Two nudes hanging side by side in the show might almost be by different artists. “Reclining Nude” of 1862 is a kind of joke on Titian: a rather loosely painted figure in a brownish atmosphere surrounded by excesses of red velvet drapes whose kewpie-doll knee socks add to her modern quirkiness.
Next to it, a twofer, the lolling giantesses of “Sleep,” from 1866. It offers a vision of precise forms and Rococo pinks and whites, although what is often referred to as a lesbian embrace seems more like an orbit at very close quarters, slightly above the bed.
The second gallery contains an astounding work of accidental Modernism: the unfinished “Preparation of the Bride/Dead Girl,” one of the big paintings of village life that Courbet tackled in the early 1850s. Here a roomful of women orbits around a young, limp girl being dressed by three of them. Other women make a bed, lay a tablecloth or straighten up.
This look reaches a zenith of some kind in his drowsy masterpiece “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine” of 1856-57. Here the two subjects lie side by side forming a mass of frothy garments, female flesh, assorted flowers and moral lassitude. The overt, possibly lesbian eroticism that shocked viewers remains palpable. So does the ebullient, taunting hash of traditions, of public park with boudoir, of still life and figure painting, all crowded by a strangely vertical plane of water.
"The Desperate Man" (1844-45)
No artist before Picasso put so much of himself on canvas. In one self-portrait, he is long-haired and delicate, a Pontormo prince. In another he tears his hair, wide-eyed and wild, like Johnny Depp’s pirate rendered by Caravaggio. And in “Self-Portrait with Pipe” we see an early version of the disengaged gaze, at once dreaming and sardonic, that would become a trademark.
"Self-Portrait with Pipe" (circa 1849)
Overbearing and arrogant, Courbet virtually wrote the definition of the modern artist as a bohemian, narcissistic loner and political radical. He shunned the academy and lived by the phrase “epater le bourgeois.” He emerged in Paris in the 1840s, when the modern art market was beginning to take shape, as were the popular press and popular culture. Courbet was quick to grasp the usefulness of all three forces.
épater <1> vt inf (stupéfier) to amaze; ça t'épate, hein? amazing, isn't it?