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Gustave Courbet

( June 10, 1819 - December 31, 1877 )

"...in our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly."
  Courbet - Man with Pipe

We are starting here a series of quite short biographies of the artists who have most influenced the Christians, or had lives that share a surprising number of similarities. This is quite easy to do in the case of Anthony, who came into Art in the grand classical manner. Fanny on the other hand had very little knowledge or even awareness of Art History and so her art is much more "from the great beyond," she started creating purely from her Soul. Anthony has always regarded their comparative stories like the difference between someone who has inherited a great fortune (himself) and someone who has made one, equally great, virtually overnight. (Fanny.) It is one of the half dozen qualities about her work that he admires more than any other artist he has ever met, and we look forward to telling her artist's story.

And as we shall be reading about the aims and desires of other artists, what they wanted of their so great art, at the conclusion of the series we will write the Christians' answer to that question: what did they want of their art, for themselves and for us

Starting with Anthony, as his influences are easier to pin down, we shall start this series with Gustave Courbet...1819 - 1877.

The "coincidental" similarities between Gustave Courbet and Anthony Christian; there are a surprising number:

1) They were each self-taught.

2) They each studied by copying the Masters of the past.

3) They each did this in a museum in the capital city of their respective countries. (Courbet in the Louvre, Paris; Christian in the National Gallery, London.)

4) They each went on a pilgrimage around the world in search of the inspiration that would lead them into their own styles.

5) They each ignored what was going around (artistically) in their time. (Kenneth Clark, considered the greatest connoisseur of his day (see "Civilisation") wrote famously to Christian, as long ago as 1970: "I do not know which to admire the most; your courage in defying the tendencies of modern art or the skill with which you have done so.")

6) Their independent Spirits and their commitment to their own paths managed to irritate Society and the existing art-worlds of their time...

7) ... to the point where they each built museums to house and share with the public their own art. Courbet did this in Paris in 1855, Christian in Bali, 1988-1993. Christian's museum was a huge success and people flew in from all over Asia just to see it. He is at present searching for a patron in order to create that museum again, but this time on a truly grand scale with his (and Fanny's) Ichor Collection, comprising approximately 300 of their most magnificent works.)

8) Both Courbet and Christian, towards the end of their artistic careers, became profoundly immersed in erotic art, and each worked at developing new levels of the genre. Christian has been able to go much further in this development, as the social climate has so drastically changed since Courbet's extremely narrow - even closed - minded age...and perhaps because Christian is a Scorpio, the sign most associated with the deepest fascinations for and connections to all sexual matters.

Since we have quoted a letter sent to Christian by a great connoisseur of the 20th Century, I'd like to enclose here one of my favourite writings of its kind, an excerpt from an article written by a famous - and most begrudging - critic of Courbet's time, Theophile Silvestre:

"Here is an original who, for the past ten years, has made more noise in the streets than twenty celebrities and their coteries. Some regard him as the personification of a new art, like a Caravaggio who sacrifices imagination to reality...others take him for a sort of ragpicker of art, scavenging in the streets for truth and throwing it in the face of the Romantics and the corridors of the Academy. Fanatics have placed him above all the artists of our time, and he himself swears that he has no rival. The public affects disdain for him: critics rage, but other artists encourage him..."

Burial at Ornans

Many artists have needled Society by being extremely individualistic and non-conformist, but few have reached the level of notoriety of Gustave Courbet, the French artist often referred to as the "grandfather of Impressionism." This title is given him mainly because of his commitment to painting the "here and now" rather than the mythological heroes and nymphs and shepherds that proliferated in the Romantic movement when Courbet started on his career in Paris in the early 1840's. While his insistence on painting "ordinary everyday things and people" antagonised both Society (collectors and connoisseurs alike) and critics, and he was slandered at every opportunity, these very qualities were the ones adopted by Manet who took the baton from Courbet and, adhering to the same principles, became extremely famous and successful...and, albeit reluctantly, became known as the father of Impressionism.

Courbet further enraged his public by painting his ordinary subjects on vast canvases normally reserved for grand "history paintings." He was born and raised by a wealthy farming family in Ornans, an area of France that he loved and included scenes from often in his work. His sisters modelled for him, as did friends and neighbours. In 1839, his father sent him to Paris to study law, but Courbet had different plans, and spent all his time copying the works of the Masters of the past in the Louvre, a standard centuries old method of studying. In spite of this refusal to bow to the wishes of his father, Courbet still spent several months every year back at home in his beloved Ornans with his family.

