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

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris looking at Gustave Courbet enormous canvas the painters studio but it has a longer title also the painters studio a real allegory summing up seven years of my life as an artist it's really exciting to see this painting it's recently been cleaned there are passages that are absolutely beautiful for example the embroidery of the dress on the women on the right or the discarded clothes of the model in the center but I just want to point out just how large this painting is it's close to twelve 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 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 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 our 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 something akin to a World's Fair Courbet was asked to submit paintings to the jury and to exhibit the paintings that were accepted at the exposition and the jury would decide which paintings were admitted and which paintings were rejected and this was typical this is how the salon the official exhibitions worked in Paris but the jury rejected this one and corbeil decided in very typical corbeil fashion that's okay I'm gonna set up my own exhibition and so as close to the exposition as he could he said a pen charged admission to see his paintings and he called this the pavilion of realism let's start with the figures at the center of this enormous canvas we see the artist Tim gustave courbet he's dressed in a gray suit he's leaning back with a paintbrush in his right hand holding a pallet and additional paint brushes in his left Kirby is painting a landscape now in the 19th century landscapes were considered a lowly Jean it was those history paintings those religious paintings that were considered important the landscape that he's painting is a representation of the area near or non where corbeil grew up and look at the way that the canvas is set so that it frames the figure of the artist himself and 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 you might expect to see a nude representing for instance the goddess of love Venus but here this is clearly a modern woman her dress is at her feet and her body appears real instead of idealized the way that an artist at this time might paint that figure of Venus she could be amused someone who inspires his creative work and looking up at corbeil 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 corbeil the child wears clogs referencing his rural background and his shirt is in rags this is a figure that might remind us of corbeil is painting the stone breakers poor baek'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 this is his world his friends and supporters for example we see his patron offered brios we also see Prudhomme and like corbeil Pradhan was a socialist 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 was very important to 19th century painting and that's Charles Baudelaire Baudelaire was a poet and an art critic but he spoke very compellingly of the need for artists to turn their attention to modern to find beauty within the world that existed not within the world of the past but that was the foundation of his idea of a realist art not art that retold the stories of ancient Greece and Rome but an art that was of his time and it's 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 the least understood for quite a long time art historians thought that the figure simply represented types of people in society but we now know it's actually a little more complicated Courbet describes him 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 poverty is clear enough next to the small boy with ripped sleeves we see a woman who's nursing a child this is an Irish woman and desperately poor above her in shadow a skull that potent symbol from history of painting that represents the memento mori a reminder of death 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 studio when an artist would be trying to understand how to place a figure and this figures in the pose of the crucifixion and so we seem to have corbeil recalling different types of paintings the religious painting the genre painting with a beggar woman 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 landscape so these are all the different types of paintings 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 actually the museum says a poacher that is somebody who hunts on land that they don't have legal access to this painting is 1855 Courbet is 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 corbeil understands him as a poacher's 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 the figure at the extreme left is referenced as a Jew we have a man seated in his top hat whose 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 core Bayes World Court Bayes 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 precedents for later 19th century artists for example the Impressionists who will create their own exhibition in opposition to the salon Courbet is saying to the art establishment painting is what I say it is not what you say it is in fact corbeil 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 you [Music]