Ah, l’enfant terrible of art. The rebel, the radical, the nonconformist. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the French realist painter Gustave Courbet. It wasn’t just his art that brought him notoriety, but also his ostentatious je m’en fous (I don’t give a damn) attitude. See, it’s difficult to write about him without turning to French, because he embodied the spirit so well. I’m smelling fresh baguettes and Camembert cheese, existential angst and the blood of revolution. Ok, perhaps I’m getting a bit carried away.
If you are to remember at least one thing about Courbet, it is that he shocked the art world with his in-your-face painting The Origin of the World. He continues to do so even a century and a half later. But today, however, the highlight is one of his many self-portraits, completed before he embraced realism in his works.
The Desperate Man shows Courbet from the neck up with his eyes bulging out and pulling his own hair. Adopting the theatrical pose of a man at wits’ end – a mad artist, if you may – the Frenchman makes use of the Romantic idea of the painter as a tortured soul, driven to insanity by the insensitivity of the masses and rejection by the art establishment. The painting is a reflection of the French artist’s personality. In it we can admire Courbet’s passion, determination, outspokenness and, perhaps vanity, for his pose and expressiveness are clearly exaggerated.
Through painting, the artist embarked on a path of self-discovery, creating many self-portraits in his early years while testing the limits of his art and of his ego:
“During my life, I have painted myself many times, whenever my state of mind changed. In short, I have written the story of my life.” Gustave Courbet, 1854