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French painter a focus at BC museum

Portrait of Monsieur Nodler, the Younger, 1865.Gustave Courbet

The 19th-century French painter Gustave Courbet never traveled as far as the United States, but evidence suggests he probably would have enjoyed the trip. He counted many American art collectors among his greatest devotees.

Members of the Allston Club, a salon in Boston devoted to fine art, and Isabella Stewart Gardner were among the early American purchasers of his work, and a hunting scene purchased by the Allston Club hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts.

So presumably the artist would be delighted to know that he will be feted this fall at Boston College, where the McMullen Museum of Art is hosting the most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever offered in the United States, organizers say.


“Courbet: Mapping Realism,’’ which opens Monday, is the result of a longstanding collaboration between its cocurator, Boston College art history professor Jeffery Howe, and his colleagues in Belgium, the country that Howe says Courbet considered his second home.

“About three years ago, Dominique Marechal, my counterpart at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, was organizing an exhibition based on their collection of Courbet, and he suggested that we bring this show to BC,” said Howe, an authority on Belgian art who wrote the catalog for the Royal Museums show.

“Courbet is one of the key figures of 19th-century art, in that his new Realist style represented a pivotal change in the history of European art that eventually influenced the same change in American art,’’ he said. “I agreed that bringing his work to BC would be very interesting, but wanted to find a way to amplify the idea a little bit. And the way to do that seemed to be to use the exhibit to explore his effect on American artists such as John La Farge, Martin Johnson Heade, William Morris Hunt, and Winslow Homer.”


The exhibition that eventually developed from Howe’s discussions with Marechal and his Belgian colleagues will be on display at the McMullen Museum through Dec. 8. It features 49 works, some by Courbet and some by his American contemporaries, including Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, Heade, Homer, Hunt, Eastman Johnson, and La Farge.

“Throughout his career, Courbet met some resistance from the French establishment due to his rather controversial style,” Howe said. “He was even sometimes the object of satire. Members of the French art community thought he was missing the point of their high-flown tradition. In fact, he was doing something very different that opened the path for a new generation of Realists and Impressionists in Belgium, and in France too.

“And then when his work reached America, it gained even more credence,” Howe said. “His philosophy that people should paint just what they see really resonated in the American art scene, where there was a great demand for authenticity. His interest in nature and painting outdoor landscapes played very well in this country as well.”

Numerous American art collectors and museums in possession of works by Courbet were eager to cooperate with the McMullen exhibition, he said. The list of contributors includes the museums at Yale University and Smith College, Springfield Museums, Clark Art Institute, and Rhode Island School of Design, as well as the MFA in Boston. An early purchase by Isabella Stewart Gardner, “A View across a River,” is among the pieces in the show.


Howe said he hopes the show will attract both those familiar with Courbet’s work and those new to it.

“Seeing it firsthand is so different from seeing a reproduction, and Courbet covered such a variety of subjects,” Howe said. “He painted everything from landscapes to portraits to figure studies to still lifes. He was so versatile but always so strong in his technique. And alongside his work, we’ll be showing works by the American artists who were most powerfully influenced by him. So people who are already familiar with the work of those American painters might see new things in it when they view those artists in this different context.”

An opening reception will be held Sunday from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the museum, in Devlin Hall on BC’s Chestnut Hill campus, 140 Commonwealth Ave.

Additional events include free lectures on Nov. 7 and 14 at 5 p.m., and free docent-led tours will be offered at 2 p.m. on Sundays starting Sept. 15; tours can also be arranged by calling 617-552-8587.

Admission to the McMullen Museum is free, and the building is handicapped accessible.

For directions, parking, and other information, call 617-552-8100 or visit www.bc.edu/artmuseum.

Send ideas to nancyswest@ gmail.com.