PRINT September 1977

Gustave Courbet: All the World’s a Studio

IF GUSTAVE COURBET’S THE ARTIST’S Studio: A Real Allegory Determining Seven Years of My Artistic Life has remained one of the most perplexing paintings of the 19th century, certain unpublished sources reflect on some of its paradoxical features, indicating, in particular, that Courbet’s work was a veiled attempt to counter the barrage of criticism aimed at his art. First, what seems obvious must be pointed out: that its enigmatic character is an integral part of the raison d’être of L’Atelier. The picture, with its fancy title, was meant to “épater le bourgeois,” in the words of Baudelaire, and by the same token to elevate the artist above his critics by means of a riddle.

The well-known furor over Courbet’s earlier paintings of the 1850s had raised charges of socialism, banality and devotion to the ugly. Courbet relished the attention, although he later denied the motives imputed to his art production. Nadar cautioned the artist on courting martyrdom in the 1853 Salon:

Coarseness is not strength any more than brutality is frankness, nor is scandal a reputation. It is no longer necessary to rub your hands together and say: “You can easily see that I am the greatest painter because I am the one most attacked.”

Riat reported that Courbet smarted under the attacks on the Bathers at that Salon:

Courbet remained during all the duration of the Salon at Paris, not wanting to have the air of fleeing before the “raillery, diatribes, caricatures and couplets” that assailed him each day. Impervious to these persecutions, he provoked them even more by his intransigence. Finally when the storm passed he returned to the country to prepare for the Universal Exposition.

The Salon for 1854 had been cancelled because of the Universal Exposition of 1855, for which artists were encouraged to submit their best possible work. The Meeting, of 1854, certainly presented Courbet as an artist to be reckoned with. Still, overshadowing the 10 canvases that Courbet sent to the international Salon was his private exhibition of 40 works, with L’Atelier as the centerpiece of a show which circumvented the restrictions of the jury. This prompted the critic Gustave Planche half-facetiously to suggest that the artist suffered from delusions of grandeur: “In refusing some of his works . . . the jury put their author in a position of being persecuted, an unknown genius who is not without a taste for danger.”

Yet it was Courbet who was doing the taunting—to his critics—with L’Atelier: “The critics who attempt to judge this will have their hands full, they will wake up at night with a start shouting: ‘I want to judge! I must judge!’” Likewise, he warned a friend, “It is rather mysterious, and he must read the riddle who can.” Thus even the enigmatic title hinders easy comprehension of the painting. Aggravating matters further, Courbet stated in the Realist Manifesto that he issued for his own exhibition: “Titles have never given a true idea of things, if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary.” His oft-quoted personal explanation of L’Atelier did little to clarify its meaning, but is worth repeating here in part:

I have undertaken an immense painting . . . which will prove to you that I am not dead, or realism either, for this is realism. It is the moral and physical history of my studio. . . . In it are the people who thrive on life and those who thrive on death; it is society at its best, its worst, and its average; in short, it is my way of seeing society in its interests and passions . . .

The scene is laid in my studio in Paris. The picture is divided into two parts. I am in the center, painting; on the right are all the active participants, that is my friends, the workers, the art collectors. On the left are the others, those whose lives are without significance: the common people, the destitute, the poor and the wealthy, the exploited and the exploiters; those who thrive on death.

The demonstration and point of these (or any other) ideas is unclear, but already it is apparent that L’Atelier is in part (and part of) a hostile act, in part a display of profundity and in part a definition of realism.

An intelligible program underlying L’Atelier emerges when we learn that the thematic and visual points of departure of Courbet’s painting were two sets of magazine illustrations and their accompanying texts published in the Magasin pittoresque in 1849. These magazine articles posed a challenge to Courbet’s self-image, and the painter rejoined with L’Atelier.

The first of the two illustrations, entitled L’Atelier de Baccio Bandinelli, appeared as one of a series of articles on great masters of the past. The illustration was after an engraving of an original drawing by Bandinelli, Michelangelo’s notorious rival. Nothing disturbs the placid atmosphere of Bandinelli’s studio, where apprentices are diligently absorbed in their exercises under the solemn gaze of the master. An accompanying anonymous text sets forth the challenge taken up in Courbet’s L’Atelier, for the sober atmosphere of Bandinelli’s studio provided the touchstone for an unbridled attack upon contemporary art:

No serious admirer of the masters of the 16th century will behold this sanctuary of art without emotion. How this spectacle, which impresses respect and yields the most profound thoughts, contrasts with the tumult, disorder and license of most modern studios! It is far indeed, from the elevated character of the works with which the 16th century has honored the world, to most of those works of our time, which, although materially very skillfully executed, are nonetheless completely lacking in inspiration, soul and genius.

