The 19th-century French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a big personality, a cultural subversive, a braggart and showman worthy of P. T. Barnum. He was also a paint-handler of exquisite grit and outrageous sensuality—traits that combined into an artist whose greatness just barely redeemed his insufferable narcissism. By the time you’re through with the first gallery of the Met’s “Gustave Courbet,” ringed with 20 or so self-portraits of the artist, you’ll have had quite enough of Courbet.
The arrogance of youth is everywhere in these pictures. Here Courbet is a wildly gesticulating madman; there he’s a cellist, a sculptor, a lover and, in the crushingly romantic The Wounded Man (1844-1854), on the verge of death—each painting a gesture toward the attitude most succinctly expressed by Self-Portrait With Black Dog (1842): Courbet gazes at us with mellow condescension.
Presumably the show’s opening gambit is meant to establish Courbet’s engagement with tradition, and his consummate ability to manipulate oils. But it’s self-regard that emerges as the essential component of Courbet’s artistry. Every scrape and slur of paint is an advertisement of his genius—Look at me! instead of Look at this! Courbet was a natural, to be sure, unafraid of testing his ambitions and competence (see, for example, how he replicates Rembrandt’s light and touch to eerie effect in a later Self-Portrait from 1850). But in the final tally, his egotism was a debilitating influence on his art.
Curator Gary Tinterow portrays Courbet, who was a foe of Napoleon III and whose involvement with the Paris Commune of 1871 led to his imprisonment and exile, in the romantic light of the artist-as-rebel. But just as interesting were Courbet’s innovations in the technique and subject matter of painting. An early adopter of “realism,” he strayed from the established notion that artists were in the business of rendering idealized images. The Stonecutters (1849), for example, depicted the harsh realities of peasant life, and worse, critics decried the young ladies of Young Ladies of the Village (1851-52) as simply too ugly for art. That it was a large painting—a scale suitable for, say, a history painting—didn’t help.
Courbet’s blunt touch was upsetting as well; the more it gained in density and independence, the more it shocked audiences. The Valley of Ornans (1858) is particularly brusque in its speedy bravura. The justly renowned Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (1856-57) emanates an unsettling air of post-coital drowsiness. Oils were forever the medium of desire, and this is no less the case with the paint-handling in The White Cow (1873) as it is with the in-your-face crotch shot The Origin of the World (1866).
The Met explores Courbet’s relationship with photography (and pornography), but only in passing. Nonetheless, the photos, with their lovely Victorian patina, provide a welcome shift in media. However much he was admired by fellow painters, and despite his having established the tradition of the enfant terrible, the mastery of his grease-surfaced paintings is oppressive. His touch was dictatorial, not liberating, and his aesthetic was unremittingly claustrophobic. After “Gustave Courbet,” take the long way home through Central Park.
“Gustave Courbet” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until May 18.