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That the two largest and most comprehensive surveys of Courbet's oeuvre should have appeared virtually simultaneously--in 2007 in the original French versions and in 2008 in their English translations--is apparently only a coincidence, since neither 2007 nor 2008 is any kind of anniversary year for the painter (although he did die on the last day of 1877). But it is an appropriate coincidence, since every generation deserves its own major reconsideration of an artist as major as Courbet, and it had been 30 years since the last two great retrospectives, which were indeed intended as centennial commemorations: the more expansive "Gustave Courbet 1819-1877" at the Grand Palais in Paris and subsequently at the Royal Academy of Art in London, and the more focussed "Courbet und Deutschland" at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg and then the Staedtische Galerie in Frankfurt. And it is a fortuitous coincidence, also, for it affords us the opportunity to compare two quite different but equally important kinds of art books: the modern exhibition catalogue and the scholarly monograph devoted to a single artist.
Although "Gustave Courbet," the Metropolitan Museum of Art's huge exhibition of 2008 took place under the supervision of its own curators, the accompanying catalogue reflects the show's French origins in that the great majority of the contributions, including all the introductory essays, were written by curators at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Musee Fabre in Montpellier. It is an excellent example of everything one would want in a companion volume to a great retrospective: comprehensive in scope and up to date in its information, it presents the works of the exhibition in (for the most part) large and excellent reproductions and adheres to the highest standards of professional scholarship. The six essays are all by recognized authorities in their fields and deal, over 70 pages, with Courbet's political positions; his relationship with Alfred Bruyas, his most important early patron; "realism and ambiguity" in the paintings; and references to Courbet in other paintings, mostly by Manet and Cezanne. There is an essay on the results of the X-radiography of more than fifty of Courbet's canvases, which reveals some of the often surprising changes he made while working on them, and, as an index of the painter's continuing influence in our own day, Dominique de Font-Reaulx presents a brief comparative consideration of the work of the contemporary Swiss photographer Balthasar Burkhard.
The 340 pages of the catalogue itself range over the full scope of Courbet's oeuvre, with sections topically arranged: the landscapes, the nudes, the Commune-related paintings, etc. There are separate sections on the early self-portraits and the hunting scenes, two topics that are not often treated in the depth they deserve. The 219 excellent plates are identified not only by title, date of creation, medium, support, dimensions and location, but also by provenience, a list of previous exhibitions, and a specialized bibliography and are accompanied by annotated commentary by one of the curators and supported by hundreds of auxiliary illustrations. The volume concludes with a very detailed chronology of Courbet's life and works; a short "anthology" of relevant correspondence, reviews and documents; a comprehensive general bibliography and a detailed list of prior Courbet exhibitions. All of this apparatus is informed by the great deal of research and scholarship that had accumulated over the previous thirty years, chief among which are the publication of Courbet's letters, the greater accessibility of archival material, and the publication/exhibition of works new to the canon. Oddly, there is no index, either of names or of works, which makes for an annoying amount of page flipping to find a reference or a picture; but in all other respects this is a treasure trove of information that no serious student of Courbet can afford to be without, the very model of what a modern exhibition catalogue should be.
Segolene Le Men's "Courbet" is equally exemplary of its particular genre of art book, the scholarly monograph written by one person and with one point of view. And since Le Men is a widely published and well respected expert on 19-century French painting and currently professor of art history at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and an instructor at the Ecole du Louvre, one is assured that her book is as authoritative as that of the curators of the exhibition reviewed above. As a monograph, this book is less restricted in the choice of works it wishes to discuss, since it does not have to address a select corpus of works that could be gathered at one specific time in one particular gallery. It does not have to be as oeuvre-oriented as an exhibition catalogue and has greater liberty to be sweeping and narrative and to consider matters that may be beyond the scope of specific work-analysis per se.
Le Men's sections are arranged broadly biographically rather than topically, and the first two, "The Formative Years: Courbet the Romantic" and "A Bohemian in Paris," are particularly informative about the social context of those early years and the easy way the painter assimilated other modes of artistic production. (Example: the window-pane checked pants in the self-portraits and those of his friends Paul Ansout and Marc Trapadoux derive ultimately from descriptions of men's clothing in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's romantic novel "Paul et Virginie.") Le Men is more expansive than most writers on Courbet's interactions with others (friends, but also women, fellow painters, collectors and buyers on the market, etc.), and she publishes, for the first time, Courbet's portrait of Wilhelm Leibl, a Munich painter whom he met and whose artistic project and realist aspirations he felt to be similar to his own. The chapter "Art, Business, and Naturalism" traces Courbet's path during the 1860's, when, in response to increasing fame, the painter embarked on a course that led him, in the author's view, from realism to naturalism and at the same time became increasingly astute as a businessman intent on selling his product to consumers on the marketplace--and arranging his own exhibitions for that purpose. At that time he concentrated on landscape and portraiture, on the great hunting scenes and snowscapes that people wanted to buy, and on the great nudes from the woman in "The Artist's Studio" to "The Origin of the World." Here Le Men is especially good on Courbet's close attention to matters like the hanging of the canvases in the galleries and the arrangement of the works in series, etc.
What makes this volume stand out among the many other Courbet books is the high standard of the production values that have been lavished on it. It is huge, sumptuous, excellently designed and printed, and the quality of the reproductions is outstanding. There are many full-page and even two-page illustrations (and these are very big pages), and many detailed blow-ups; even the dust jacket is the best reproduction of "The Artist's Studio" that I have ever seen (albeit cropped a bit at the right edge). But this is not only a magnificent coffee-table book; it is a serious contribution to the Courbet literature, backed by its author's extensive research and solid scholarship as authoritative as that of the curators of the Met's exhibition catalogue. The serious student of Courbet will want to own both these volumes, but for someone who wants just one excellent and comprehensive survey with superb reproductions of Courbet's works, this is the one to have.