Winter landscapes

For many of you, the sight of snow is a curse, for others it is a sight of wonderment. Maybe the falling of snow, like Christmas presents, is just a meaningful event for children. Many believe snow should only be enjoyed if seen in a photograph or postcard and not deep on the ground in front of one’s house or in one’s driveway. For all you snow-sufferers, let me offer you some works of art which highlight the beauty of snow depicted by different artists, some of whom may be better known for other artistic genres.  Artists love to see the trees in winter, devoid of their foliage, leaving just exposed skeletons. Such winter scenes have their own exquisiteness.

Sunset scenery with snow-covered road and a small farmhouse by Harald Julius Niels Pryn

Sunset Scenery with snow-covered road and a small Farmhouse was one of many paintings featuring wintery conditions by the Danish artist Harald Julius Niels Pryn. Pryn was born on April 11th, 1891 in Frederiksberg, Denmark and lived and worked in Bagsværd, a northern suburb of Copenhagen. He was a self-taught artist and eventually developed the skill to be considered one of the great landscape artists of his time. In his own country he was a well-known Danish landscape painter. His specialty and main subjects were light-filled winter landscapes.  Look at the many colours he used to depict the snow.

Winter Caravan on the Road by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, but baptized as Hovhannes Aivazian, was born in July 1817 into an Armenian family in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in Crimea and spent most of his life there. He was a Russian Romantic painter and although this work, Winter Caravan on the Road, is a winter landscape, he is deemed to be one of the greatest masters of marine art with the vast majority of his works being seascapes. He also often depicted battle scenes, Armenian themes, and portraiture. He was educated at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, Aivazovsky travelled to Europe and lived briefly in Italy during the early 1840s. He then returned to Russia and was appointed the main painter of the Russian Navy. He was sponsored by the state and was well-regarded during his lifetime. The saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush”, popularized by Anton Chekhov, was used in Russia for describing something lovely.  It is the haunting image of the horse-drawn procession emerging from the forest mist which appeals to me.  It gives the painting a mystical quality.

Christmas Eve along the Hudson with the Palisades across the River by Samuel S Carr (c. 1879)

Christmas Eve along the Hudson with the Palisades across the River, was painted by the American artist, Samuel S Carr around 1879. Carr was born in England in 1837. He trained at the Royal School of Design in Chester, and around the age of twenty-five immigrated to America and went to live in New York where he studied mechanical drawing. He never married and moved to Brooklyn in 1879 where he lived with his sister Annie and her husband, and remained there for twenty-eight years. He became the president of the Brooklyn Art Club. Much of his work were pastoral scenes which were quite popular in the 1890s and Carr would vary the times of day and seasons in his work.  In the background seen between the large houses we can just make out the steep cliffs on the Jersey side of the Hudson River known as the Palisades.

Winter Landscape by Louis Apol (c.1885)

Probably because of the inclement winter weather in the Low Countries many of the Dutch and Flemish artists painted winter landscapes. Lodewijk Frederik Hendrik (Louis) Apol was a Dutch painter and one of the most prominent representatives of The Hague School. He was born in September 1850 and as a young man received private art lessons. In 1868, aged eighteen, he received a scholarship from the Dutch King Willem III in 1868. He specialized in winter landscapes and this painting, entitled Winter Landscape, demonstrates his extraordinary talent. This painting, like many of his other landscape works are devoid of people and other figures (except the black crows). In 1880 Louis Apol went on an expedition on the SS Willem Barents to Spitsbergen (Nova Zembla) in the Polar Sea. This sea voyage proved to be a great influence on his work.

Winter Morning by Ivan Choultsé

Ivan Fedorovich Choultsé, a Russian realist landscape painter, was born in St Petersburg on October 21st, 1874. After finishing school, he became an electrical engineer and painted in his free time. It was not until he was thirty-years-old that he seriously studied art. Like our previous painter, Louis Apol, Choultsé travelled to Spitzbergen where he completed a number of depictions of the Arctic landscape. By 1916 Choultsé was already known for his art and members of the Tsar family bought his paintings. He painted spectacular snow scenes in which the light seems to come from behind the canvas and glow. The critics were not as complimentary with regards his art and called them photographic and, as such, non-art. However, the public did not agree, and his intricate style of painting is termed “magic-realism”.  Look carefully at his depiction of the snow.  Look how powdery it seems.  It is so life-like. His fame spread across Europe and as far as America and Canada where his paintings sold well. Toronto art dealer G. Blair Laing wrote in his book Memoirs of an Art Dealer, 1979:

“…He painted spectacular snow scenes in which the light seems to come from behind the canvas and glow. The critics scorned these pictures as photographic and called them non-art – but today this style of painting is called “magic-realism” and is much admired by critics and museum..”

Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (1811)

If ever you wanted a haunting winter scene, none could probably surpass the 1811 painting, Winter Landscape, by the nineteenth-century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, who many believe is the most influential German artist of his generation. This is not just a winter landscape there is an element of religious symbolism. Look carefully at the foreground and you will see a crippled man sitting on the ground with his back against a large rock. Often at first glance observers miss the figure who seems to blend with the rock.  His crutch lies abandoned in the snow.  It appears he has given up on life.   He looks upwards at the crucifix, hands clasped in prayer. It is thought that the evergreen trees symbolise faith and the Gothic cathedral which looms out of the mist in the background, symbolises the promise of life after death.

The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868-69)

Claude Monet worked on his painting La Pie (The Magpie) during the winter of 1898/9. Monet tackled the great challenge of a snow-covered landscape. The setting for this work is near the commune of Étretat in Normandy. Monet lived in a house near here with his girlfriend, Camille Doncieux and their one-year-old son, Jean. This painting of a place in the countryside near Etretat, was painted en plein air by Monet and uses very unusual pale, luminous colours. In the work we see a solitary black magpie perched atop a gate. The light of the sun shines upon freshly fallen snow creating blue shadows. The work is hailed as one of the best winterscapes by Monet and is part of the Musée d’Oresay permanent collection.  It is said to be one of its most popular.

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

One of my favourite sixteenth-century painters is Pieter Bruegel the Elder and I am particularly fond of his painting Hunters in the Snow.  The painting is one of a series of works that featured different times of the year. This is a depiction of a wintry scene in a flat-bottomed valley. Three hunters, with little to show for their labours, are returning from an expedition accompanied by their dogs who also appear tired and demoralised after their fruitless outing. The hunters’ backs are bent as they trudge wearily through the snow. It appears to be a cold, yet calm overcast day, and Breugel has used whites and greys to convey the state of the weather. As we look down into the valley we see a number of frozen lakes and a river, on which we can see the silhouettes of the villagers enjoying the weather by skating and playing on the ice.

Skating in Central Park, by Agnes Tait (1934)

Another painting featuring winter pastimes on frozen lakes is the painting Winterscape, Skating in Central Park which was painted in 1934 by the American artist Agnes Tait. I particularly like this work as whenever I visit New York I always visit this beautiful park. Agnes Tait was born in 1894 and was a “Jill of all trades” being a painter, pen-and-ink artist, lithographer, book illustrator, muralist and dancer. Tait depicted the park in late afternoon as the low sun produces a beautifully coloured sky. Her modus operandi for this work was to complete the painting of the landscape first and, only then, add the figures which she would forge into small groups and by doing this she achieved a colourful pattern against the snow and ice. The very dark, almost black tree trunks  is in contrast to the white snow on the ground and the white mist atop of the background trees.

Winter Landscape with Skaters by Hendrick Avercamp

Many of the Dutch and Flemish winter paintings focus on how the people enjoyed the winters when lakes and canals were frozen over and they were able to go out on them and skate. One great exponent of that genre was Hendrick Avercamp. Avercamp was born in Amsterdam in January 1585, a time of the The Little Ice Age, which brought colder winters to parts of Europe and no doubt as a child he had spent the winters skating on the frozen lakes and canals. He later moved to Kampen, a town to the east of Amsterdam. Averkamp, who was mute, was known as “de Stomme van Kampen” (the mute of Kampen).  I particularly love this type of work.  I specifically like the busyness of the depiction.  Everywhere you look there is something going on.

The Drum Bridge and Yuhi Hill at Meguro by Utagawa Hiroshige (1857)

Utagawa Hiroshige was born in Edo in 1797 and originally it was envisioned that he would follow the career of his father, who was a fire-watchman. Both his parents died in 1809. Hiroshige is one of the two great masters of the Japanese landscape woodblock print, the other being Hokusai. Hiroshige’s forte was for his depictions of scenes which featured snow and rain, and has led him to be known as “the artist of rain, snow and mist”. For me, there is something special about Japanese woodblock prints and so one which incorporates a winter scene such as Drum Bridge and Yuhi Hill at Meguro, from the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, had to me in my list of favourites.

