In Which We Must Speak To You Of Our Present Painting




For us who grew up and matured in this first quarter of the twentieth century, the name of the painter-poet of Ornans is rich in touching memories and a very gentle nostalgia. When we were born, Gustave Courbet was already gone, exiled to the shores of a lake between his land and ours; in an ancient fisherman’s inn on whose crumbling walls one could still read the symbolic words: Safe Harbor, words which convey and indefinable impression of consolation and melancholy, like the final hymn of Pandolfo Collenuccio.

And yet, all that past is near us, so near that we almost feel its warmth.

That word, yesterday, envelops us in old echoes, as when we awaken with our sense of time and logic still confused, and the memory of a happier time lived the day before reverberates in our minds. Sometimes we think of Courbet and his work as we think of our father’s youth.


He was a worker and a poet. Poetic inspiration was a necessary complement to his painting. His first activity was the worker’s. Like those engineers of nineteenth century Europe, bearded and powerful; like the industrialists, the colonizers, like all that generation of indefatigable constructors, sons of a continent already old, at the threshold of a new aspect of life that inventions of all kinds had revealed (for already fleets of ships were ploughing the seas, joining the continents more rapidly, while railroads were penetrating the darkness of tunnels and striating the plains), like these men, Courbet was a son of his time.

One imagines him, powerfully chested, tall and bearded, affable and melancholy, in the Baudelairean atmosphere of his Paris studio or in the smoke and noise of the Cafe de Madrid in the company of the ardent Gambetta and the romantic Jules Vallès, or again learning on his long alpenstock, his shoulders laden like those of a Zouave in a colonial battalion, roaming the mountains, valleys and forests of France in search of beautiful landscapes; emotional and curious, like an impassioned hunter in quest of game. And always he appears to us in the atmosphere of his time: a Romantic.

a cow as a cow

Romantic! A strange word, pregnant with meanings that seem to come to us from afar. A word that gives rise to suspicion and ambiguities. But for us, it means not only an emotive and moving art, an art firmly established on the solid pavement of reality, but also an art which lets us experience only that small portion of the great mystery of infinity that pierces the gap in flying clouds on a moonlit night.

There have been epochs, peoples, periods of art in the world that were absolutely devoid of romantic meaning. Egypt, for example. Against all that this word can evoke of construction, architecture, sculpture, painting, one sees the great inexorable vault of a silent, cloudless summer night; this image has for us something disagreeably mute, empty and alarming; the complete absence of all happiness and hope. It is not romantic.

But when, on that moonlit night, we look up to the sky in which white clouds sail like icebergs adrift in the northern seas and when we discover in the archipelago or clouds, like the shreds of a suspended sea, the sky, nocturnal, somber and profound, then a joyous happy emotion seizes our minds and our hearts. A breath of presentiment, of adventure and nostalgia envelops us, and with this breath a name resounds in us, powerful: Homer!

Homer was a Romantic.

courbet the clouds

We are not aesthetics, still less are we fanatics, and we thus take little pleasure in dreaming. We have an inveterate habit of meditating deeply on each of our emotions and each of our feelings.

The fact that the night sky seems more beautiful to us seen through clouds has a reason that is precise and definite as a geometrical design. The cloud in the night sky represents reality; the lunar light defines, accentuates and solidifies its volume as it illuminates it; thus it is an actual ceiling that we see above us, so that when we glimpse the night’s darkness through a crack in this ceiling, the emotion we experience is bliss, and it is an emotion belonging to art. In the Iliad, the Homeric hero and the Homeric god always stand solidly on the planks of reality.

The Olympic gods who preside over the destinies of Priam’s city are solid and real as the besieging Achaeans on the beach and the besieged Trojans assembled on the walls and towers to defend their city. In the Odyssey, under the feet of wandering Ulysses there is always the solid surface of four tarred planks, the planks of his ship.

The sense of reality is always linked to a work of art. The deeper it is, the more poetic and romantic the work will be. Mysterious laws and reasons of perspective govern such facts. Who can contradict the disturbing relation that exists between perspective and metaphysics?