The dichotomy defined in this passage was considerably sharpened in the second article, appearing shortly afterward, in December of 1849. This second article was illustrated by a wood engraving by Henry Valentin entitled Intérieur de l’atelier d’un artiste au dix-neuvième siècle. Like Bandinelli’s engraving, Valentin’s illustration was probably seized by the author in order to draw a comparison between Renaissance and contemporary studios. As opposed to the calm of the Renaissance atelier, the contemporary artists are shown working in the midst of a raucous group of bohemians. This would be harmless enough out of context—the illustrator himself must never have suspected the unflattering comparison his illustration was destined to serve—but the striking divergence was made patently clear in the text:

To the view of the studio of the Florentine sculptor Bandinelli . . . we now oppose, as an historical comparison, that of an atelier of contemporary artists.

Remarking as much on the dignity, application and silence in the former, one recognizes here as much informality, frivolity and noise . . . What becomes of inspiration in the milieu of this agitation?

Our modern art has often been reproached for lacking of elevation and especially of profundity: one complains of finding there only the superficial reflection of all the preoccupations of the moment, of seeing there only a newspaper traced on canvas or cut into marble.

In surrendering their ateliers to the turbulence of idleness, fruitless gossip and noisy visitors, our artists have abandoned their inspirational power at the same time . . .

Thought may be conceived in the milieu of tumult, but it is only fruitful in solitude . . .

These two articles in the Magasin pittoresque constitute the starting point for an understanding of L’Atelier. Courbet certainly became a prime target in the early 1850s for this kind of criticism. Courbet, who identified with “le peuple,” lived out of cafés, and painted lower-class themes on a scale heretofore reserved for history painting, was considered anything but profound. As early as 1849 one critic had written about him: “No one could drag art in the gutter with greater technical virtuosity.”

Courbet painted L’Atelier to justify his esthetic position: he parried the thrust of Valentin’s “mocking” illustration with a painting that was both modern and profound. The text of the Magasin pittoresque article just quoted almost dares its audience to use a magazine illustration as a basis for a work of art. Courbet did just that, choosing to respond in visual terms by assimilating many of its motifs. The most significant link between the two works is the reversed artist-woman grouping shifted to a more important central position in Courbet’s composition.

Several props from the illustration also reappear in L’Atelier: the canvas turned to the wall, the skull, the fancy hat, and a playful pet. The general semi-circular arrangement of the figures was retained, and the division of the picture into two parts recalls the exceptionally large two-page format of the Magasin pittoresque illustrations. Although Valentin’s illustration served as the basis for L’Atelier it was by no means the exclusive source for the painting. Courbet borrowed sparingly from this source for the obvious reason that his rebuttal had to convey the opposite intention of Valentin’s scene. Courbet’s aim is revealed through the manner in which he transformed his sources as part of his rejoinder. More precisely, L’Atelier is a synthesis of the “contemporary” elements displayed by Valentin and the “profound” atmosphere conveyed in the Bandinelli reproduction.

Valentin’s illustration offered a model of living people epitomizing the state of contemporary art. We may now identify the individuals portrayed, clarifying the reasons for their appropriateness as symbols of debasing art, and indicating their significance to Courbet. It must be kept in mind that the illustrator probably viewed his subjects in a favorable light, although the anonymous author took over the illustration for his own purposes. Since Courbet repeated this process of transforming the “enemy’s” weapons into tools for his own arsenal, we may safely assume that Courbet had a basic understanding of the dual interpretation of the illustration.

The most prominent figure in the Valentin illustration is the sculptor Auguste Clésinger. Clésinger was from Besançon, not far from Courbet’s home in Ornans, and the two boisterous artists knew each other. Clésinger exemplified the target of criticism in the Magasin pittoresque articles for both his uncouth social behavior and his alleged use of molds taken from life. The mask on the rear wall of the studio, apparently a cast of the sculptor’s own face, may allude to this “unethical” practice which received special attention in the Salon of 1847. Clésinger enjoyed a succès de scandale with his Femme picquée par un serpent, a statue of erotic verisimilitude. The model for the provocative nude figure was Madame Sabatier, the demi-mondaine from whose body the plaster casts for the sculpture model were molded.

