It is more like a dream than any other great painting known to me. We do not dream a Bosch or a Delacroix: they are too consistent in their fantasy or romanticism. But in the Atelier moments of intense reality and sudden heightenings of sensuality are succeeded by baffling inconsequence; there is a reunion of characters who seem both familiar and strange, and maintain a speechless isolation from one another, as if under the spell of an enchanter; and there is the setting of a transformation scene in which the back cloth will gradually dissolve and reveal some unattainable distance. This dream like interweaving of the real and the symbolic Courbet expressed quite accurately when he entitled his huge machine 'Allégorie réelle: intérieur de mon atelier, déterminant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique'. But what a terrible picture that title suggests! That it is not a salon monster (and was in fact rejected from the Salon of 1885) is due to its extraordinary pictorial qualities.
Courbet was a born painter. Everyone who watched him at work was astonished at the way in which his beautiful hands could make the brush or the palette knife convey the subtlest tone or the richest substance. I like to approach the Atelier from the west staircase of the Louvre so that I can see it through the doorway, glowing in the afternoon sun. My eye then dives into the warm sea of tone and colour, and for some minutes is content to swim about, delighting in each wave and ripple of beautifully rendered optical sensation. As nineteenth-century amateurs used to say, "C'est de la peinture!"
But very soon I begin to ask questions. What do all these figures mean? Are they simply the memories of seven years, which have come unbidden; or have they been invited for some purpose? "C'est passablement mystérieux," said Courbet. "Devinera qui pourra." He who can will guess.
Some of the answers are simple. In the centre Courbet, the prophet of realism, is supported by two examples of truth in art, a landscape of his own Franche-Comté and a superb, unidealised nude model. A peasant boy watches the master at work with innocent admiration, and we are led to infer that his judgement is preferable to that of the academicians. To the right, we may guess, are the men who have influenced Courbet; and if we are familiar with the period we have no difficulty in recognising M. Bruyas, his long suffering and slightly dotty patron, and his friend Proudhon, the socialist philosopher, whom Mr Clive Bell once described as the biggest donkey in Europe. The gloomy seated man is Champfleury, who was the first advocate of Courbet's realism. As for the figure on the extreme right, we happen to know that it represents Baudelaire, because it corresponds to a portrait that Courbet painted of the poet seven years earlier; but it bears little resemblance to other portraits of Baudelaire, and in fact Courbet complained that his face changed every day.
With the lady in the shawl, however, the scheme breaks down. Courbet subsequently called this couple 'amateurs mondains', but she is painted with great warmth, and she is obviously there simply because he liked the look of her. To the left there is a similar collapse of logic. No doubt there was a sociological excuse for l'Irlandaise, the figure of ultimate poverty who sits on the ground beside his canvas, for it had not escaped the attention of continental Europe that the richest country in the world had within its borders several million starving and ragged savages; and in the shadowy depths behind her are several other figures suggested by philosophy a priest, a prostitute, a grave digger and a merchant, who symbolise the exploitation of our poor humanity. But nothing in Proudhon explains the Rabbi on the extreme left, still less the hunter with his dogs, who, like the 6 amateurs mondains', seems to be agreeably free from social consciousness.
Of course, it is this absence of system which saves the Atelier. The figures which had been haunting Courbet's imagination for seven years had come there for a number of reasons. They had pleased his eye, influenced his life, stealthily entered his subconscious. In 1855 a comparable picture was being painted in England, Ford Madox Brown's Work; and Brown introduced many of the same ingredients: the workers, the beggars, the ragged children, the philosopher friends, even the 'amateurs mondains'. But, as we know from a much too long description by Brown himself, the whole was conceived in terms of literature, and can properly be classed as an illustration, on a heroic scale, to Carlyle's Past and Present. Whereas in the Atelier every figure is a personal symbol related to a visual experience, and it is not Proudhon's philosophy but the mysterious workings of the pictorial intelligence which have brought them together.
After wandering in this mixed company, we return to the painter at his easel. Courbet has given himself a splendid appearance and for once in the history of self portraiture we know that it was justified. This was an age of cruel observers. Dozens of them described Courbet in detail and all agreed about his beauty. He was tall and olive skinned with long black hair and huge bovine eyes. His friends were struck by a likeness to the young Giorgione, and this was not lost on the painter himself, who entitled one of his finest self portraits 'a study in the Venetian manner'. They also told him that his eyes were like those of an Assyrian king. Courbet obligingly grew a long, pointed beard, and it is this Assyrian phase that he has commemorated in the Atelier. He was as shamelessly delighted with himself as a prize stallion. A year after painting the Atelier he was invited to luncheon by the Comte de Nleuwerkerke, Napoleon III's Director of Fine Art. A long letter to Bruyas describes the episode, which is a model of how an artist should behave to an official. M. de Nieuwerkerke took both his hands and said he wanted to act frankly with him. He must moderate his style, put some water in his wine, etc., and the Government would support him.
"I answered", said Courbet, "that I too was a Government . . . and that I was the sole judge of my own painting. I added that I was not only a painter but a man, that I did not make art for art's sake but to vindicate my intellectual liberty, and that I alone of all my contemporaries had the power to translate and render in an original manner, my personality and my society."
To which he replied: "Monsieur Courbet, vous êtes bien fier."
"Monsieur, je suis l'homme le plus orgueilleux de France."
We must remember that he had come from a country district and had never experienced the bewildering complications of metropolitan life. He saw no reason to conceal his strength, to moderate his laughter or to think twice before voicing an opinion or breaking into song. He was really Blake's ideal man, although neither would have cared much for the other's art.
