Given his provincial origins, the untamed manners he sometimes affected, his appetite for political combat and the sheer impudence of his personality, the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was an improbable candidate for artistic stardom in a period in which official opinion still expected artists to observe certain standards of decorum. And yet, so compelling was Courbet’s talent and so irrepressible his ambition that he overrode all obstacles to become a pivotal figure in the art of his time.
He became, indeed, the first 19th-century painter who may legitimately be characterized as “avant-garde” -the first, that is, to achieve success by deliberately offending established taste. The first, also, to organize a one-man show of his own work in defiance of the official Salon, and the first to fashion a public persona to underscore his status as a radical outsider hell-bent on challenging the status quo. Some of this was mere posturing, to be sure-a public-relations device to secure attention-but much of it was an authentic expression of Courbet’s impatient temperament. All of it proved to be a perfect example of a strategy that Jean Cocteau, himself a genius at publicity, would later describe as knowing exactly how far you can go in going too far.
It’s a “later” Courbet, however-the consummate master of uncontroversial landscape paintings in the 1860′s and early 1870′s-who is the principal subject of the stunning exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. In this exhibition, the controversies ignited by his two great “machines”-the Burial at Ornans (1849-50) and The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory (1855)-are consigned to the past, and his ill-fated involvement with the Paris Commune (which landed him in prison) was yet to come.
In this halcyon interlude in his embattled career, Courbet was showered with honors-a huge exhibition in Munich, at which he was knighted by the King of Bavaria; in France, a nomination for the Légion d’Honneur (which he refused). He also exhibited two seascapes in the 1870 Salon that brought him much acclaim. If they were anything like the seascapes that dominate the show at Salander-O’Reilly, it’s no wonder that they caused a sensation. For these are surely among the greatest seascapes ever painted. They’re also a reminder that Courbet had been an accomplished copyist, producing from the age of 20 his own versions of the Venetian, Dutch and Spanish masters. We’re made to feel the weight of those masters in Courbet’s virtuosic execution.
The single greatest painting in the current show may be Grotto of the Black Well (1865), a painting so rich in pictorial invention, so somber in feeling and so elevated in expression that it’s almost in a class by itself. Matisse once spoke with admiration about Courbet’s use of black paint, and in this painting an entire palette of blacks-silvery blacks, coal blacks, bronze blacks and golden blacks-has been deployed for its realization. It’s a painting that makes Manet seem a bit timid by comparison and even Cézanne, perhaps, not as audacious as he’s believed to be. It’s a painting that every art student in New York should be assigned to study-and, for that matter, their teachers as well.
Seeing this marvelous exhibition, I am once again reminded of what the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe wrote in his extraordinary tribute to the artist almost a century ago: “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.”
Well, his legacy remains a mixed one. Some of the worst social-realist painting in the modern era can rightfully claim an ancestry in certain aspects of Courbet, and so can some of the greatest achievements of that era. At his best, however-as he is in the landscapes and seascapes in this exhibition-he attained to the level of the masters he copied when he was young.
Gustave Courbet remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through Nov. 29, and is not to be missed.