A spirited critical debate was sparked by the exhibition of this sculpture. Gustave Planche attacked Clésinger’s work for its method of execution: “The procedure employed by M. Clésinger is to statuary what the daguerrotype is to painting. . . . The work of M. Clésinger does not have the character of a modeled figure, but of a molded figure.” Delacroix agreed: “I have been to see the figure by Clésinger, Alas! I believe that Planche is right; it is a daguerrotype in sculpture . . .” Even a sympathetic critic noted that Clésinger suffered from “. . . his excessive love of detail which causes him to sometimes fall into a trifling appearance not acknowledged in serious art.” (The same criticism was soon directed against Courbet by Planche.) Théophile Gautier, champion of “art for art’s sake” and an admirer of Madame Sabatier as well, wholeheartedly defended Clésinger’s sculpture:

If this were not of marble, one would believe that a beautiful and superb creature had been seized and congealed without her knowledge in a magic mold at the instant when some charming and terrible dream made her writhe in her couch of pleasure and sweetness.

The guitar player in Valentin’s illustration is Gautier.

Not surprisingly, the woman at the painter’s side is Apollonie Sabatier. Joanna Richardson has already suggested that the previously unidentified bourgeois woman on the right of L’Atelier is the somewhat matronly Sabatier. The identification of Madame Sabatier establishes the strongest link between the Valentin illustration and Courbet’s painting. Her position in relation to the painter in the illustration is echoed by the nude “muse” next to Courbet in L’Atelier. For Courbet to have repeated Clésinger’s minute description of Madame Sabatier eight years after La Femme picquée par un serpent would no longer have been flattering, but in 1855 she was more than ever the reigning queen of the arts—having also been painted by Couture and Meissonier—and her equation with a muse is appropriate.

In the late 1840s Sabatier had been a frequent visitor to the gatherings of artists and authors hosted by Boissard de Boisdenier at the Hotel Pimodan, which was also the rendezvous for the notorious Club des Hashichins. Baudelaire, Gautier, Arsène Houssaye, Gerard de Nerval and Maxime du Camp were some of the many notable members of the Hotel Pimodan circle. After the Revolution of 1848 these figures attended a salon established by Madame Sabatier at her new apartment in the fashionable “Breda” quarter. Mistress to Alfred Mosselman, a wealthy art collector, she acquired the nickname “La Présidente” which designated her renowned position as both a leading salon hostess and courtesan.

The little dog in the Valentin illustration functions as Madame Sabatier’s “trademark” just as the raven beside Baudelaire in L’Atelier identifies the poet as the translator of Poe. This dog, a King Charles spaniel, is a reference to Sabatier’s amorous activities and is found also in her lap in a portrait by Ricard. Alphonse Karr devoted a brief notice to this animal entitled “King-Charles Are in Bad Taste”:

The tax on dogs might become a tax on prostitution. One encounters in Paris and on the promenades small carriages . . . containing a courtesan and a King-Charles. The King-Charles seems to have become an insignia, as was the branch of myrtle held between the teeth in Greece, for prostitutes.

Sabatier thus appears as a muse of the arts—benevolent in Courbet’s painting, malevolent (from the anonymous author’s point of view) in Valentin’s illustration. Her salons fit precisely into the type of activity which the Magasin pittoresque articles held responsible for the decadence of art. Courbet includes her (with Mosselman?) on the side of the “living” and seems to offer an unusual personal note by the backward thrust of Sabatier’s head and body. This pose gives the impression that she has some special awareness, namely her secret relationship with Baudelaire, who is seated behind her in L’Atelier. Baudelaire loved Sabatier
from a distance, also equating her with the “Guardian Angel, the Muse, and the Madonna,” and she was the “White Venus” of his Fleurs du Mal (1857). It has been noted elsewhere that Baudelaire’s “Black Venus,” Jeanne Duval, had originally been included in L’Atelier next to the poet but was painted out by the artist: apparently Sabatier has “erased” the image of her opposite, who survives only as a ghostly pentimento.

The aspiring critic-chronicler Maxime du Camp was just beginning his literary career in the early 1850s, and it is undoubtedly his profile that emerges from a canvas on the extreme left of the illustration. Du Camp had made a trip to the Mideast with Flaubert in late 1849, and Gautier attended the farewell party of these two young members of Madame Sabatier’s retinue. Du Camp joined the reorganized L’Artiste in 1851 and soon criticized Courbet in the press.

