Show-off, scoundrel, and self-promoter par excellence, Gustave Courbet, the father of Realism, did his best to needle 19th-century decorum wherever he sniffed it. He was an all-round pain in the neck.
So it’s interesting to imagine what Realism, a movement that purported to care only for truth, would have looked like if it had been sired (and eventually it would have been) by someone else. Someone less theatrical. Someone more modest, measured, and subtle. Someone more in touch — well, with reality.
You would think it would have helped. But don’t count on it. Courbet’s paternity of Realism reminds of a truth about the movement: It was as artificial as the next style. Its rhetoric was catchier and more in tune with the temper of the times than the availing alternatives (lead-footed romanticism and clapped-out classicism). But it was a style, built on prejudices and proclivities like any other.
Neither Courbet’s “zeitgeist-iness” nor his compulsive talent for attracting attention can adequately explain why, by the middle of the 19th century, he had become be the most famous painter in France.
There was also his talent.
For all his faults — his sloppiness, his histrionics, his championship arrogance — Courbet’s painting sticks to the eye. It’s optical Velcro. It can feel as cheap and trashy, too. But in the end, Courbet is consistently alluring because he loved paint, he had a nose for drama, and he had a feeling for life that, at least until his ignominious end (he went into exile after the Paris Commune of 1871), was invincible and expansive.
Peter Schjeldahl caught the mood exactly when he wrote that, upon seeing Courbet, “you want to run out and start a riot, milk a cow, have sex, eat an apple, die – do anything rather than stand around abrading your nerves with the angel grit of ‘fine’ art.”
“Courbet: Mapping Realism,” at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, should be catnip to fans of Courbet; but it may baffle those coming to the artist for the first time. What, they might wonder, is all the fuss about?
The show, which was organized by Jeffrey Howe, a professor of art history at Boston College, contains none of Courbet’s outrageous lesbian scenes or full-length nudes, no vaunting self-portraits, no vast, politically charged group portraits, no scenes of peasant laborers, and no outsized hunting scenes.
Although admirably ambitious for a college museum — it includes 17 paintings by Courbet and almost twice as many by painters he influenced — it is a strange hydra. Spread across the museum’s two floors, it is divided into works generously lent by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (upstairs) and works made available by various public and private collections in the US (downstairs).
Both halves sprinkle paintings – some of them very interesting, many dully didactic — by lesser lights around the works by Courbet. The Belgian section includes a really interesting genre painting by Louis Dubois of middle-aged men and women playing roulette — each individualized face combining nail-biting anxiety with spiritual defeat in a weird, contracted space.
The American half contains, surprisingly, no works by Whistler and only one print by Winslow Homer. On the other hand, it has eight works by John LaFarge, an artist of delicate sensibility not easy to square with the abrasive Courbet.
But both Courbet and LaFarge were obsessed with geology and with forested landscapes. And LaFarge, under the sway of Courbet and the Barbizon school, did experiment with rich impasto in his painting. Look out for his terrific “A Boy and His Dog (Dickey Hunt).”
Landscape accounts for almost two-thirds of Courbet’s career output, and about the same fraction of his paintings here. A lot of the time, his signature style — lots of palette-knife effects loosely approximating textures found in nature, from rough stone to shimmering leaves — becomes rote, while his insistence on dark, massy tones (Childe Hassam later described it as “molasses and bitumen”) dated very quickly.
Manet, Degas, and the Impressionists are hard to imagine without Courbet’s precedent. But their embrace of sunlight and sharp tonal contrasts endowed so much of Courbet’s painting with the musty atmosphere of the attic.
Nonetheless, it’s impossible to forget that Courbet – like Constable and Corot, but with more ferocity – loved the land he came from. Everything he did was aimed at making us feel the landscape as an intimate, breathing, close-up, material phenomenon, because that’s how he felt it. He was territorial, and instinctive about it, like a dog.
He spent his privileged childhood taking walks in the Franche-Comte region of France (his father owned huge tracts of land there) and this region – with its cliffs, caves, plateaus, and valleys sluiced by churning waterways – would always be his territory.
He spent a great deal of time in Paris, but never painted it. In his imagination he returned instead, repeatedly, to far-off Franche-Comte, which he painted most often from memory. Every Courbet landscape is a statement of pride, fierce and tender, full of gratitude.
“Landscape at Ornans,” on loan from Belgium, is one of the few pictures here with a blue sky (and hence brighter greens). Other landscapes show shadowy caves, deer-sprinkled streams in bosky forests, glens, brooks, and a hillside of snow and ice.
The liveliest of all may be his small seascape “The Sailboat (Seascape),” on loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. It’s classic Courbet: bold, straightforward, and jaunty: clearly manufactured, but executed with gusto and deeply felt.
My two favorite paintings in the show were portraits of women, both painted in the 1850s and both lent by the Belgians. One shows a dancer in Spanish costume, full length, posing with her hands on her hip and her face turned to the side. It’s full of conviction, and a reminder that the French mid-century rage for all things Spanish by no means began with Manet (who painted Spanish dancers, including Lola de Valence, in almost the same pose as Courbet’s Signora Adela Guerrero).
Even better is the nearby “Portrait of Madame Leon Fontaine, nee Laure Janne.” With a minimum of fuss, Courbet has nailed this extraordinary woman, an independent businesswoman, who smiles out at us with more secret knowledge (and cuter dimples) than the Mona Lisa.
She was married at the time to an arms manufacturer who dabbled, like Courbet, in radical politics. She later divorced him and married Leon Fontaine, an associate of Karl Marx and Courbet’s hero, the socialist philosopher P-J. Proudhon. I’m telling you, you want to get to know her!
Howe and the McMullen deserve great credit for bringing so many Courbets to Boston, and for exploring his extensive influence here and in Belgium. He’s one of the most complex and fascinating figures in 19th century art, and this show, which comes at him via an unexpected side alley, lets fresh air into old, forgotten rooms.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.