Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


The 'ideal' through the eyes of the realist

By Christopher Andreae / November 24, 1982



''Has M. Courbet some vendetta against Spain?'' asked a sarcastic critic when ''A Spanish Lady'' was first exhibited in Paris in 1855. Theophile Gautier, who had written a book about his travels in Spain fifteen years earlier, wrote disapprovingly: ''We have seen gypsy women - thin, gaunt and sunburnt - on the threshold of their caves in the Monte Sagrado at Granada, or in the Barrio de Triano at Seville; but none of them was so dried up, blackened or strangely haggard as this face painted by M. Courbet.''

Skip to next paragraph

To us such reactions seem extraordinary. It is difficult for us to guess at the provoking impact of Courbet's newfound directness in 1854. He was labelled a ''realist,'' as opposed to the Romantics of an earlier generation, and though he repudiated labels as ''never [giving] the right idea of things,'' his avowed opinion about painting was indeed that it was ''essentially a concrete art . . . a totally physical language whose vocabulary is made up of all visible objects, '' and he added: ''Something which is abstract, invisible or non-existent does not come within the domain of painting.''

Courbet met his ''Spanish Lady'' at Lyons, and his portrait of this acquaintance certainly displays the deliberate, if materialistic, honesty of his approach. He seems to have painted her without forethought and without fantasy. This is no ''typical'' Spanish beauty, no French dream of some fine and warm creature from an exotic Iberian paradise. Even Manet's later paintings of people and things Spanish (which Courbet's picture to some extent foretells) follow a far more popular notion of Espagne. Most of all, Courbet's portrait is everything that official art of his day was not: it is specific observation; an undisguised, even rough, application of paint; and, in spite of its tribute to Velasquez or Murillo, it is his immediate experience rather than an image filtered through unrealistic and acceptable formulas.

The conviction of Courbet's art lies in its forthrightness. The viewer is convinced that the massive ocean wave, the bowl of gigantic apples, the bulky cow, the stone-breaker, or the Spanish Lady, all presented with such solidity on his canvas, did in simple fact look just as he shows them. To meet this lean (but farm from ''haggard'') woman would be to know her instantly. What were the critics so shocked by? The accuracy with which the painter depicted skin and bone rather than some lush, academic softness of flesh?

It is evident that Theophile Gautier, who was not a reactionary, nevertheless felt that his dream ideals of Spain had been sufficiently spoiled by his own experiences in that country. The knocks his fantasies took on his Spanish trip were enough, without further help from one of Courbet's confrontations in paint. It is interesting that part of Gautier's quest in Spain had been to seek out the perfect woman - the perfect manolam , equivalent, in his imagination, of the grisettem in France, the bright young working girl. He described the ideal manolam (whom he signally failed to find in spite of laborious searching in Madrid) as having ''the vivacity of the serpent, the grace of a bird: an outfit of silk and satin shining in the sun, showing off the most elegant of figures. Her face . . . is witty, ardent, teasing; she is fire, flame, the passion of the moment, the royal whim, the burning caprice.'' No wonder he found Courbet's straightforward Spanish Lady rather a disappointment.

And yet, in spite of Courbet's matter-of-fact, solid ''realism,'' his ''Spanish Lady'' is surely the most Romantic of images. It is hism kind of exotic dream. Rooted though his painting is in the physical, the touchable, world, it is evidence all the same of a declamatory, self-expressive nature, charged with strong feelings. His whole posture as an artist was arch-Romantic. He wrote in a letter: ''In our over-civilized society I must lead the life of a savage. . . . The ordinary people have my sympathies - I must speak to them directly, draw my inspiration from them. . . . Because of that I have just embarked upon the wandering and independent life of a gypsy.'' These are the words of a man with a bourgeois background and private means.

Where the opposite sex was concerned Courbet was certainly a Romantic, and his paintings of women and girls display a sensibility easily moved by certain kinds of beauty, even though his acuteness as a portraitist, as an observer of character, is not compromised by this. The ''invisible'' and ''abstract'' life is often knowingly present in their eyes, the mouth, the tilt of the head. His ''Spanish Lady'' is an individual unlike any other woman he ever painted. He could and did paint ''types'' of female attractiveness; but if one compared this picture with a Renoir, it would be instantly clear the extent to which the subject's unique features and thought mattered to Courbet, while Renoir was concerned with objective ''womanhood'' in general rather than identity in particular.

Realistm Courbet may have been, but his treatment of the ''Spanish Lady's'' untamed, dark hair, as it twists and falls like a rush of water over her shoulders and arms, is scarcely cool observation alone. This cascade of hair is painted with admiration and relish, with a Romantic artist's sheer and thoroughgoing enjoyment of a form capable of superb freedom. Here Courbet's stance as a painter of solid fact has given way to a marvellous celebration of released fluidity entirely for its own sake.