Riverside near Mustio by Victor Westerholm

Two contrasting paintings, both depicting winter conditions and yet so different you would not believe they were from the same artist. In his painting Riverside near Mustio, look how Westerholm has, with just a few brushstrokes, and use of tones of grey and green, depicted the glass like surface of the water with its reflective quality.
Victor Axel Westerholm was born in Finland on 4 January 1860, at Nagu island in the Turku archipelago. He was the son of Vicor Westerholm, a ship’s captain, and Maria Westerholm (née Andersson). At the young age of nine, he attended the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School in Turku. Later he would go to Germany and study under Eügen Ducker in Düsseldorf and then later enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris. In his late twenties, he became a teacher at the school of the Society of Art in Turku, and in 1891 became the director of the Turku art museum.

Evening Sun by Victor Axel Westerholm

He often painted winter landscapes and sunsets in the archipelago of Åland, where he had his summer residence, Tomtebo, close to the Lemström Canal. It was here that he founded and artists’ colony.  In his work, Evening Sun, look how the red colour of the buildings draw your eyes to focus on them.

Christmas Moonlight by Thomas Kinkade

I don’t suppose I could give you an insight into winterscapes and the hint of Christmas without including a painting by the American artist Thomas Kinkade who was the King of homely, some would say syrupy depictions. His painting Christmas Moonlight certainly evokes a feeling of happiness, serenity and contentment, all of which are things we strive for in life. It is sad to think that the artist himself, in the latter days, could not achieve these feelings for himself.

Poor Woman of the Village by Gustave Courbet

In complete contrast to the Kinkade painting, I thought I would look at a work by the Realist painter, Gustave Courbet. Gustave Courbet was a French painter who came from an affluent family but preferred the company of the ordinary folk. Courbet led the Realism movement in 19th-century French painting and was unswerving in his belief that his depictions of life must be truthful, “warts and all” and by so doing, rejected Academic teachings and the Romanticism movement.
In his painting, Poor Woman of the Village, we see his realistic attitude to a winter scene. The snow-clad landscape is no different to most but the main subject, an old woman, is a study of hardship. In the foreground we see a young child accompanied by an old woman dragging along her goat. This is not a painting oozing with symbolism. It is a painting which evokes a sense of realism as to the plight of the woman and the child as they battle the elements. It is a depiction of the unforgiving severity of winter.

It is for you to choose whether you like the Kinkade style or the Courbet style.  Do we need a period of escapism to make us feel better about life?  Whatever your choice, I wish you all a Happy Christmas.

 

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

In an earlier blog (November 14th) I looked at the life of Courbet and his painting The Artist’s Studio.  If you have just arrived at today’s blog it would be worth going to the earlier one to read about Courbet’s life and his artistic principles I mentioned in that earlier blog that when he had tried to get his three large painting into the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855 they were rejected because of their size.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today entitled A Burial at Ornans was one of the three.  This work was even bigger than the The Artist’s Studio, and measures 3.1metres by 6.6 metres and was completed by Courbet in 1850.  Both paintings are housed at the Musée d’Orsay.

Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans in 1819 and this huge painting depicts the funeral of his great uncle at the town in September 1848.   The depiction of the funeral and the laying to rest of the dead is unlike the usual way it would have been portrayed in Romantic or Academic art, where we would expect to see angels of the Lord carrying the soul of the deceased heavenwards.  Gustave Courbet was a realist painter.  In fact he was in the forefront of the Realism art movement, which was a grouping of artists  who believed that they should represent the world as it is even if that meant breaking with artistic and social conventions.  Realist artists painted everyday characters and situations all in a true-to-life manner.  These artists wanted to rid art of the theatrical drama, lofty subjects and the classical style and in its place they wanted to depict more everyday commonplace themes.  Courbet was once asked to incorporate angels in a painting he was doing of a church.  He rejected the request saying:

“….I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one… “

The Innocent gaze

This realist art we see before us is exactly as Courbet would want.  It is a funeral scene, warts and all.  It is an unflattering yet dignified scene, but more importantly to Courbet, it is a realistic scene.  There is a stillness and serenity of what we see before us.  There is no attempt to glorify the setting with a grandiloquent and ostentatious depiction of descending angels with God seated on a throne in the clouds above.  In the foreground there is an open grave awaiting the coffin.  The funeral procession approaches from the left.  In the procession we see the pallbearers slowly following the priest and altar boys as they close in on the gaping hole in the ground and the gravedigger, who is on bended knee by the grave.  The figures in red are officials of the church, who assisted at religious functions.  If you look closely at the edge of the grave, you can just make out a skull which presumably was exhumed when the grave was dug out.  The mourners fill the middle ground of the painting.  Grief-stricken women, with handkerchiefs fending off their tears, circle the grave.  It is interesting to note that Courbet did not use models for this scene, which would have been the norm in historical narrative paintings.  Instead he used actual villagers who were at the ceremony, including his sister and mother, and this again highlights his desire for realism.  This is not an en plein air painting for the depiction of the people was done in his studio at Ornans.  Look how Courbet has depicted the young at this event. 