With an insatiable wanderlust and an obsessive, burning desire to find the inspiration that would lead to his finding his own very personal style, Courbet soon left Paris and travelled extensively through Europe, studying the different techniques of masters in Spain, Flanders and France. By the time he finally reached the Netherlands he felt that he had found his "Vision," which was to paint the natural raw and spontaneous beauty of the world around him, and for that he returned to Ornans.

The strange thing was that although everyone was scandalised by Courbet's "moderness" in representing life as it was lived around him, it had actually been the credo for masters from centuries before, from Leonardo in Italy, who insisted above all else that an artist had always to "work after the life," (ie only from the living model or nature) to Rembrandt and Hals in Holland. But since then the Romantic movement had swept all that away. Formed by Jacques-Louis David and continued by his pupil Ingres, people had become conditioned to expect art only to represent things symbolically, through the heroics of mythological gods of the antique past, or the flirtations of nymphs and shepherds. Against this, Courbet's paintings, which formed the movement that became known as Realism, were hard for people to look upon.

The two greatest political events in France of the 19th Century were the two civic upheavals of 1848 and 1871, the latter known as the Commune. Therefore, added to changing attitudes, and fickle tastes, you now had a political sensitivity. The uprising in 1848 was an abortive revolution in Paris during the few days of which the lower classes had been badly defeated by the bourgeoisie, . Ever since then there had been a most uneasy peace and for many, the threat of a Socialist takeover was very real. Therefore, on seeing Courbet's monumental canvases that seemed to be glorifying the lower classes, his work was regarded as not only suspicious but even subversive! His work suggested to many that he was a revolutionary; he was implying democracy and threatening the art establishment. The only reason Courbet survived at all was because he possessed an extremely strong constitution, was stubborn as a mule, and last but by no means least, unlike most artists, he was financially independent.

In 1861 Courbet wrote his credo, an informal manifesto of Realist art:

"Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects. An object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting."

The Artist's Studio - A True Allegory Concerning Seven Years Of My Artistic Life

One of Courbet's first paintings to be described as Realism was his "Burial at Ornans" which scandalised the public in the 1851 exhibition at the Salon. It was the rejection of this work and then his later work "The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Defining Seven Years Of My Artistic Life" that caused Courbet to construct his own gallery/museum. This latter painting was found too radical by the Salon jury, as it depicted two levels of Society, divided in the middle by the artist. On the right the "haves," friends, fellow workers and connoisseurs, and on the left the "have-nots," every day life, poverty, misery, the exploiters and the exploited.

The Origin of the World

By the end of the 1860's Courbet was becoming more interested in the erotic elements of art than the political ones. His paintings became increasingly daring, each painting slightly more extreme than its predecessor, culminating in the famous (and most beautiful) "L'Origine du Monde" ("The Origin of the World") which depicts the feminine genitalia in all its glory. Unfortunately this is a painting that has to be seen in the original, as no reproduction ever seems to do it justice. There are subtleties in this painting which simply don't seem to have been satisfactorily reproduced photographically. As always in the case of erotic works, in spite of causing a furore and being banned from public display, this never did anything to diminish their great popularity...privately. Hypocrisy has always played a large part in anything to do with erotic art.

Courbet's reputation as a rebel was sealed forever when he refused Napoleon's cross, the "Legion d'Honneur." But in spite of that he was later appointed in charge of all the museums of Paris. During the Commune in 1871, he succeeded quite heroically in that capacity, protecting the museums from looters during the riots and revolts of those turbulent days. However, regardless of having rendered his city and even his country such a service, shortly after the Commune he was accused of being responsible for the destruction of Napoleon's Column in the Place Vendome. He was imprisoned for six months and fined 300,000 francs to pay for the restoration of the Column. Unable or unprepared to pay such a sum, as soon as he came out of prison, Courbet escaped to Switzerland where, in self imposed exile, he continued as an important artist, especially in the sadly little known genre of erotic art. He encountered a fine patron in the Bay of Turkey, for whom he painted some of his finest and most sensual works.

Gustave Courbet died on New years Eve, 1877.

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