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

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(piano music) >> Dr. Steven Zucker: We're at the Musee d'Orsay, and we're looking at one of the most famous, one of the most complicated, and one of the least understood canvases by Gustave Courbet, "The Studio." Sometimes it's got a secondary title, "The Studio: A Real Allegory of Seven Years of My Life As An Artist" >> Dr. Beth Harris: Right. "Summing up seven years of my life as an artist," I think that's the title that Courbet gave it when he exhibited it. What he did was held his own exhibition of realism right nearby the official exposition of 1855, where he wasn't allowed to share this painting, in a very independent Courbet move. Courbet very much saw himself in opposition to government authority and rules and regulations, and very much wanted to follow his own rules and regulations, which he obviously did when he set up The Pavilion of Realism to exhibit painting in his own space. >> Dr. Zucker: Before we get any further, I think maybe we should actually just read a brief quote by Courbet. He writes, "The name 'realist' has been imposed on me, "just as the name 'romantic' was imposed on a man of 1830. "Working outside any system and with no previous prejudice, "I have studied the art of the old masters "and the art of the modern masters. "I simply wanted to draw from a complete knowledge "of tradition, a reasoned and independent sense "of my own individuality. "That was my idea, "to be capable of conveying the customs, the ideas, "and the look of my period as I saw them, "not to be just a painter but a man as well. "In short, to produce living art, that is my aim." >> Dr. Harris: I think that explains the painting, at least, it does for me. >> Dr. Zucker: How so? >> Dr. Harris: Courbet says, "I've studied the art of the past. "I know what there is. "I did my copying in the Louvre. "But what I want to do is be true to myself "as an individual living in 1850." >> Dr. Zucker: That's a really radical idea, that notion of the power of the individual. It's something that we take, I think, for granted at the dawn of the 21st century. >> Dr. Harris: Courbet is eschewing a communal iconography. He is not borrowing from ancient Greece and Rome. He is not borrowing from Christian iconography. He is establishing his own iconography, in a way. He is saying, "I not only want to be a painter "but a man as well." >> Dr. Zucker: OK. >> Dr. Harris: Right? >> Dr. Zucker: Yes, I would agree with that. It is his iconography. He did study the old masters, and they're in here. It's just that he's changed it a lot. >> Dr. Harris: A lot. >> Dr. Zucker: Let's go through the painting and talk about what we see. >> Dr. Harris: In the center, Courbet himself shown in the act of painting, holding a palette, with a little boy gazing up in him, >> Dr. Zucker: OK, hold on. Before we get past Courbet, let's spend a moment looking at the way that he is representing himself. He's seated. He is central, as you said. He's got that canvas framing him. He is also framed by that boy and by that nude woman. But he's leaning back. That beard juts out. There's a kind of arrogance. >> Dr. Harris: A kind of confidence, definitely. Remember that one part of this title is "a real allegory," so we have to assume that these are not just figures who happened to actually be in the studio. >> Dr. Zucker: But they have symbolic meaning. >> Dr. Harris: They all have symbolic meaning. They've been placed here for a purpose. Courbet is communicating something about his practice as an artist. >> Dr. Zucker: So he's communicating first in the fact that he is painting a landscape, and that's significant because in the middle of the 19th century, landscape had very specific kinds of meanings associated with them. By 1850, the cities had grown dramatically, and nature meant something very specific. It spoke of authenticity, and it spoke of truth. >> Dr. Harris: And a kind of refuge from the artificiality of the city. >> Dr. Zucker: So here is the truth of nature, the truth of God, in a sense. But on either side, there are lots and lots of figures. This is a huge canvas. >> Dr. Harris: On the left, we see figures from everyday life, political figures, figures whose lives have been marked by the tragedy of poverty. >> Dr. Zucker: We also have the emperor. We have Napoleon III. >> Dr. Harris: Who's in the guise of a hunter on the left. And on the right, all figures borrowed from the life of art. Courbet's patron, Alfred Bruyas in the back, Baudelaire on the far right. We also have, in the bottom center, a white cat, who seems to be very playful, who may represent independence and freedom and perhaps the idea of a republic. >> Dr. Zucker: There is so much about this painting that defies any kind of clear narrative, or even symbolic narrative. And so there is a whole series of really important and profound symbols and meanings here that nobody has yet untangled. >> Dr. Harris: It's not that we need to. It's not even that we can untangle all of those meanings. What emerges as important is this idea of the subjectivity of the artist as primary, that art is something which is about self-expression. >> Dr. Zucker: And so it was a willingness to allow or to give up, in a sense, the control of meaning. In fact, Courbet even said, "Let them make of this what they can." (piano music)