The pernicious effect of an undisciplined life-style upon an artist is sadly exemplified by Gerard de Nerval, who may be the figure smoking behind the fencers in the illustration. Nerval was the arch-bohemian of the group and was already past his creative prime in 1849. He committed suicide as Courbet was actually painting L’Atelier in 1855.

Valentin included himself in the illustration as the man in shirtsleeves next to Madame Sabatier. This makes it unlikely that Valentin made the illustration with the article in mind. Valentin was not a regular contributor to the Magasin pittoresque and this illustration is, besides, atypical of his oeuvre. He usually executed “news scenes” and vignettes for L’Illustration, and sometimes reproduced art objects exhibited at the Salons. Valentin was a friend of Nadar and Gavarni, and worked with both of them.

The painter at the easel in Valentin’s illustration is probably Charles Landelle, who executed his paintings with a high polish analogous to Clésinger’s finish. The actual painting on the easel has not been identified but seems similar in conception to Landelle’s sentimental picture of a young girl sadly gazing toward the sky as she advances into a pool to drown herself after being spurned, Fleurette abandonée par Henri IV of 1845, which Thoré described. Planche chided Landelle for his pair of paintings, Aujourd’hui and Demain, of 1846—“before and after” scenes of a prostitute in her prime and at her subsequent fall, which Planche viewed as an all-too-prevalent concession to vulgar taste. These same paintings prompted Baudelaire to include Landelle among the artists he labeled as the “apes of sentiment” in his “Salon of 1846,” although Gautier admired Landelle’s technical virtuosity and preferred his figure for the competition for an image of the Republic in 1848. During the June Uprising of 1849 Landelle, Gautier and Gerard de Nerval were all conveniently traveling together to London.

Despite his involvement with the Revolution’s art project, Landelle (like Clésinger and others in Valentin’s illustration) did not hold strong republican convictions. Gautier probably appreciated the apolitical quality of Landelle’s “finished” and vacuous painting, which was one of the most popular entries in the competition for the figure of the Republic. How different were these icy emblems of the Republic from their bold precursor, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, praised with obvious truth by one contemporary critic as “this alliance of the allegory to the real.” The failure of Landelle and other artists in this project is closely relevant to Courbet’s L’Atelier. Albert Boime has pinpointed the issue inherent in this contest, where artists struggled

to reconcile reality and idealism on the one hand, and bridge the gap between tradition and modernity on the other . . . It is certain that these conflicts led to the ultimate failure of the competition. . . . In a symptomatic predicament of other nineteenth-century artists, the contestants tried to achieve an image that would be both traditionally “elevated” and innovatively “modern”: but even by mid-century a synthetic combination of allegory and realism was no longer a viable formula. It is for this reason, I believe, that Courbet, who must have sensed the danger to himself, decided against entering the competition.

This was the very problem that Courbet confronted in painting L’Atelier. Courbet no more succeeded in delivering his message than did Landelle and the others in finding a suitable vehicle for theirs. They shared similar goals but employed different means. Courbet’s synthesis of reality and allegory functioned conceptually on the private-versus-public level of perception, so that the remaining formal aspects of the work drifted mysteriously beyond the grasp of a perplexed audience. Only Delacroix, it seems, could divorce form from idea in order to enjoy L’Atelier on the level of pure painting.

Courbet insisted upon maintaining the physical integrity of his symbols by concealing their origin. Linda Nochlin has already explicated the symbolic source behind The Meeting. Likewise, it has been noted that the boy in The Stonebreakers was derived from Millet’s Winnower and is thus not just a laborer but the allegorical representation of Labor. Passing off his symbols as segments of reality, Courbet was able unobtrusively to assemble divergent fragments that functioned cohesively on different levels of perception. These sources were taken from his own milieu and were not feebly resurrected Renaissance fossils—a procedure more typical of his contemporaries’ (i.e. Chenavard’s) artistic vocabulary. I would stress the second line of Courbet’s famous definition of painting: “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 . . .”

