She stands in the middle of the foreground like a floor lamp, the only light illuminating a darkened room that looks like mold smells.
She is completely naked. Count them. There are 26 fully dressed people — including two other women, a small child who may or may not be the model’s, a dog, the artist himself and one naked man in the apparent throes of a tetanus seizure or a crucifixion without a cross. She is described as “his” unnamed “nude model”. But he is seated painting a provincialist landscape with his back to her. Courbet’s title is just as incongruous as the painting itself: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist. Very well then.
This painting is the pre-selfie, a much more labor-intensive exercise in vanity, it also allows the artist to correct for perceived imperfections, to put himself in the center of society and culture as a philosophical and artistic focal point. In that respect it isn’t terribly different from the perfectly angled butt shot on Instagram that spirals around a tiny waist like a staircase, heavily photoshopped to filter the lighting, contrast, exposure, and grain, to perfect what a woman admires most in herself. It’s potentially egotistical, and not uncommon. But Courbet’s nude is a prop, just like the dagger or the guitar on the ground. And it is woman-as-inanimate-object that feels like still-life sexism.
Though it can be violent, sexism is not defined only by violence. It can be the mere centering of a male narrative while marginalizing a parallel female experience to highlight his own. And to an extent we all marginalize others, sometimes The Other, while making ourselves the hero of our own stories.
Now before the MRAs get their briefs in a bunch let me be clear. Nudity in old paintings does not cause violence today. But marginalizing women by decorating with their nudity is just one more cog in a collective wheel — a society that undervalues women.
“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient. In fact, a man convinced of his virtue even in the midst of his vice is the worst kind of man.” Charles M. Blow
The experts describe the thematic elements of The Painter’s Studio and personages of the painting that the people on either side of Courbet represent —death, poverty, wealth, Romanticism, art critics, art collectors, a hunter, a priest, a prostitute and a grave digger — a snapshot of Courbet’s story defined by his society.
In a famous poem, In the Artist’s Studio, Christina Rossetti describes “a nameless girl”, the same face that looks out from a man’s many canvases with much more possibility than the stage prop in Courbet’s painting. Rossetti imagines the girl could be a queen, a saint or an angel, but acknowledges the likeliest of truths, “Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”
I’m not saying there’s no place for the idealized over the realistic. Certainly not. The idealized inspires. But this piece reeks of vanity. It places Courbet at the center of everything. Physically, economically, emotionally. He is at the center of the naked woman’s attention even though he is not painting her. She is behind him, and nude for no discernible reason. This isn’t inherently degrading, though in this case it does seem like pointless nudity.
Attitudes toward nudity in art will continue to evolve. I always ask myself, What story does this tell? If it doesn’t tell its own story or even complement the main story female nudity in art often just looks like another scene from Bada Bing’s — naked women as set design for stories about men.
Some hundred years later, David Douglas Duncan, “Picasso’s Photographer”, captured Picasso in his underwear. It is a profoundly unexpected sight, with tangible artistry in the vulnerability. And it seems a much more honest, and less pretentious, depiction of an artist in his studio.
From his exile in Switzerland Courbet said, “I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.’”
Any progressive Parisian ought to want the régime of liberty to allow women to live in that same freedom — to paint Materialist realism erotic naps with naked men or dick pic oil on canvas if they so choose. But only the women are naked in Courbet’s oeuvre. And though his famous Origin of the World is a far cry from the Greek “aidoia” meaning shameful parts, it is also, of course, only the female half of the story.
Which is not to say that Courbet is not a talented realist. But even Rodin described his much loved The Kiss as “pretty” but “not inventive”.
The experts also describe Courbet as “innovative”. I see nothing more, (though nothing less), than a realist reproducing the world orbiting around himself. He is the sun in his heliocentric universe and it is, ultimately, boring.
To be fair, my expertise in art criticism is as armchair quarterback. In fact, I almost failed 8th grade art class. The teacher scheduled a parent/teacher conference with my mom. I had to stay after school to finish one of those God-awful grid reproductions for our section on drawing. I had foolishly chosen a very detailed cityscape — zillions of different sized boxes that made up the windows and doors and buildings and homes of a whole city block. It was grueling and I felt no pride of accomplishment when I finally finished it. But what I lacked in talent or discipline as a 13-year-old I make up for with amateur opinions today.
Courbet’s opinion of this piece rounds out all the possible opinions. That it “represents society at its best, its worst, and its average.”
But I think this painting represents Courbet, not society, at his own best, worst and average. As painter Francis Bacon said with a markedly different perspective on the régime of liberty, “All artists are vain, they long to be recognized and to leave something to posterity. They want to be loved, and at the same time they want to be free. But nobody is free.”