At first Courbet had considerable success. He won a medal in the Salon of 1849 and in the next few years many of his pictures were accepted, although they aroused an ever increasing storm of academic fury. Then in 1855 all the pictures sent to the international Exhibition were refused. Courbet immediately hired a garden full of lilac in the Avenue Montaigne, built a gallery and exhibited forty three of his pictures, including several of colossal size. Among them was L'Atelier du Peintre, painted during the preceding months in the intervals of a severe attack of jaundice. The public reacted as they did to all great works of art in the nineteenth century: they roared with laughter. Not until the Impressionist exhibition, twenty years later, did the public again have such a good laugh. But Delacroix, who was alone in the exhibition for an hour, was deeply impressed. "They have rejected", he said of the Atelier, "one of the most extraordinary works of the age."
Courbet was thirty-six when he exhibited his masterpiece, and in some respects it was the climax of his career. He continued to dream Of, and talk about, huge canvases which should celebrate democracy and decorate railway stations. He wasted a lot of time on a large picture of tipsy priests returning from a conference, with which he hoped to shock the Empress Eugenie. But his best works were small celebrations of things which please the senses fruit, flowers, waves, shining trout and girls with red gold hair. In 1867 he again put on a one man show: "J'ai fait construire une cathédrale . . . Je stupéfie le monde entier." The exhibition aroused little comment, for by this time Courbet's theories were accepted, and, compared with the work of Renoir and Monet, his pictures had the tone and texture of Old Masters.
Alas, this splendid apostle of the senses ended badly. He became extremely fat and more noisily self assertive than ever. The authorities must have longed for a chance to get rid of him and in the end they had one. The Column in the Place Vendôme was pulled down during the disturbances of 1871, and Courbet was held responsible, unjustly as it happens, although such an escapade would have been quite in character. He was put in prison and offered the alternative of paying for its reconstruction or imprisonment for five years. He escaped to Switzerland and after a short period of miserable tranquillity, during which he is said to have drunk twelve litres of wine a day, he died.
The catalogue of the 1855 exhibition contains a preface in which Courbet sets down his aims more shortly and more sensibly than is usual on such occasions. The title of Realist, he says, has been forced upon him just as the title of Romantic was forced on the men of 1830. And he concluded: 'Savoir pour pouvoir, telle fut ma pensée . . . faire de l'art vivant, tel est mon but'. It is a fair statement. He painted what he knew his own countryside, his neighbours, his friends - and his art is alive. But in one respect he was also a romantic. "To love oneself", said Oscar Wilde, "is the beginning of a life long romance and it is evident that every time Courbet represents himself the character of his art changes. There is nothing realistic about those marvellous self portraits, The Wounded Man and The Man with a Pipe; in them he is as whole heartedly romantic as a follower of Giorgione. The Atelier is, among other things, a great poem of self-love. just as Mallarmé and Valéry were to make poetic inspiration itself the subject of poetry, so Courbet has taken as the subject of his masterpiece his own pictorial inspiration. That it is so great a painting is due to the extraordinary richness of his experience.
And as I look more attentively at the Atelier, I realise how misleading is the notion that Courbet's art was made up of hand, eye and appetite. French critics love to repeat that he painted as an apple tree grows apples. What nonsense! The most hasty analysis shows that the Atelier is the production of a powerful intelligence.
Take the central group alone. Courbet has portrayed himself almost in profile, with his arm stretched out horizontally, and has related this hieratic stiffness to a series of interlocking rectangles, so that he seems to be a stable element in the midst of the floating population which surrounds him. More than that, he is a plastic element, a relief from Persepolis, and this feeling of timeless plasticity is enhanced by the nude model, also in profile, whose grandiose outline is a perfect foil to the thin geometric shapes of chair and canvas. This is not the fruit of a vegetable procedure, but of a rigorous devotion to the tradition of art. Even his opponents admitted that Courbet had studied the old masters with profit. He said that his first revelation of art had been the sight of The Night Watch, which is, indeed, one of the few great pictures painted with an appetite as hearty and unfastidious as his own. He continued to copy Rembrandt throughout his life. But his chief source of instruction was the Spanish school, known through the gallery of Louis-Philippe. In the Atelier the lady with the shawl seems to derive from the school of Seville, the mysterious figure strung up immediately behind his canvas is one of Ribera's tortured saints. And the huge room is full of echoes of Velasquez, in the hunter with his dogs, in the beggars, and in the whole sense of space which derives from both the Meninas and the Hilanderas. But, as Courbet had never been to Spain and knew these masterpieces only in engraving, his tonality is much warmer and closer to Ribera, whose Club footed Boy in the Louvre had a decisive influence on French nineteenth-century painting. The cool detachment of Velasquez would have dismayed him.
Nor is Courbet's intelligence limited to the science of picture making. The Atelier was painted in the interval between Balzac and Flaubert, and seems to bridge their two worlds, Balzac on the left, Flaubert on the right. It justifies Courbet's boast that he alone of his contemporaries had been able to relate the art of painting to the society of his day. Hanging where it does in the Louvre, it seems like the last act in that great drama of French history which begins with David's Oath of the Horatii, the earliest manifesto of the revolution, passes through the Napoleonic adventures of Baron Gros, and culminates in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. The age of heroic action is over, but, as Courbet's powerful hand evokes these characters from the shadows, we recognise how France still dominated the life of the mind.
Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.