Is the field of visual studies growing, or has it failed to live up to its promise? The signs apparently are contradictory, but I can say that a visual studies approach can be found fruitfully deployed in Petra ten-Doesschate Chu's recently published study, The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture. Chu, a noted Courbet scholar, editor of his letters and of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, places the artist in the context of the developing nineteenth century French press, the milieu of Balzac's ambitious journalists and backdrop to Flaubert's ironic realist treatments of striving provincials. Courbet reveled in the world of newspapers, Chu argues: not only was he an avid media consumer and friend and drinking partner to journalists, Baudelaire and Champfleury not least among them, Courbet also looked to manipulate the press to further his career and even drew upon literary and journalistic modes in his paintings. It's a story of the early days of modern art that has a good deal of contemporary resonance.
Newspapers in France went through a period of massive expansion and change during Courbet's active years in Paris. Prices dropped, leading to larger audiences as advertising revenue became the dominant source of income. The serial novel, with its melodrama and endless reverses, became a prominent device to drive repeat sales. Coverage of non-political topics, from the arts to fashion to sports, grew and attracted a more diverse readership including women and a broader segment of society to an increased number and variety of publications. Within this wider media environment, anonymous authors flourished, as did clever literary entrepreneurs who used different platforms within the press to promote their work and associate themselves with leading figures of the day. It was also a time when irony and sophisticated expression needed to be cultivated in order to avoid the eyes of censors. The new popular press, as Chu writes, had become "a product in a profit-oriented business enterprise rather than a literary instrument through which a small group of editors and writers communicated with an intellectually matched and ideologically sympathetic elite." The objective of authors now was not the old search for eternal gloire but célébrité, and to gain it one needed publicité. The difficulty for a serious artist lay in gaining this success while still maintaining one's integrity.
Chu follows Courbet as he masters this problem successfully through the decades, until the very instruments he employed turned on him and caused his downfall. She operates thematically within a loose chronological order, moving from the young man who uses his self-portraits to create and define his public image and portraits of others to associate himself with certain ideas or trends through the subversively ironic painter who made a success of the Salon even when he was not admitted, to the multifaceted painter of women, still lifes, and landscapes, eventually reduced to cranking out hack work, fruitlessly try to stave off ruin.
Though the book is relatively brief (174 large pages of text), Chu covers all aspects of Courbet's practice and details how his choices in marketing and publicizing his work deeply affected his practice. Connecting his self-portraits to the then-current idea of posing, she argues that Courbet's working through series of more-or-less Romantic depictions of himself before arriving at one of the "independence and self-confidence" of a free man grew out of the artist's observation of literary models such as the fashion for autobiographical novels and the habits of distinctive dress and behavior numerous authors, from Théophile Gautier through George Sand and beyond--a sort of painterly Bildungsroman married to a promotional effort. "Posing was both an act of real life and a literary form" and Courbet brought it into his art.
The utility of these poses for self-promotion seems clear, and Courbet made great use of them. "In a time when caricaturists had to ask for permission of their subjects before they could publish their drawings," Chu points out, "Courbet encouraged the public appearance of his portrait." The book is filled with these caricatures, depicting Courbet as a crude provincial, fat and smug, or an insolent and vain urban dandy, and his paintings as horrors--but the artist was one of the first to believe that there was no such thing as bad publicité. Medium was no barrier to Courbet's desire for replicating his images. His painted portraits of famous contemporaries, which Chu compares to the then-current mania for literary biographies (alluded to in the quote below) were sometimes based on photographs and then made into prints which serve as a frontispiece for a book or be featured in a periodical. The replication of images as part of a culture of célébrité boosted the fortunes of the writers with whom Courbet associated and the artist as well. As a group, Courbet's portraits also created a sort of personal pantheon, a set of figures whom the artist saw as in some way exemplary--the embodiment of the current moment, and therefore impeccably modern. The apotheosis of this idea, of course, is The Painter's Studio, where Courbet surrounds himself with common people related to his typical subjects on one side, and his friends, members of his pantheon, and figures perhaps representing the art public on the other (Chu also cites the Pantheon Nadar as a project close in some ways to Courbet's.) The painting sums up seven years of art in which Courbet had, like the newspapers, captured the spirit the times and shown who was a part of them.
