Gustave Courbet (1819-77) is probably the least well-known of all the major mid-19th-century French painters. Overshadowed on the one hand by the more popular Corot and Millet, and pushed into the background when Impressionism and Post-Impressionism burst upon the scene, he had to depend primarily on critical and academic approval, rather than on popular acclaim, for his reputation's survival. To rectify this and to present Courbet's work in depth, the Brooklyn Museum has organized his first American retrospective in almost 30 years. ``Courbet Reconsidered'' includes 85 paintings and 12 drawings, and documents his entire career, from an 1844 portrait of his sister to his last painting, ``Grand Panorama of the Alps with the Dents du Midi,'' left unfinished at the time of his death in 1877. The exhibition was selected and organized by Sarah Faunce in collaboration with Linda Nochlin.

Courbet was, from first to last, an independent, an artist who stood in opposition to everything the art establishment of his time deemed worthy and ``uplifting,'' and who did so because he believed art should depict everyday reality in as straightforward a manner as possible. Authenticity was his battle cry, and he used it to undermine the rhetoric and classicized posturings of the official art of his day. Largely untaught (he didn't attend the Neoclassically oriented 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but learned primarily from copying the works of earlier masters), he was nevertheless very clear as to his intentions.

``I have studied,'' Courbet wrote in 1855, ``outside of any system and without prejudice, the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns. I no more wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other. ... No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to be able to create ... to be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art - this is my goal.''

His first major frontal attack on the establishment came in the Salon of 1850, to which he sent two of his best early pieces, ``The Stonebreakers'' and ``The Peasants of Flagey Returning From the Fair,'' as well as one of his masterpieces, ``A Burial at Ornans.'' Of the three, the last - a 20-foot-wide, multi-figure composition depicting an outdoor funeral service - made the boldest statement. (Courbet, in fact, referred to it as ``my debut and my statement of principles.'') It also drew the harshest response.

Critics took the young artist to task for the error of his ways and almost unanimously pointed out that he had not only failed to make his figures attractive but had actually made them ugly.

Both the critics and the public were confused. Where, they asked, was the ``art'' in this painting - the poetry, beauty, idealism, and nobility of feeling, without which even the most brilliantly executed painting remained nothing but a picture or a rendering?

Only one person, the art critic Fran,cois Sabatier, had an answer. ``Beauty is the splendor of truth,'' he declared, and then he went on to assert that the truth from which beauty is most likely to emerge is the truth of living experience, the stuff of life as it is lived in each generation.

And, he continued, since Courbet addressed himself exclusively to the actual, authentic realities of his time and place, he obviously came closer to truth (and thus to beauty) in art than did his contemporaries who drew their subjects from antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Clear enough, but it didn't altogether convince Courbet's critics, even when he began to produce some of the other works which are now so highly regarded, the landscapes, figure compositions, hunting scenes, nudes, and depictions of the sea. ``The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine'' caused a minor scandal when shown at the Salon of 1857, and his huge (and probably best-known) canvas, ``The Painter's Studio'' of 1855, remained too thematically unclear ever to be fully accepted.

Exile in Switzerland

Complications arose because of Courbet's political actions. He participated in the Commune of Paris of 1871, which led to his arrest and imprisonment when the movement was repressed. Because of ill health, he was permitted to finish his six-month term in a clinic, but even so, the government wouldn't forgive. Charged with the entire cost of reconstructing the Vendome column, an imperial symbol torn down by the Communards, he fled to Switzerland in 1873, and lived there for the balance of his life.

At times clumsy and uninspired

In all, it's both an inspiring and somewhat tragic tale, generally well documented by this exhibition. One wishes only that his most famous paintings, ``A Burial at Ornans'' and ``The Painter's Studio,'' had been included - and that he had been a less problematical and more consistent painter.

Important as Courbet may be, both on his own account and for a true perception of 19th-century French art, the fact remains that he was, at times, a clumsy and uninspired painter.

With notable exceptions, his concepts tended to outstrip his performances. Compared with such consistently superb painters as Corot and Manet, he was uneven, occasionally heavyhanded, and as likely to handle paint as simplistically as the laziest sort of Sunday painter (note the flowers and tabletop in ``M`ere Gr'egoire'' and the snow-laden bushes in ``Deer Hunting in the Franche-Comte: The Ruse'').

But he could also handle paint beautifully and subtly (``Portrait of Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl'').

These objections notwithstanding, this is an important and highly informative exhibition. After its closing at the Brooklyn Museum on Jan. 16, it travels to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where it can be seen from Feb. 19 through April 30.

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