Chu, Petra – abstract

The Courbet Retrospective of 1882. Spark of the Artist’s first Monograph and Catalogue Raisonné

Petra ten-Doesschate Chu

Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ

In her 1978 article, “The Depoliticization of Gustave Courbet,” Linda Nochlin demonstrates that in the wake of the artist’s death in exile in 1877, most critical writings about Courbet were aimed at downplaying his role in the Paris Commune (particularly in the notorious destruction of the Vendôme Column), to emphasize, instead, his importance as an artist.  This was also the goal of the first posthumous retrospective exhibition of Courbet’s work (Ecole des Beaux-Arts, 1882),  organized by Courbet’s friend Jules Castagnary, who in his introductory essay insisted that Courbet had nothing at all to do with the demolition of the Vendôme Column.  But the exhibition had broader goals as well:  one was to establish the shape and boundaries of Courbet’s oeuvre; the other to tell the story of the artist’s life and career by visually chronicling his artistic development.

In the tumultuous months of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, Courbet had abandoned his long-time atelier in the rue Hautefeuille and stored its contents in several different locations. By the time he was forced into exile in Switzerland in 1873, his works were scattered across France. Without paintings to sell, Courbet, aided by several assistants, started a veritable factory production of land- and seascapes, intended for rapid turnover. Meanwhile, in France, forgers capitalizing on Courbet’s notoriety, produced large numbers of phony Courbets, which unscrupulous dealers were only too eager to show and sell in their shops. Thus the French art market became flooded with dubious land- and seascapes, invariably marked with Courbet’s easily imitable signature.

With confusion reigning as to the authenticity of large numbers of paintings by Courbet, the 1882 exhibition was an attempt at establishing a baseline for the artist’s genuine works. At the same time, by showing the work in chronological order, it was an effort to demonstrate Courbet’s artistic development and, in so doing, to tell the story of his life and career. In his lengthy introductory essay, Castagnary emphasized the profound unity that existed between Courbet’s life and his work (“l’unité profonde de sa vie et de son oeuvre”), arguing that the work, and not Courbet’s political activities, summed up the artist’s entire existence (“résume l’existence entière de l’artiste”).

The 1892 exhibition, therefore, was an important event that heralded not only the first monograph of Courbet but also the first (and thus far, only) catalogue raisonné of his work. Indeed, Castagnary’s biography of the artist in the catalogue may be seen as the abstract of the monograph he would start to write but did not finish due to his untimely death in 1888. His notes and archival materials, however, formed the basis of the  first published monograph of the artist, authored by Georges Riat in 1906, Though the catalogue raisonné of Courbet’s work was not published until 1977-78, its author, Robert Fernier, in his avant-propos thanked the “friends he never knew” who had helped him in his work. Important among them was Jules Castagnary, whose catalogue of the 1882 exhibition, prepared with “la plus stricte exactitude,” was a model for Fernier’s work.