The Painter's Studio was the last major painting Courbet would have in the Salon. His earlier Salon submissions, of course, made his reputation as the bad boy of French art. Chu shows that Courbet's paintings not only scandalized for their realistic depiction of common figures and scenes, as the cliché has it, but because he slyly employed essentially literary techniques of irony and allegory to subvert expectations and criticize social and artistic norms. A Burial at Ornans, not only took the unusual step of depicting a provincial bourgeois burial on the scale of a history painting; it offended critics for its apparent caricatures of the figures, its mockery of what the artist had presumed to raise to the scale of grandeur. This double irony was intolerable to the likes of Étienne-Jean Delécluze, keeper of the flame of the school of David, who railed that they were "ugly caricatures, inspiring disgust and provoking laughter." I'm a little surprised that Chu did not cite as a corollary here the example of Emma Bovary and what Lionel Trilling called "the peculiar horror of her death," as she cites Flaubert elsewhere and the connection seems to me to be strong. In any event, in both cases the author and the painter used their savage, biting sense of irony to gain a succès de scandale. In Courbet's case, the success might in literal terms be a failure, remaining unsold in his studio for years. But he had made a name and kept it in public, where it was useful for selling his less controversial landscapes and other paintings.
In his later years, Chu argues, Courbet didn't become more conformist even if his Salon paintings stopped. If anything, his opinions grew more radical, to the point where it was almost enough for him to suggest a painting on a certain controversial theme in order to keep the authorities and the press on notice. Perhaps so, but the traditional view--that after 1855 the artist settled down to exploit his reputation--doesn't need to contradict a sense of Courbet keeping up his game through the occasional gesture. It may also be that Chu's view of the painter's magnificent Woman with a Parrot may be a touch too subtle. As to whether that painting, an immediate popular success, represented a sell-out or a step in a further planned provocation, she answers "both," citing Courbet's plan to refuse any awards the government might give for the painting. Courbet's refusals of awards did cause uproar, but in the context of his career, Woman with a Parrot does seem to mark a moment when the artist's radicalism seems to be a cover for self-delusion. You might say Courbet was complicit and didn't even know it.
Courbet used his sense of the French and international public to market his paintings, and Chu excels at explaining how he did so. She demonstrates how his subject matter, composition, and painting style shifted depending on whether he was painting for his provincial supporters in the Franche-Comté, Parisians attracted relaxing scenes of the countryside or tourist destinations, or the London market, among others. Tracing out all of the differences in handling and subject matter and which combinations Courbet found appropriate to which market, Chu has provided an exemplary model of combined analysis of aesthetic content and social context. Her larger argument here--that the different modes of Courbet's paintings corresponded to the different jargons found within different types of media of the day--may be a little less convincing in this case, as the practice of Courbet and the press seem more like good examples of market specialization happening throughout an economy, as Chu acknowledges, but there's certainly a resemblance between the two.
Courbet continued to protect his renegade persona, at one point instructing a dealer to sell some simple landscapes quietly, presumably so that they wouldn't interfere with his reputation as the frightening monster of the art world. But in the aftermath of 1870, his involvement with the Commune provided the opportunity for those who had long resented him to drag him down. Chu paints a picture of a vainglorious painter, still bragging about how his imprisonment has raised the prices of his paintings even as he slid toward disaster. The press he had cultivated so assiduously turned on him, and the first artist to live by his public image fell to the tyranny of on dit.
The Most Arrogant Man in France, as I mentioned at the outset, owes something to visual studies, particularly where it comes into contact with the study of print culture. The book stands apart, however, from the more jargon-laden examples in the field. While there are a few nods to contemporary theorists, and Chu does borrow a term from the language of contemporary feminist theory when discussing Courbet's paintings of women, the prose is strong and clear throughout. The use of Courbet's own writings figures prominently, as one would expect given the author, and the deployment of contemporary criticism and caricatures feels deft. The book represents an advance over the sort of expert analysis of the politics and economics of the nineteenth century Salon done by Patricia Mainardi and the somewhat cruder rendition of the social history of art of Albert Boime, both of whom offer praise for the book on the dust jacket. Never reductive, the book places Courbet's practice in a social and aesthetic context of depth and explanatory power. It's a welcome addition to the literature and an excellent short overview of one of the first truly modern artists.