Gotham Diary: Gustave Courbet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 13, 2008 at 3:52 pm (Art, New York City, Poetry)

The “Met” currently features special exhibitions on two extraordinary French painters: Gustave Courbet and Nicholas Poussin. I went to see the Courbets first. I had read an article in the Washington Post by Blake Gopnik, on whose discernment in such matters I depend; he described the exhibit as “jaw-dropping.” It is.

Gustave Courbet Born in 1819 in the village of Ornans in the Franch-Comte, a region in the north east of France, Courbet came to Paris to paint in 1840. He immediately set about smashing icons and in the process infuriating the critics, a staid and stuffy lot, from all appearances. He lived large, becoming quite large himself in the process.

Courbet painted everything from portraits (including quite a few of himself), landscapes, seascapes, hunting scenes, and nudes ( some just this side of pornographic) with a breathtaking combination of abandon and precision. To wit:

The Young Ladies of the Village

The Young Ladies of the Village


The Desperate Man

The Desperate Man


Woman with a Parrot


The Wounded Man


The Meeting or Bonjour, Monsiuer Courbet


River Landscape




The Stormy Sea or The Wave


Chateau de Chillon [Yes – This is the same Chillon that inspired Lord Byron’s two poems, “Sonnet on Chillon” and “The Prisoner of Chillon.” The latter is a narrative poem of great power. See the final stanza below*]


In his later years, Courbet became involved in politics – defiantly and disastrously – and joined the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871. Having survived six months in prison, he was then forced into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877.

While at the Met, I purchased the DVD entitled Gustave Courbet, made in France last year (possibly in conjunction with the exhibit at the Musee D’Orsay. See Jonathan Jones’s eloquent review in The Guardian.) We watched it last night. It is beautifully done.

Among other things, we see in this film  lovely views of Ornans, which appear essentially unchanged since Courbet’s time. Something to be thankful for, in addtion to an astounding body of work by this genius painter.


*Final stanza of “The Prisoner of Chillon,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron:

It might be months, or years, or days–
I kept no count, I took no note,
I had no hope my eyes to raise,
And clear them of their dreary mote.
At last men came to set me free;
I ask’d not why, and reck’d not where,
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter’d or fetterless to be,
I learn’d to love despair.
And thus when they appear’d at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage–and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home:
With spiders I had friendship made,
And watch’d them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill–yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn’d to dwell–
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:–even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.


  1. Tamar Utiashvili said,

    is it known anything about “La Filette A’La Larme”?

  2. Bert Blom said,

    He was a great painter – well worth to study!

    Bert Blom

  3. andre said,

    vry gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooood

  4. Bryson Glen said,


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Bryson. I’m getting ready to do another post on the Met, that incredible storehouse of treasure!

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