Skip to main content


Courbet Autoportrait
Self-Portrait with Pipe, 1848-1849

The rebel. Innovator. Realist. Gustave Courbet painted landscapes, portraits, still-lifes, seascapes, and nudes. Born in 1819 on June 10, he was the man who wore many hats and refused to be categorized by any of them. He was among the first to paint rural and poverty scenes in a social and political context, without melodrama or pretense, and more often than not in a plain and "ugly" way, as some critics called him. In the above famous self-portrait, he is smoking marijuana in his pipe, which explains the "fuzzy" look in his eyes; few self-portraits have this much character.

Stream in the Jura Mountains, 1872

In the above painting Courbet uses strong diagonals to contrast with a heavy horizontal middleground. This piece is all about contrast. The color palette here uses cool against warm, and even the textures of this composition contrast jagged rocks against smooth green grass and trees, deep blue sky above against cool grey stream below. It's somehow both ordinary yet inviting at the same time...with the sense of immediacy that a camera might have.

1866 Gustave Courbet - Woman with a Parrot
La Femme au perroquet, 1866

This is a very whimsical nude, breaking free of the Classical constraints that are normally associated with the nude, and in fact seems to make fun of Academic art. The unusual pose is both natural and slightly awkward, as if captured in mid-movement, amused by the parrot on her fingers. The parrot may symbolize gossip, which would completely change the context of the painting to a more sarcastic tone. Clearly, Courbet could have chosen any bird. This appears to reveal a narcissism by her long hair and flowing curtains of her tent. Technically, the way he painted the reflected light on her left foreshortened leg is very convincing.

Courbet LAtelier du peintre
The Artist's Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life, 1855

This is another one of my favourite paintings. Inspired by Velázquez's Las Meninas, Courbet depicts the subjects of his paintings on the left from various ages and social classes, none of whom are looking at Courbet except for the priest. The guitar lying on the floor may symbolize letting go of a possible music career for his art. As Courbet paints his landscape a young boy looks up in wonderment, and an Academic nude woman stands behind him, with a playful cat near his feet. This seems to bookend how Courbet saw himself as an artist and how he approached his work. The people on the right are friends and writers. Note the young boy on his hands and knees doodling on the floor. I like how the wall behind them is fuzzy and full of paintings indistinct, his subconscious. Read the official interpretation at the Musée d'Orsay here.

Courbet depicts himself here as calmly accepting the influences of his immediate world and yet focusing on painting as if the key to his own sanity. An apt allegory for any artist, in any time.

Popular posts from this blog

More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri

Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this …

Guercino il Magnifico

Self-Portrait of the Artist holding a Palette, ca.1635

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino was born on February 8, 1591 in Cento, a small city near Ferrara. He is one of the great masters of the Italian Baroque and poet of painters. Noted for his speed and efficiency, Guercino also worked in a number of mediums with equal passion whether ink, chalk, charcoal, or oils. His nickname, which means 'little cross-eyes' in Italian, derives in part from an apocryphal childhood accident where he supposedly awoke from a deep sleep as a child from a loud scream that caused his eyes to cross. Another story says something was thrown into his eyes. At any rate, he was self-taught as an artist from as early as nine years old and by his early teens was discovered by the eldest of the Carracci where he would spend some time at the Accademia Degli Incamminati before venturing out on his own. Despite his apparent 'handicap', his vision and talent would make him a giant that few…

Pompeo Batoni

Apollo and two Muses, 1719

Giant of the Rococo and early Neoclassicism, Pompeo Batoni was born on January 25, 1708 in Lucca, Italy. Immensely popular in his time, his name sadly is not commonly recognized today because like many Old Masters, his work is not defined by one or two singular masterpieces but by an oeuvre that is overall, incredible. Batoni is something of an anomaly in that he had the midas touch in every genre he worked in, whether portraiture, mythological, and biblical. He trained under a few painters, notably Sebastiano Conca yet he quickly fused his own style together by reinterpreting Classicism with his own vigor for dynamic posing, color and anatomy that he felt was lacking in many artists of the Rococo. His reputation as a portraitist in Rome was highly successful, particularly for many British patrons of the Grand Tour who had heard of Batoni by word of mouth and sought his genius.

In Apollo and two Muses above Batoni seems to conjure mythology and Classicism w…