It’s always odd to think of James McNeill Whistler, of Lowell, as a protégé of Gustave Courbet, of Ornans, France. But for a little while, anyway, he was. An Irishwoman, Jo Hiffernan, came between them. But in the end, you feel, their falling apart came down to a question of temperament.
Courbet, whose distant, straight-backed, slightly paunchy figure is shown standing on the beach in this beautiful picture by Whistler, was the father of 19th-century realism. His painting is earthy, solid, damp with dew. He painted trees, animals, waterfalls, peasant laborers, and fleshy women. Degas said that looking at his pictures was like being nuzzled by the wet nose of a calf.