Courbet, who experienced the sense of reality more deeply than Delacroix, is thus more poetic and romantic than he, despite the opinion of critics of his time and ours. The error of considering Delacroix at first sight as the preeminently romantic painter is easy to commit, but all his art is only an aspect of movement, something oblique and swirling like banners twisted by a gale, horses and men bent beneath a tempest.


It is an aspect that is more literary than purely poetic. Courbet’s romanticism is much more pathetic and solitary. Baudelaire himself is mistaken, and in his best things he is much closer to Courbet than Delacroix.

Courbet places the reality of a face or an object in the foreground, in that hot summer evening light that he expressed with so much pathos. And it was a fruit of a face, a nude or a tree, a cliff or the whitecapped waves of the stormy sea. But behind the fruit and twisted leaves, one perceives the sky in the distance and the clouds in flight. Behind the reclining woman is the perforation of the window, dividing the trees and planes of the park below into rectangles, and behind the cliff polished by the waves rises the horizon lit up by the setting sun, and the great storm clouds fly away, love over the sea. The beautiful Baudelairean verses resound: Free man, you shall ever desire the sea! The sea is your mirror; there you contemplate your soul. In the infinite unrolling of its wave.

In each of his paintings, from the simplest still life to his vast compositions, you always hear the refrain of a romantic song, a song which was then not only French but European, which passed from country to country, from race to race.

It was an evening music, most gentle.

the opicniceiwrnr

Monet’s version of Courbet’s The Huntsman’s Picnic

It was the lamentation of the barbatouli of the nineteenth century; it was their consolation. It was the repose of the weary engineer. There is something of this bizarre poetic sense in a phrase from this passage which Baudelaire dedicated to Franz Liszt: Through the mist, beyond the rivers, above the cities where the pianos chant your glory…

Courbet is a storyteller: The Demoiselles of the Seine, The Wrestlers, The Picnic, The Kill are narrations, passages from a novel in which the character don’t appear under their present-day aspect (verism) but under their poetic and spectral aspect (realism). In the latter guise, even a portrait can disturb us and give us that ineffable emotion we experience in the presence of works of high poetic fantasy. His numerous self-portraits, the portrait of the art patron Bruyas, and that of the writer Jules Vallès, the romantic journalist, have that same spectral, pathetic and touching quality we find in the first daguerreotypes and which lasts down to the moment when aestheticism and perfected machines and photographic methods inspired in us the horror of modern artistic photography, opaque, dirty-brown, confused and idiotic.

In fact, in photography one sees very well the difference that exists between realism and verism. Modern photography, rapid, perfected and aestheticizing, only shows us the wan, tiresome present-day aspect of people and things. With the help of an old photograph one can even make a painting that is not lacking in poetry. Thus Manet did his portrait of Maximilian’s execution from a photograph. Today, photography offers us assistance in the form of characteristic examples of Tito and Sartorio.

Nulla sine narratione ars. By the word narration we do not mean the recounting of a scene or a historical event.

The work of art must narrate something beyond the limits of its volume. The object or the figure represented must also narrate poetically what is far from it, and also what its very volume conceals materially. A certain dog depicted by Courbet is like a poetic and romantic tale of a hunt.

because the hunt

“Sitting on Cushions Dog”, Courbet

Since he was a poet, he was very fond of painting. In the museums of France, Flanders and Germany, he studied the painters of the past. The supple and the solid tempted and disturbed him; the hard and the fragmented annoyed him. The more the painter is a poet, the more he feels the magic of his craft in his work, which is the most magical of all and also the most painful. Consequently, only the good painter, inspired by a lyrical elan, can find the right modus operandi.

After the first scenes and portraits, still stiff and heavy, and weak in atmosphere, like the portrait of his sister as a young girl, Courbet, guided by his poet’s instinct, went on to perfect himself further and acquired a craftsmanship always more aerated and more profound. Like all great artists, he followed a continually ascending line. The misfortunes of his last years neither wearied nor discouraged him. Abandoned by his friends, in the solitary life he led near the lakes and mountains of his hospitable Switzerland, he idealized and spectralized poetically the landscapes that rose before him.

