In a letter written to a friend in 1850, Gustave Courbet announced that “in our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.” These words shed considerable light on Courbet’s art—and not just because Courbet’s subjects aren’t always the predictable, socially acceptable ones. There’s something direct and even savage (if by that we mean unconventional) in the way Courbet attacks the canvas: in the way he sponges or scrapes the paint, juxtaposes areas that are more or less realistically handled, and frames or arranges figures and objects in unexpected ways.
The risk factor in Courbet’s work is, aesthetically speaking, very high. And the high-wire excitement of all those risks being taken ail at once was a part—a big part—of what held us in the Courbet ...
Jed Perl writes about art for The New Republic
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