Girl peeking at grave

See how the young altar boy, who is standing behind the priest, stares up at one of the pallbearer.  Courbet has managed to perfectly capture the look of innocence in the boy’s face.  Cast your eyes to the right foreground of the painting and see if you can spot the face of a small girl who is peeking out at the grave.  We just see her face.  The rest of her is almost lost amongst a sea of black clothing.  Look at the way Courbet has kept the heads of the mourners and officials level with the tops of the cliffs and the land in the background.  Observe how only the crucifix reaches reaches above that level into the pale sky, as it is held aloft by an attendant.   Just a coincident or has a little piece symbolism crept into Courbet’s work?

In Sarah Faunce’s biography of Courbet she talked about the reception this painting received from the public and critics.  She wrote:

“….In Paris the Burial was judged as a work that had thrust itself into the grand tradition of history painting, like an upstart in dirty boots crashing a genteel party, and in terms of that tradition it was of course found wanting…”

The critics seemed to miss the histrionics and exaggerated gestures of grief they had been used to seeing depicted in great historical funeral paintings of the past.  They thought this painting was ugly and presumably missed the beauty of angels, puti and the presence of the figure of God sitting aloft awaiting a new entrant to his kingdom.   Another aspect of the painting which disturbed the critics was the fact that Courbet painted this huge work, similar in size to grand historical paintings of the past, centred, in their opinion,  on a subject of little consequence – a burial of a family member.  As far as the sophisticated Parisians were concerned paintings of  rural folk should be confined to small works of art and they were very critical of Courbet’s decision to afford these folk such a large space of canvas.  The fact that he did was looked upon as a radical act.  However Courbet said of the painting “it was the debut of my principles”.   For the critics, if an artist was going to paint such an enormous work, then they expected the subject to be an idealized grand narrative and not just an ordinary every day event.

I end today with two quotes from the artist on his artistic upbringing and his pursuit of Realism and what he tried to achieve.

“…I have studied, apart from any preconceived system and without biases, the art of the ancients and the moderns. I have no more wished to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor was it my intention, moreover, to attain the useless goal of art for art’s sake. No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent understanding of my own individuality…”

“…To know in order to be capable, that was my idea. To be able to translate the customs, idea, the appearances of my epoch according to my own appreciation of it [to be not only a painter but a man,] in a word to create living art, that is my goal…”

And finally his hope for how he would be remembered…………….

“…When I am dead, let it be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty…”

The Artist’s Studio by Gustave Courbet

The Artist's Studio by Gustave Courbet (1855)

Jean-Desiré-Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans, a rugged area in the Franche-Comté region close to the France-Swiss border in 1819.  His father Règis Courbet and his mother, Sylvie were landowners, who owned a vineyard in Flagey, ten miles outside of Ornans.  They were a prosperous family but despite that Courbet’s parents held left of centre, anti-monarchist views.  This was probably a long held passion as his mother’s father had fought in the French Revolution.  At the age of twelve he attended a seminary in Ornans and it was during his time there that, according to his friend and art critic, Jules-Antoine Castagny, he came up before the priest to confess his sins and to have them forgiven.  According to Jack Lindsay in his biography of the artist,  Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art

“…The sins he revealed to his confessor so monstrously exceeded, in number and in kind, the iniquities appropriate to his tender age that nobody was willing to give him absolution…These successive rejections began to affect his reputation…To make sure he had forgotten nothing, Courbet had compiled a list of all the sins it would have been possible to commit, from the most trifling peccadillo to the darkest of crimes…”

This was an early sign of Courbet’s rebellious nature which would remain with him for the rest of his life.  When he was eighteen years of age his father arranged for Gustave to attend the Collège Royal at Besançon to study law.  At the same time he attended lessons at the Académie and studied painting under the tutelage of  Charles-Antoine Flageoulet, who had once been a pupil of the great neo-classical artist Jacques-Louis David.  Courbet left Besançon and moved to Paris.  His father still believed that this move was to further his legal studies but Gustave had other ideas.   Whilst there, he became great friends with Francois Bonvin, the French realist painter and the two would frequent the Louvre and study the Masters.  He also attended the atelier of Steuben and Hesse on the Île de La Cité.   He set about a series of self portraits in the 1840’s, one of which, Self portrait with Black Dog, he submitted to the Salon Exhibition of 1844 and was accepted while the rest of his submissions did not pass the jury’s scrutiny.  This was the start of a long running battle Courbet was to have with the Salon’s juries and lead to many vociferous comments by the artist against what he believed was the Salon jurists’ petty vindictiveness against himself. 

