The conquering spirit of our modern painting derives from Courbet. These are the words of the greatest of modern art critics, Julius Meier-Gr„fe, about the most difficult of 19th-century painters, Gustave Courbet (1819-77). Difficult, because while Courbet painted some of the most startling and beautiful paintings of his time, he also made some of the worst to bear the signature of a master. These disparities have produced innumerable flights of fancy from art historians and have been explained by everything from the artist?s provincial origins to his political and social theories to his “ironic” formalism. A new generation of scholars is now focused on Courbet?s use of modern media and marketing to establish himself as a succŠs de scandale. Once he had achieved fame, he put less and less effort into pictures and became, as he wrote of himself in 1853, “the proudest and most arrogant man in France.” This post-political view of Courbet informs the large exhibition that was organized last year in France and is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18th. The sumptuous accompanying catalogue is the best summary of his life and work to date. It includes excellent essays on his politics; his relations with his key patron, Alfred Bruyas; his use of photography; and his influence on painters like Manet, Monet, and C‚zanne. And with more than 500 illustrations, the book is the most gorgeous possible guide to Courbet. To understand him, you?ll still need to go to Paris to the Mus‚e d?Orsay and to Montpellier to the Mus‚e Fabre, which between them hold a majority of the key pictures, but this catalogue is the next-best thing.
About the Author
Robert Messenger is the Books Editor of The Wall Street Journal.