Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Femme la guirlande

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Femme la guirlande
oil on canvas
49 x 52.3/8 in. (125 x 133 cm.)
Painted in 1856
Dr. Edouard Ordinaire, Ornans, by whom acquired from the artist.
R. Fernier, La vie et l'oeuvre de Gustave Courbet, vol. I, Geneva, 1977, no. 211 (illustrated, p. 133).
P. ten-Doesschate Chu (ed.), Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 450.
Ornans, Htel de la Ville, Gustave Courbet, July-October 1939, no. 9 (illustrated, p. 16).

Lot Essay

'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 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.'
(Gustave Courbet, The Realist Manifesto)

The years between 1855 and 1870 saw Courbet's reputation at its zenith. Sought after by collectors on an international level, he travelled to Belgium, Holland and Germany where, following a commission in Frankfurt in late 1858, he painted the portrait now known as La dame de Francfort (fig. 2). In many ways this slightly later work serves as an instructive formal pendant to the Femme la guirlande: the nave rusticity of the earlier work is answered by the Cologne picture's bourgeois sitter, carefully tended terrace and ordered landscape.

In Femme la guirlande, Courbet explores one of his favourite themes of placing a female subject in a verdant landscape setting, famously treated in Les demoiselles de village, 1852 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, F.127), Les baigneuses of 1853 (Montpellier, Muse Fabre, F.140) and even obliquely in L'atelier du peintre (see fig. 3). In doing so, he was consciously placing himself in the Virgilian pastoral tradition which had enjoyed a resurgence of popularity amongst the Romantic generation. Respected prototypes were to be found in the fte champtre of Giorgione and Titian, and, more particularly, in the 18th century French taste for the fte galante, celebrated in the work of Watteau and his followers. For such an arch proponent of the modern - this was the man, after all, whose fabulously bellicose letterhead trumpeted 'Courbet, matre-peintre, sans idal et sans religion' - his indebtedness to the past masters was never in doubt.

The subtle homage to tradition of Femme la guirlande does not distract from its startling modernity. Painted in 1856, the present work thus dates from the core of the Realist movement. Courbet's Realist Manifesto was written the year before in 1855 to accompany an exhibiton that featured L'atelier du peintre. This was the painting famously subtitled 'Allegorie relle dterminant une phase de sept annes de ma vie artistique'. In 1857, the year that saw the first publication of both Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal, Courbet exhibited at the Salon Les demoiselles des bord de la Seine (l'Et) (fig. 1). It was greeted with a furious clamour of disapproval from those outraged by the sexuality in its depiction of two underdressed Parisiennes languishing in what was perceived as an immoral stupor, anticipating by six years the outcry over Manet's similarly modern Djeuner sur l'herbe (Paris, Muse d'Orsay).

Femme la guirlande relates to both these masterpieces. The gently inclined neck and neat chignon of the nude in L'atelier, apparently taken from a professional model or a photograph, bear a strong similarity to those of the sitter in the present work. The link with Les demoiselles des bord de la Seine is more idiomatic. The simple deep red dress and demure appearance cast the Femme la guirlande as a country cousin to the fashionable demi-mondaines of the Paris picture. One can only suppose that Courbet's inhabitual discretion was a tribute to the sitter - Mlle Viaud, a travelling actress and the artist's mistress of the moment. The garland itself - 'un ballet de fleurs' to paraphrase Baudelaire - is another ingredient in common with Les demoiselles, thus touching on another important strain in Courbet's art, the flower piece. From his famous Bouquet de fleurs of 1855 (Hamburg, Kunsthalle, F.182), continuing into the 1860s with works such as Le trellis (Toledo, Museum of Art, F.357), Courbet provocatively ignored the hierarchies of subject as established by the Acadmie that deigned still-life as a subordinate mode. It was his confidence in the flower piece which held lessons for the Impressionist generation for whom flower painting would be so pivotal.

Femme la guirlande is also marked by a number of breaks with convention. The landscape should, according to the tenets of academic art, be executed with a respect for the ideal; nature, in the tradition of Poussin, should be intellectualised into a classical arcadia. Instead Courbet offers us a brooding, fiercely hewn chunk of his native Jura, rendered with a palette knife and buttery pigment. the blinding sun and opressive heat glancing off the exposed cliffs offer a stark contrast to the sombre, mossy bank, a haven by the brook that flows out towards the viewer. The sheer vibrancy of the colour key is another departure: the half-tones beloved of the paysage historique are disregarded in favour of rich, saturated, hyper-real colours. The subject moreover, ostensibly intimate yet restrained, is presented on a heroic scale quite at odds with the discreet dimensions ordained by tradition for such a subject. Courbet transforms his mistress into a modern day Proserpine.

Jules-Antoine Castagnary, one of Courbet's firmest supporters, wrote in his Philosophy of the Salon of 1857: 'Visual art can be neither a copy nor even a partial reproduction of nature, but rather an eminently subjective product, ... expressing a purely personal conception. Nature, the raw material of art, merely provides the artist with imagery for representations... Above all, art is an expression of the human self solicited by the external world;... it is one of the highest acts of human consciousness' (quoted in J. Rubin, Courbet, London, 1997, p 163).

Femme la guirlande originally belonged to Docteur Edouard Ordinaire, a local politician a small town near Ornans in the Doubs. It was Ordinaire who, following the artist's release in 1872 from Sainte-Plagie prison for his participation in the Paris Commune, helped him conceal those of his own works he had retained as which the State was seeking to sequester in order to satisfy the fine they had imposed on him for his role in the destruction of the Vendme column. Fernier (loc. cit.) recounts how the present work, mentioned by the artist in a letter of 6 January 1872 (op. cit.) as being amongst those in his Ornans studio - presumably those he considered most important or simply his personal favourites - was hidden by the two men under the floorboards of Ordinaire's house near Ornans after Courbet had taken the precaution of first removing the signature. This was an appropriate hiding-place as Courbet was a frequent visitor to Ordinaire's home. In a letter of January 1873 to Castagnary, Courbet writes: 'I was quite delighted to find pere Ordinaire, who was a great deal of help to me in my difficulties and showed a great deal of courage. We have been together nearly all the time since I left you' (P. ten-Doesschate Chu (ed.), op. cit., p. 472).

On 23 July 1873 Ordinaire accompanied Courbet on his journey to the Swiss border for his final exit from France and entry into exile in Switzerland.

Although this major painting has been known from an illustration, it has not been seen in public since its acquisition by Ordinaire in the 1870s. Indeed, it appears to have been publicly exhibited only once at Ornans in 1939.

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