The following three years saw Courbet travelling around Belgium and Holland.  His art was very popular in the Low Countries and he had built himself a large wealthy international clientele.  It was through these connections that his fame as an artist spread throughout Europe.  Courbet was in the forefront of the Realism art movement, a grouping of artists  who believed that artist should represent the world as it is even if that meant breaking with artistic and social conventions.  Realist artists painted everyday characters and situations all in a true-to-life manner.  These artists wanted to rid art of the theatrical drama, lofty subjects and the classical style and in its place they wanted to depict more everyday commonplace themes.     Realism was starting to be popular not only in art but in literature.  Strictly speaking realism in literature denoted a particular kind of subject matter, especially the representation of middle-class life. In literature, like in art, realism was a reaction against romanticism. Realists focused their attention, in the main, on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and its verifiable consequence.

Courbet used to meet his fellow realists in the Brasserie Andler,  which was only a few steps away from his studio at 28 rue Hautefeuille in Paris.  He would rub shoulders with writers such as Champfleury and Proudhon and the poet Beaudelaire.   Max Buchon, his old school friend from Ornans would also be there.  Fellow artists, such as the caricaturist and painter Honoré Daumier and Alexandre Décamps were also regulars who congregated at the brasserie. Courbet had carved himself a leading role within this group of Realists.  The biographer Jack Lindsay quoted in his book Gustave Courbet his life and art,  the words of the 19th century French journalist and writer Alfred Delvau,  who described Courbet’s role within this circle of friends and his realist philosophy, saying:

 “….And in this temple of Realism, where M. Courbet was then the sovereign pontiff and M. Champfleury the cardinal officiating, there were then, as the public of boozers, students, and wood engravers understood, only realists and non-realists…”

Courbet’s  many pictures of peasants and scenes of everyday life established him as the leading figure of the realist movement of the mid nineteenth century.  He was an outspoken opponent of the French government and it was during the short lived Paris Commune that he took part in the destruction of the Vendôme Column in 1871 during the uprising in Paris which followed after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War.   Courbet expressed his reasoning for the removal of the Vendome column, saying:

“…In as much as the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorise him to disassemble this column…”

The uprising was chiefly caused by the disaster of the war and the growing discontent among French workers.  For Courbet the Column was totally devoid of artistic value but more importantly he was against what it stood for.    For his part in the pulling down of the column he was sentenced on 2 September 1871 by a Versailles court martial to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs.  In 1877 the estimated cost of rebuilding the Vendome was finally established as being 323,091 francs and 68 centimes. Courbet was told he must pay for it to be rebuilt and he was to pay a fine in yearly installments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years meaning the final payment would be when he had reached the age of 91.   On July 23rd, 1873 Courbet, through the assistance of a few friends, fled France for Switzerland as he could not, nor did not want to pay his fines.     On December 31st 1877, in La Tour de Peilz in Switzerland where he was living in exile, a day before the payment of the first installment was due, Courbet died, aged 58, of a liver disease probably due to his bouts of heavy drinking,

In My Daily Art Display today I have  featured one of Courbet’s greatest painting entitled The Artist’s Studio which he completed in 1855 and which had a secondary title: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life.  It was an enormous painting, 3.61 metres tall and almost 5.98 metres wide and can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  Courbet submitted this painting with thirteen others to the Exposition Universelle of 1855.  The Exposition Universelle was an International Exhibition held on the Champs Elysées in Paris from May to November in that year.  This Paris exhibition came four years after London had held their Great Exhibition of 1851.  To Courbet’s horror, three of his paintings were rejected on the grounds that they were far too big for the exhibition as space was restricted.  One of these was today’s featured painting and one of the others was his mammoth work, A Burial at Ornans, which was 3.14metres tall and 6.63 metres wide.  However Courbet was not to be denied and decided to withdraw all his paintings and with the help of his patron Alfred Bruyas set up a rival exhibition with forty of his works in a rented hall next door to the official exhibition, which he called The Pavilion of Realism.   It did not prove to be a great success as attendances and sales were poor and many just came out of curiosity, but for fellow artists, Courbet’s gesture was inspirational and his standing in the artistic community rose.  He was now acclaimed as a hero of the French avant-garde and an inspiration to the young up and coming artists.  In some ways this alternate exhibition running alongside the official exhibition was a forerunner of the Salon de Refusés, which came into being as an alternative to the Salon exhibitions in Paris  in 1863 and again in 1874 during the Imressionist era.

