mind. On the other hand, it is more likely that he was drawn to these subjects because they offered a fresh challenge to his pictorial powers.
In the exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, which brings together 34 paintings from museum and private collections here and abroad, the earliest of these “later” pictures is the spectacular Fox in the Snow (circa 1860), from the Musée Courbet. Considering some of the nonsense that has recently been written about Courbet’s animal pictures, it is a salutary experience to be reminded that Courbet was, above all, a virtuosic painter of realistic subjects drawn from nature and not at all a harbinger of the kind of late 20th-century postmodern art theory that has now made the study of painting such a farce in our universities.
It is still another virtue of the current exhibition that it includes two splendid portraits, both painted in 1862, to remind us of Courbet’s debt to a pictorial tradition that he continued to venerate even in the course of the many radical changes he brought to it. There is also the wonderful Portrait of Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl (1866), from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, which was last seen here in the Courbet Rediscovered exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1988. And lest we forget that Courbet was also one of the great painters of the female nude, there is the terrific Bather (circa 1865).
Yet the primary focus of this Later Paintings exhibition is inevitably on the landscapes and seascapes, and among them are three extraordinary examples of the so-called “wave” paintings that must be counted as some of the most moving and original of Courbet’s late masterpieces: The Wave, Stormy Weather (1869), Waves (1869) and The Black Rocks (1872). Seeing this Stormy Weather painting, I could not resist wondering if Marsden Hartley had ever had a glimpse of this remarkable picture, for between it and some of the stormy-sea pictures that Hartley painted in Maine in the early 1940′s there are many striking resemblances. Even more haunting, in some respects, is The Black Rocks , with its clouds, which seem to be illuminated by an unearthly fire that is reflected in delicate touches on the black rocks in the foreground. That Courbet was able to create so fine a painting at a moment when his worldly fortunes had sunk so low is astounding. But then, of course, Courbet went in for astounding his public. He was the very archetype of the impudent genius-a terrible showoff, in fact, who had the irritating habit of always producing something worth showing.
One of the latest and gloomiest of the paintings in the show-one of the toughest as well-is a small canvas called Landscape in the Alps (1874), from the Art Institute of Chicago. If only for the brute force with which the mountains in this picture have been laid in with the palette knife, this painting, too, is an unforgettable experience. I don’t ever recall seeing this picture on public view at the Art Institute, but there are a number of other pictures in this exhibition that will be equally unfamiliar to most of us.
Need I add that Gustave Courbet: Later Paintings is an exhibition not to be missed? It remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through Feb. 28, and will be moved to the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y., where it will be seen from March 7 to May 29.