The little écorché in the foreground of Valentin’s illustration provided Courbet with a readymade symbol. This piece was attributed to Michelangelo throughout the 19th century and Clésinger identified himself with that master. It is not unusual to find this manikin in a studio scene, for it was a common art school prop. Courbet must have recognized its associations with Michelangelo in particular, and with academic training programs in general, since he included it in two previous self-portraits. The counterpart of Valentin’s écorché in L’Atelier is the manikin posed as St. Sebastian, itself loaded with several allusions. Significantly, in a footnote to his 1855 exhibition catalogue, Courbet emphatically denied that he ever had a master: “I have never had any other masters in painting other than nature and tradition, than the public and work.” The identification with a specific past master was prevalent among Courbet’s contemporaries, so the inclusion of the manikin in L’Atelier must be a mockery of this convention as well as of academic instruction.

Valentin’s illustration and L’Atelier are both more akin to collage than to photography and not all the figures are specific individuals. Again, Courbet must have recognized that Valentin’s fencers were taken directly from a print by Gavarni. In their present context these fencers, like those in Horace Vernet’s famous studio painting, help set a generally carefree mood in the scene, as does Courbet’s pair of lovers in L’Atelier.

The Valentin illustration provides an important parallel to L’Atelier in the manner in which the two artists “assembled” their images. Although the illustration was used to exemplify the decadence of the arts, the overall conception of the composition was probably derived from a source that conversely proclaimed the unification and propagation of the arts: Tony Johannot’s vignette of the Fraternity of the Arts that served as the frontispiece of the first 10 issues of L’Artiste in the 1830s. Thus Valentin created his own “real allegory” by substituting real figures for Johannot’s purely symbolic practitioners of the various arts. Courbet followed suit.

It is hardly coincidental that Tony Johannot is seated at the right of Valentin’s illustration. An 1852 wood engraving of this illustrator in his studio at rue de Bruxelles not only confirms the identification of the figure but also contains some of the same furnishings found in Valentin’s illustration. Too many stock elements preclude accepting Valentin’s illustration as strict reportage; nonetheless, he has aimed at presenting a typical gathering of a cohesive group (as opposed, for example, to one of Nadar’s Panthéons) that congregated during this era at studios not far from the rue de Bruxelles. And this view of the Johannot studio helps define a sociological and demographic profile of Valentin’s associates which makes L’Atelier all the more poignant.

Elsewhere, Clésinger’s studio was cited as the location of Valentin’s scene. In 1845 Clésinger invited several critics to his studio in a bid to insure his success at the Salon. Houssaye reported that on February 3, 1848, he held a party for his artist friends in his new studio—which was one of the refuges for Romantics between the demise of the Hotel Pimodan in 1848 and Sabatier’s new salon. Clésinger shared his studio, so to a certain extent the scene is quite plausible.

Here an account of the artistic community located in the Parisian quarter known as the “Breda” is helpful. Jacques Lethève has given a running account of the growth of this artistic community during the 1840s, which then proliferated with artists during the Second Empire. Valentin certainly knew the people he portrayed in his illustration since several of them were his neighbors. Upon Valentin’s death in 1855, the Goncourts reported that the illustrator had lived on the block-long rue Navarin situated in the heart of the Breda quarter in the 9th arrondissement. In 1848 Madame Sabatier moved to 4 rue Frochot. By 1846 Clésinger had moved to nearby 2 rue Victor Lemaire (now rue Duperré). Landelle had an address at 1 rue Victor Lemaire in 1848 and the following year moved around the corner to 77 rue Pigalle, just off the Place Pigalle. Gautier had lived on rue Navarin until 1847 and in 1853 at least eight other artists lived on this street besides Valentin. The 1853 Salon Catalogue lists 57 artists living or maintaining their studios within the Breda. These artists and their friends gathered at local cafes—especially at the Restaurant Dinochou and the Brasserie des Martyrs, situated at either end of the rue Navarin. Courbet and his friends ventured from the Latin Quarter to frequent both of these establishments, and it seems inevitable that Courbet and Valentin encountered each other at these very bistros. The major rendezvous for artists during this period was the Divan Le Pelletier at 5 rue Le Pelletier, just south of the Breda. Here, “Gautier, Musset and Gustave Planche exchanged their theories with Clésinger, Landelle and Courbet.”

The demography of the Breda confirms the cohesion among several of the individuals in the illustration and strongly suggests that Courbet and Valentin knew each other, and had several mutual acquaintances. Valentin identified with this side of Parisian life, whereas Courbet despised it. Many of the individuals in Valentin’s illustration were in the process of converting from a leftist bohemian life in 1849 to the bourgeois society of the Second Empire.