Perhaps the old castle of Chillon with its robust towers, situated down on the sunny shores of the lake, appeared more beautiful than the cliffs of Etretat and the wild landscapes of his birthplace to the ever happier enthusiasm of this pictor poeta, and perhaps while he worked at his last paintings, before lying down to rest at last in the arms of his good death, the last words of the aged Corot rose from his heart to his lips: “What beautiful landscapes! I have never seen such beautiful ones!”

translated by John Ashbery

joy of the return       


Letter to André Breton

My very dear friend I am very moved by all that you tell me in your good letter. For a long time I worked without hope. Now it’s above all necessary that I clarify one point for you; the point which has to do with my painting of today. I know that in France there are people who say what I am making a museum art, that I have lost my road, etc.

This was fatal and I expected it. But I have an easy conscience and am full of inner joy, for I know that the value of what I am doing will appear sooner or later even to the most blind. The fact that I have made your acquaintance, isn’t that already a good sign? The best sign that I could have hoped for? And now, my dear friend, I am going to speak to you about my present painting.

You must have noticed that since some time ago in the arts something has changed; let us not speak of neo-classicism, revival, etc. There are some men, among them probably yourself who, arrived at a limit in their art, have asked themselves, where are we going? They have felt the need of a more solid base; they have renounced nothing. This magnificent romanticism which we have created, my dear friend, these dreams and visions which troubled us and which without control or suspicions we have put down on canvas or paper, all these worlds which we have painted, drawn, written and sung and which are your poesy and that of Apollinaire and a few others, my paintings, those of Picasso, of Derain and a few others — they are always there, my dear friend, and the last word has not been said about them. Posterity will judge them much better that our contemporaries and we can sleep peacefully.

But a question, a problem, has tormented me for almost three years; the problem of métier. It’s for that reason that I began to make copies in the museums, that at Florence and in Rome I spend entire days summer and winter, before the fourteenth and fifteenth century Italians, studying and copying them. I dedicated myself to the reading of ancient treaties on painting and I have seen, yes I have seen at last, that terrible things go on today in painting and that if the painters continue on this route, we are approaching the end.

First of l have discovered that the chronic and mortal malady of painting today is oil pigment, the oil believed to be the base of all good painting. Antonello da Messina, who according to history is supposed to have brought to Italy from Flanders the secret of oil painting, never did that. The misunderstanding springs from the fact that the Flemish, above all the Brothers Van Eyck used, in going over their tempera works with glazes, emulsions in which linseed or nut oil was contained in small part, But the base of their painting was tempera or distemper with which they sometimes mixed oils and above all resins or still other ingredients like honey, casein, the milk of fig trees, etc. In this fashion without any doubt painted Durer, Holbein, Raphael, Pietro Perugino, and I believe that even Rubens and Titian never did oil painting as we understand it today. When I had comprehended that, I began with the patience of an alchemist to filter my varnishes, to grind my colors, to prepare my colors and panels, and I saw the enormous difference which was the result.

The mystery of color, light, brilliance and all the magic of painting is to my mind the most complicated and magic art there is — all these virtues of painting, I say, expanded prodigiously, as if clarified by a new light. And I thought with melancholy of the impressionists — of Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, and of all these painters who thought to be able to resolve with their technique the problem of light when on their palettes they carried the very source of shadows! And I have painted also. I paint more slowly, it’s true, but how much better!

I have recently done a self-portrait of which I will send you a photo. It is a thing which could figure in the Louvre. I say that not to praise myself but because I think it. Excuse my long peroration about painting and also my poor French, the French of a peninsular barbarian. For today I don’t which to tire your further. I will speak about your poetry, my projects and my arrival in Paris which I hope to able to arrange this spring.

Thank you again.

I embrace you.

Rome 1922



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