A real allegory? Courbet’s contradiction
The title of Courbet’s painting contains a contradiction: the words “real” and “allegory” have opposing meanings. In Courbet’s earlier work, “real” could be seen as a rejection of the heroic and ideal in favor of the actual. Courbet’s “real” might also be a coarse and unpleasant truth, tied to economic injustice. The “real” might also point to shifting notions of morality.
In contrast, an “allegory” is a story or an idea expressed with symbols. Is it possible that Courbet is using his title to alert the viewer to contradictions and double meanings in the image? Look, for instance, at the dim paintings that hangs on the rear wall of his Paris studio. These large landscapes seem to form a continuous horizon line from panel to panel. They dissolve enough so that we are not sure if they are paintings, or if they are perhaps windows that frame the landscape beyond. Is it “real” or is it a representation? Courbet seems to muddy the distinction and allow for both possibilities.
The artist is immediately recognizable in the center of the canvas. His head is cocked back and his absurd beard is thrust forward at the same haughty angle seen in Bonjour Monsieur Courbet. But here he is assessing and just possibly admiring the landscape that he is in the process of painting. The central composition is a trinity of figures (four, if you count the cat).
Model as muse
To Courbet’s right stands a nude model. Note that her dress is strewn at her feet. There is nothing exceptional here; after all, this is an artist’s studio, and models are often nude. However, Courbet does not look in her direction, as he would if she were actually posing for him. He doesn’t need to. He is, after all, painting an unpopulated landscape. Oddly, the direction of the gaze is reversed. The model directs her attention to align with Courbet’s, not vice-versa. She gazes at the landscape he paints. In the realm of the “real,” she functions as the model, but as “allegory,” she may be truth or liberty according to the political readings of some scholars and she may be the muse of ancient Greek myth, a symbol of Courbet’s inspiration.
Youth as innocence
The boy to the left of the artist is also a reference. The smallest of the three central figures, he looks up (literally) to Courbet’s creation with admiration. The boy is unsullied by the illusions of adulthood—he sees the truth of the world—and he represented an important goal for Courbet—to un-learn the lessons of the art academy. The sophistication of urban industrial life, he believed, distanced artists from the truth of nature. Above all, Courbet sought to return to the pure, direct sight of a child. The cat, by the way is often read as a reference to independence or liberty.
Cast of characters
The entire, rather crowded canvas, is divided into two large groups of people. In the group on the left, we see fairly rough types described. They are a cast of stock characters: a woodsman, the village idiot, a Jew, and others. There are several other allusions, such as the inclusion of the current ruler of France, Louis-Napoléon, but let’s focus on the larger theme at hand. Here then, are the country folk whom Courbet faces.
On the opposite side of the canvas are, in contrast, a far more handsome and well-dressed party. Gathered at the right lower corner of the painting are Courbet’s wealthy private collectors and his urbane friends. At the canvas’s extreme right sits Charles Baudelaire, the influential poet who was a close friend of the painter.
Is this composition familiar? Courbet is engaged in the act of painting, or as we might say, he is creating a landscape. Could the reference be to God the creator? The composition seems directly related to the traditional composition of the New Testament story, the Last Judgment. Think of Giotto’s Last Judgment fresco on the back wall of the Arena Chapel in Padua (1305-06), or Michelanglo’s Last Judgment painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel (1534-42). In those paintings, the blessed (those that were on their way to heaven) were on the right side of Christ (our left), and the damned (those on their way to Hell) were shown on Christ’s left (our right).
Courbet the creator
Courbet has placed himself in the position of creator. But does he want us to use a capital “C”? What then of the model/muse? In the place of the blessed on the left are the country folk, a reference to the morality of nature? On the right side in place of the damned are the urban sophisticates—the notion of the corruption of the city. And in the bottom right corner, where Michelangelo placed Satan himself, we find, amusingly, Courbet’s close friend, the poet Baudelaire, author of The Flowers of Evil.
Finally, note the crucified figure partly hidden behind the easel. Indeed, Courbet referred to himself as a kind of martyr (look at such paintings as Self-portrait as Wounded Man). He created these satirical portrayals of himself as a martyred saint perhaps because of his metaphorical “suffering” at the hands of the French art critics.
This painting at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Demonstration of Gustave Courbet’s Painting Techniques at The J. Paul Getty Museum