Henry Murger described a coquette, who might well be the fictional equivalent of Madame Sabatier, making the exodus from a street near Courbet’s studio in the bohemian Latin Quarter to the more fashionable Breda:

Musette deserted the rue de la Harpe for the upper realms of Cytherea, in the Quartier Breda. There she very soon became one of the first ornaments of the aristocracy of pleasure, and she was in a fair way to reach the sort of celebrity which consists in seeing one’s name in the Paris papers, and one’s lithographed portrait in the printsellers’ shops.

In late 1849 Murger himself moved to the Breda, becoming a neighbor of Delacroix’s, and he undoubtedly encountered Valentin at soirées in the vicinity. Probably the man teasing the King Charles spaniel in the illustration is Murger.

Murger’s Scènes de la bohème opened as a play at the Théâtre des Variétés on November 22, 1849. The characters were based on several real figures from Murger’s youth, including himself and Courbet’s friends Champfleury and Trapadoux. The opening was attended by Courbet, Champfleury himself, Baudelaire, Gautier and Houssaye. Scènes de la bohéme blended picaresque facts with romantic fiction to create an exciting nostalgia. Murger’s book and subsequent play were not simply about the unconventional, poverty-stricken, bohemian life led by artists; they also documented the passage of youth led in this life-style. Implicit in the success of Scènes is the shift of Murger, and those around him in Valentin’s print, from this stage of bohemian youth to having “arrived” in the Second Empire.

Both Valentin and Courbet staged scenes of real people assembled for the purpose of creating an allegory about artistic actuality. Murger’s Scènes could have provided the model of how art and life imitate each other. But for Courbet there was no nostalgic distinction between his position during the days of Le Salut publique in 1848 and his present status with his renegade private exhibition at the Universal Exposition of 1855: he was still an artist under siege. Indeed, for Courbet his personal history meant preserving intact both artistic heritage and proletarian milieu; the latter was something for the Breda residents to reminisce about, ignore or conceal.

The various characters in Valentin’s illustration—these artists, critics, illustrators and patrons—in real life formed a cohesive group around the figure of Arsène Houssaye, who is placed next to the large statue at the right of the illustration. Houssaye emerged from the bohemian days of the Impasse du Doyen, the “school” of Gautier and Gerard de Nerval, to become the editor-in-chief of the leading art periodical of the epoch, L’Artiste. His flirtation with republicanism ended when Louis Napoleon appointed him head of the Théâtre-Francais in 1849. This “man about town” acted as both a social catalyst and an advocate of a romantic esthetic which provides clues to the identity of the anonymous critic of the Magasin pittoresque articles.

In his “Salon” of 1847, ostensibly addressed to Chenavard, Houssaye elucidated an esthetic based on spontaneity that was the antithesis of intellectually dominated art. Anticipating the Magasin pittoresque articles, Houssaye stated, “Modern art makes you despair upon seeing the splendors of antiquity and the Renaissance,” but he also debunked classical values: “Instead of becoming a great painter, thought has turned you into a philosopher.” For Houssaye the vitalizing force in art was the imagination, which placed him firmly in opposition to the conservative critic Gustave Planche, the gadfly of Clésinger, Landelle, Couture and later Courbet. Logic dictated to Planche that “artistic sentiment is not a natural gift, a spontaneous inspiration. It is a matter of education, of reflection, of analysis.”

The esthetic debate between Planche and Houssaye centered upon Couture’s sensational Romans of the Decadence. Planche reviewed Couture’s painting unfavorably in his “Salon” of 1947, in marked contrast to the public and critical reception of this painting. Couture’s canvas paralleled the sensuosity of Clésinger’s statue and the two were indeed equated. Gautier and L’Artiste equated Couture’s talents with Veronese’s and predicted that the self-confident young artist would usher in a rebirth of French art. But Planche found the figures vulgar, the orgy too tame, and the color monotonous, and recognized in him only “his talent, reduced to a completely material ability.” On the basis of his success at the Salon, Couture billed himself to prospective art students as a new messiah. This was anathema to Planche.

Houssaye rebuked Planche for denying his own favorable comparison of Couture with Veronese: “Where would Titian and Veronese have been if they had abandoned themselves to the anxieties of contemplation?” Obviously referring to Planche, Houssaye begged the question: “If that philosopher who would dominate art, had tormented the spirit of Thomas Couture, would we have the magnificent page which seems to be detached from the golden book of Veronese?” Several months later a review of the Salon critics by L’Artiste criticized Planche for “continuing to deny a bit brutally the beloved works of the 1847 Salon,” and warned he would be dubbed the bogey of the critical world. The editors of L’Artiste added a “disclaimer” after a favorable article about Planche’s literary criticism published in 1851: “This article is comprised of many heresies according to the point of view of L’Artiste.”