The work before us today was looked upon as an allegory of Courbet’s life as a painter and the various figures depicted are allegorical representations of various influences on his life.  So who are all the people?   In some ways the work is a kind of triptych with three distinct sections.  On the left hand side of the painting are various figures from the different levels of French society.  To my mind the left hand side includes things and people Courbet disliked and sums up what he believes was wrong with society, such as religion and poverty, while on the right of the painting he has presented us with things and people he holds dear. 

Let us first look at the grouping on the left hand side of the painting.  On the ground sprawled beside the canvas sits the figure of a starving peasant.  More than likely Courbet is depicting an Irish peasant, as the Great Irish Famine had taken place only a few years earlier.  To the left of the peasant there are several other figures.  This strange grouping appears to include a priest, a prostitute, a grave digger and a merchant. In the far left of the painting we see the standing figure of a Jewish Rabbi and seated on a chair before him is a hunter with several dogs.  This depiction of this man is quite interesting as it is thought by use of x-ray analysis that the figure of the man was added later and was not mentioned in Courbet’s letter to Champfleury when he wrote about the details of the work.  So what was so important to cause this late addition.  Art historians would have us believe that he is an allegory of the then current French Emperor, Napoleon III.  He has been identified as such because of his famous hunting dogs and also by his twirled moustache which he was famous for.  So why place the French ruler on the left side of the painting?  The answer probably lies in Courbet’s early upbringing in an anti-monarchist household and Courbet’s inherent dislike of the emperor.  It was Courbet’s belief that Napoleon III was no better than a thief having stolen the country from its people.   In the centre of the work, behind Courbet’s landscape canvas we see a nude male model, on the floor we see a guitar, dagger and hat, and on the table a skull.  These were all accoutrements of traditional academic art which Courbet loathed. 

In the middle, taking centre stage and thus the centre of our attention, we see the realist artist himself sitting before his easel working on a landscape.  He has placed himself as the main focus of the painting and maybe it was his way of projecting himself as the leader of the Realist movement.   Behind Courbet, and being ignored by him, is a nude model, which symbolises academic art tradition which Courbet disliked so much.  Standing in front of Courbet, looking totally mesmerised by what Courbet is doing, is a small boy.  It is believed that Courbet included the boy as a symbol of the innocent eye of the artist but of course the mesmeric admiration of the boy for what Courbet has painted may just be something artists crave.  By the boys feet there is a white cat.  

Beudelaire by Gustave Courbet (1848)

On the right of the painting is another group of people.  This grouping is a selection of his friends, associates and admirers.  It is possible to identify some of these figures.  The man standing and looking across to the left hand side, with a beard, is Alfred Bruyas a long-time patron of Courbet.  Standing behind him, facing us,  is Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, politician and socialist philosopher and another friend of the artist. Moving away from those two and towards the foreground we see a man seated.  This is the French novelist Jules Husson, whose non de plume was Champfleury and who was a greater supporter of Courbet’s realist art.  The man at the extreme right of the painting, reading a book, is the French poet Beaudelaire and we know that Courbet’s depiction of him is from a portrait he did of him seven years earlier.  Beaudelaire at the time had a quadroon (mixed race) mistress and Courbet had included her in the painting just to the left of Beaudelaire (as we look at him) but Beaudelaire was not happy with her inclusion and persuaded Courbet to paint her out of the scene.  The presence of Beaudelaire’s mistress was only discovered recently when the painting was cleaned and x-rayed.  Standing quite prominently in the group, in front of Beaudelaire, is a well dressed bourgeoisie lady with a brown-patterned shawl and her companion.  Art historians have not come to a definitive agreement as to who they are but one theory is that it is Christine Ungher and her husband François Sabatier, another of Courbet’s patrons.  Notwithstanding what art historians believed to be the message of the painting Courbet expressed his thought process behind what he had achieved with this magnificent work in a letter to Champfleury.  He wrote:

“….It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted,  on the right are all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers and art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life: the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death…”.