Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Portrait du général Cluseret

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Portrait du général Cluseret
signed 'G. Courbet.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
22 x 18 3/8 in. (55.9 x 46.7 cm.)
Private collection, Paris.
(probably) Vienna, Österreichischer Kunstverein, Ausstellung Oesterreichischer Kunstverein in Wien, June 1873, as Porträt des Commune-Generals Cluseret.

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Lot Essay

Gustave Paul Cluseret was born in Suresnes in the western suburbs of Paris, and entered the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr when he was 18 years old, receiving his commission at age 20. A militant and politically active man, the general served in the French Army, led the De Flotte Legion in Italy during the Risorgimento, fought with the Union Army during the US Civil War, participated in the Fenian insurrection, attempted to start a civil war in England, and served as the Delegate for War for the Executive Commission of the Paris Commune before later attempting to recruit volunteers to found a Republic of Turkey when he was in his 50s. During his time in the US the General espoused radically Republican ideology and was highly critical of Lincoln’s gradualist approach to the elimination of slavery. He joined the Union Army because he wanted to 'participate in the triumph of freedom.’
The present portrait must have been painted after his service in the Union Army because the General is depicted wearing his US uniform with the insignia of his rank of brigadier general, just as he is in a contemporary photograph of him taken during his Civil War service preserved in the Library of Congress (fig. 1). The General returned to France in 1867-1868, and in many ways his life during this period mirrors Courbet’s own. He was jailed by French Authorities for an antimilitarist article he published and was imprisoned at Sainte-Pélagie, the same prison that Courbet would serve out his sentence in only a few years later. During his imprisonment, Cluseret became a socialist, and would later play an active role in the Paris Commune, of which Courbet was also an elected member. Both men would go into self-imposed exile in Switzerland following the suppression of the commune. Cluseret remained in Switzerland until 1877, the same year that Courbet died in exile there. It is said that the two lived near one another and that Courbet taught Cluseret to paint. The General later lived in the Balkans, Constantinople, and finally Hyères in southern France after his return to his native country. He died in 1900.
The present work is accompanied by a certificate from the Institut Gustave Courbet dated 12 May 2018, and will be included in their forthcoming Gustave Courbet catalogue raisonné.

(fig. 1): General Gustave Paul Cluseret, c. 1865.

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