The controversy over Couture’s painting highlights the esthetic conflict between Houssaye and Planche, a conflict that extended to the camps of their respective periodicals, L’Artiste and La Revue des deux mondes. This journalistic duel casts suspicion on Planche as the anonymous author trying to discredit Houssaye and the circle of L’Artiste through the Magasin pittoresque. Valentin’s illustration fortuitously provided Planche with a double-edged weapon against his opponents. Although the identification of particular figures in the illustration may be called into question, there nevertheless emerges a cohesive group in opposition to Planche’s esthetics.

GUSTAVE COURBET DIDN’T invent the art label “realism,” Gustave Planche did. Like the labels of so many art movements it was first used by a critical opponent derogatorily. Small surprise that Courbet opened his Realist Manifesto of 1855 with the protest: “The title Realist has been thrust upon me just as the title Romantic was imposed on the men of 1830. Titles have never given a true idea of things.” Planche had more or less coined the term in literary and theatrical criticism and by 1837 had made it applicable to all the arts: “Dramatic poetry, no more than painting or sculpture, ought not devote itself to reality as the supreme goal of its efforts. Several times already we have expressed this belief, but realism is today so popular that one cannot combat it enough.” “Realism” meant for Planche the literal imitation of reality as the main goal of the artist, and he found this incompatible with beauty, with ideals, and indeed with art. Realism was first observed creeping into art through romantic literature, with its preoccupation with artifacts in historical fiction for the sake of local color. Realism became the bête noire of the Revue des deux mondes, of which Planche was an editor, and Planche himself was merely one of several critics who fought against realist tendencies in the arts. Planche had at first been a defender of the Romantics in the 1830s, and he remained an admirer of Delacroix. Throughout the 1840s Planche and indeed the general tenor of criticism of the Revue des deux mondes, took a conservative turn, both politically and esthetically. Planche and the Revue were staunchly opposed to the Revolution of 1848 and to the Second Republic. Planche, like so many others, associated realism with revolutionary movements on grounds of a common materialism. It was the uneducated nouveaux riches who used fidelity to nature as the esthetic yardstick for art. For Planche, Courbet was the logical culmination of the same forces that produced the likes of Couture, Clésinger and Landelle. Recalling the threat of Couture to young artists, Planche wrote in his 1852 “Salon”: “I sincerely believe that the realist school which the author of Demoiselles de village has attempted to found will not rally many disciples.”

Planche had spent five years in Italy studying the art of the Old Masters (his esthetic yardstick) and after returning to Paris in 1845, he had sufficient expertise to write the Magasin pittoresque article on Bandinelli. In 1846 he held up Andrea del Sarto as an example for modern artists to follow. Andrea could execute any work he wished, whereas contemporary artists had insufficient technical expertise to express lofty ideas adequately. Perhaps with the intervention of Couture and Clésinger, he attached the other side of the issue in 1849:

During the 16th century there was more of a confraternity and thus more of a unity in the arts. On one hand, philosophy, letters and mathematics were some of the obligatory studies for young artists: a painter was not reduced, like today, to hurriedly reading several pages of poetry or history at the same moment as executing a subject. . . . On the other hand, no artist was content with a single art.

Again in 1855 Planche compared contemporary art to the achievements of the 16th and 17th centuries, where invention reigned over imitation.

The pair of Magasin pittoresque articles fits into a general program by Planche to try to influence the course of art. The rise in materialism entered the arts on two levels. First, through the market, that is the Salon: “The public has become accustomed to prefer material competency to the merit of conception, taking the tour de force for true ability.” Second, as we have already seen, art was being debased by lax studio practices. In order to set art on the right path, which was to purify us and transport our soul into ecstasy, Planche accordingly stressed the impact of education as a remedy. The Revolution of 1848 provided Planche with an opportunity for proposing a new system to regenerate art instruction. He suggested a restructuring of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in his article “The Education and Future of Artists in France.” Then Planche offered a reaffirmation of tradition in the guise of reform by calling for a more general education with less emphasis on technical training, more on art, history and literature. Courbet, on the contrary, stated in his 1861 letter to prospective art students that art could not be taught.

