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Courbet, The Artist's Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life

Gustave Courbet, The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist, oil on canvas, 361 x 598 cm (Musée d'Orsay) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris looking at Gustave Courbet's enormous canvas, The Painter's Studio, but it has a longer title also. - [Beth] The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist. - [Steven] It's really exciting to see this painting. It's recently been cleaned. - [Beth] There are passages that are absolutely beautiful. For example, the embroidery of the dress on the woman on the right, or the discarded clothes of the model in the center. But I just want to just how large this painting is. It's close to 12 feet tall and more than 19 feet wide. And it's important to remember that scale was an indication of importance and ambition. You might expect to see, a battle scene on a painting this large. - [Steven] I'm struck by the title because there's a contradiction that's built into it. It is at once a real painting, Courbet was a realist, but the title also tells us that this is an allegory, that it is symbolic. - [Beth] So how can something be real and symbolic at the same time, and yet that is what this painting attempts to do. But we should say that even after decades of art historical scholarship, there really is no consensus about what these figures symbolize and even the realist identity of the figures. In 1854, when the government was planning the Universal Exposition of 1855, - [Steven] Something akin to a world's fair. - [Beth] Courbet was asked to submit paintings to the jury, and to exhibit the paintings that were accepted at the exposition. - [Steven] And the jury would decide which paintings were admitted and which paintings were rejected. - [Beth] And this was typical, this was how the Salon, the official exhibitions worked in Paris. But the jury rejected this one, and Courbet decided in very typical Courbet fashion, that's okay, I'm gonna set up my own exhibition. - [Steven] And so as close to the Exposition as he could, he set up and charged admission to see his paintings. - [Beth] And he called this the Pavilion of Realism. - [Steven] Let's start with the figures at the center of this enormous canvas. We see the artist himself, Gustave Courbet. He's dressed in a gray suit. He's leaning back with a paintbrush in his right hand, holding a palette and additional paintbrushes in his left. - [Beth] Courbet is painting a landscape. Now, in the 19th century landscapes were considered a lowly genre. It was those history paintings, those religious paintings that were considered important. - [Steve] The landscape that he's painting, is a representation of the area near Ornans, where Courbet grew up. And look at the way that the canvas is set, so that it frames the figure of the artist himself. in back of him and looking towards the painting is a nude woman. The woman is understandable in the context of a studio. In more traditional paintings that we might expect to see, a nude representing the Goddess of Love, Venus. But here this is clearly a modern woman, her dress is at her feet. - [Beth] And her body appears real, instead of idealized the way that an artist, at this time might paint that, figure of Venus. - [Steve] She could be a muse. - [Beth] Someone who inspires his creative work. - [Steve] And looking up at Courbet, is a small child. If you look closely you'll notice that the child is not looking at the landscape, but is looking directly at Courbet. The child wears clogs referencing his rural background, and his shirt is in rags. This is a figure that might remind us of Courbet's painting The Stonebreakers. - [Beth] Courbet's clearly the center of this painting, and the world revolves around him. Courbet described the figures on the right this way, "These are all the shareholders that is, friends, workers and art lovers." - [Steve] This is his world, his friends and supporters. - [Beth] For example, we see his patron, Alfred Bruyas. We also see Proudhon. - [Steve] And like Courbet, Proudhon was a socialist. - [Beth] Politically speaking, Courbet considered himself a republican, in the sense of someone who supported the idea of France as a republic, a democracy. On the far right we see another figure, who is very important to 19th century painting, and that's Charles Baudelaire. - [Steve] Baudelaire was a poet and an art critic. But he spoke very compellingly of the need for artists, to turn their attention to modern life, to find beauty within the world that existed, not within the world of the past. - [Beth] But that was the foundation of his idea of a realist art, not art that retold the story of ancient Greece and Rome, but art that was of his time. - [Steve] And its crucial to understand, that the definition of realism is not naturalistic, faithfulness to what one sees, it has to do with subject matter. It has to do with what is being represented. The left side of the canvas is probably least understood. For quite along time art historians thought that the figures simply represented types of people in society. But we now know it's actually a little more complicated. - [Beth] Courbet described them this way, he said "This is the other world of ordinary life, the people, misery, poverty, riches, the exploited, the exploiters, those who live on death." - [Steve] Poverty is clear enough, next to the small boy with ripped sleeves, we see a woman who is nursing a child. This is an Irish woman and desperately poor. - [Beth] Above her. - [Steve] In shadow a skull, that potent symbol from history of painting that represents the memento mori, a reminder of death. - [Beth] Seen either in a still life, as you said, as a reminder of death or sometimes, at the foot of the cross as a reference, to Golgotha where Christ was crucified. And the figure that we see above the skull, is a mannequin, a typical feature of an artist's studio, when an artist would be trying to understand, how to place a figure and this figure's in, the pose of the crucifixion, and so we seem to have Courbet, recalling different types of paintings, the religious painting, the genre painting with a beggar woman. - [Steve] The still life referenced not only by the skull, but also by the grouping of objects on the floor, where we see a hat, where we see a guitar, where we see a knife, as well as, as we've already discussed, landscapes. So these are all the different types of paintings. - [Beth] And then we have figures who art historians, have been able to identify for example, the prominent seated figure on the left, wearing hunting boots, with hunting dogs, is a barely disguised portrait of, the Emperor Louis Napoleon the third. - [Steve] Actually the museum says a poacher, that is somebody who hunts on land, that they don't have legal access to. - [Beth] This painting is 1855 Courbet summing up, seven years of his artistic life, that takes us back to 1848, the year of The Revolution. When France was established as a republic, but Louis Napoleon seized power, and declared himself emperor by this time. So in a way Courbet understands him as a poacher, as someone who has taken what is not rightfully his, who has taken the government, that does not belong to him, but belongs to the people. - [Steve] The figure at the extreme left, is referenced as a jew, we have a man seated in his top hat, who's referenced as an undertaker. And it is these types of figures, that created a degree of complexity, that has bewildered our historians and viewers alike. This is a painting that is highly subjective. This is Courbet's world, Courbet's vision. Courbet is breaking the rules of 19th century painting. He's breaking the rules by which an artist exhibited, and in this way is creating very important precedence, for later 19th century artists. For example the impressionists, who will create their own exhibitions in opposition to the salon. - [Beth] Courbet is saying to the art establishment, painting is what I say it is, not what you say it is. In fact Courbet put this better than I can, he said, "To know in order to be able to create, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation. To be not only a painter, but a man as well. In short , to create living art, that is my goal." (jazz piano music)