COURBET LIVED UP to his reputation for a monumental ego by presenting L’Atelier as a rebuff to the Magasin pittoresque articles and, by extension, to Planche and to all his critics; a hostile act which only the artist himself may have understood. Courbet defended the methods and results of his art in a picture that was profundity itself. If Planche espoused a solution to the present vacuity in art by a return to Renaissance working procedures, Courbet was the paragon of the artist rooted in the contemporary world and proclaiming his independence from conventions. The dichotomy of these two approaches to life and art was elucidated in the conclusion to “Un atelier de nos jours”:

In order to penetrate profoundly in art it is necessary to make it the serious object of life, reporting all observations, deducing all consequences. . . .

It is also the only means of arriving at originality which is only the expression of our most intimate personality. In order to communicate the personality, it is first necessary to know and understand it, to have meditated a long time. Overexposure to the mundane world numbs our taste. Our spirit, without cease in contact with vulgar spirits, loses its imprint and sinks to the level of this inconsequential intellectual currency which circulates everywhere, but which enriches no one.

The challenge posed to Courbet by the Magasin pittoresque articles and illustrations was twofold: the text claimed that art created in close contact with the mundane world could not achieve profundity (and hence it was not really “art”); and the illustrations conveyed the superficiality of modern art in the atmosphere of a contemporary studio. Using Valentin’s illustration of his friends struck the point home, but this device unwittingly provided Courbet with a means to counter the arguments. Courbet resolved to create a studio picture which defended the artist’s right to portray the real world and achieve profundity simultaneously. He transformed Valentin’s illustration into a personal allegory of his own method of creating art, refuting the criticism of the articles by demonstrating that the artist is the master of reality, not its servant. Courbet announced his painting in these terms: “There remains one last self-portrait of myself; the man firm in his principles; the free man.” Courbet directly addressed the charges of producing superficial art by stating in his Realist Manifesto: “I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality.”

Courbet links and dominates the two opposing groups in his painting, demonstrating his freedom to draw at will from the mundane world and the realm of creativity and imagination, represented by his own personal “fraternity of the arts.” Courbet could thus create profound works of art precisely because he was both of the contemporary world and, by virtue of his artistic self-consciousness, apart from it. He showed that he belonged to both these worlds by combining the scenes of Bandinelli and Valentin, implicitly reconciling the contrast between the two. For even though the composition of L’Atelier is based on Valentin’s contemporary studio, the artist deliberately evoked the haunting quality of meditation in the Renaissance studio.

Courbet achieved this synthesis of subject and idea (reality and allegory) through the invention of a private visual vocabulary. The components of this instant “dialect” functioned interdependently as both objects and symbols. Thus they retained a degree of autonomy causing an uncomfortable visual ambiguity: the object-symbols still called attention to themselves as “signs,” but their function was unfathomable, or at least not readily fathomable. His subtitle, A Real Allegory Determining Seven Years of My Artistic Life, alluded to his methods of creativity and affronted his critics with the complexity of his art. L’Atelier was conceived in polemic and espoused Courbet’s self-consciousness almost programatically. Since the painting itself is the measure of the success of the artist’s methods, Courbet identified the painting as an idea and as a painting per se. He symbolically represented the conditions under which L’Atelier was created, in both its physical and spiritual contexts.

Prior to this painting Courbet was known for his introduction of reality into art, but when he chose to engage in polemic he reversed this equation, employing art to define the reality of his life as an artist. For L’Atelier is primarily idea and argument, built up, like Valentin’s illustration, from a patchwork of previous paintings, photographs and assorted sources plugged into a readymade formula. It seems ironic that Courbet employed symbolism and artificiality in attempting to justify an art that takes the mundane world of contemporary life as its subject. Yet in doing so so self-consciously, Courbet transformed paradox into esthetic definition. Realism was no longer imitation; it was now individualization, on all levels. Although composed of splendid details, Courbet wanted us to “get” the “whole picture” of L’Atelier: “It is not the thing I paint that is important. It is what I put of myself into what I paint.”

Alex Seltzer is an instructor in art history at the University of California, Irvine.

Portions of this article were delivered as a Frick Lecture in April 1974, and at the annual meeting of the College Art Association. Los Angeles, 1977. A Kress Fellowship at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in 1974 enabled me to complete this work. I am especially grateful for assistance and encouragement from Dr. Albert Boime, at S.U.N.Y., Binghamton.