Monday, 16 March 2009

Gustav Courbet

L'Homme Blessé 1844-54
Oil on Canvas, 81 x 97 cm

National Portrait Gallery, London
11 November 2005

This painting was in a large-scale exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, covering artists’ own images from between the Renaissance to the contemporary period within the tradition of western painting. It was very interesting exhibition, well hung and mercifully, late on Friday evening, really quiet.

One of the self-portraits that really caught my eye was this painting by Courbet that I hadn’t seen before. It is quite unusual in that the image we see of a man (Courbet) leaning against the base of a tree, with blood streaming down his shirt from a wound, exactly covers a painting of the same man with a woman in his arms resting her head on his left shoulder[1].

The painting is life sized and we seem to confront the protagonist by looking up from below his waist that has been truncated by the edge of the canvas. The perspective invites us to believe that the lower half of his body intrudes into the gallery space. The brushwork on the face and right hand is blended and smooth whilst the brushwork on the cloak and background is loose and sketchy. This difference in treatment and tone brings them forwards. His eyes are almost closed, perhaps the final glimmer as life ebbs away, and I feel he is just about to lose consciousness and slip off the base of the canvas.

The painting has been known as “The Duel” and a duellist’s sword can be seen above the right shoulder. Michael Fried in his book called Courbet’s Realism makes much of this discarded sword as being analogous to the painter’s brush, the right hand gripping the cloak in place of the palette and the blood on the shirt analogous to paint on canvas. His point is that Courbet is going beyond simple representation and by extending the figure into our space and by internalising the gaze (eyes almost closed) he is trying to embody himself in the image[2].

For me the most interesting aspect remains the macabre transformation of the lovers’ bliss into a death scene. This is probably accounted for by his mistress (Justine) leaving him in 1854 and marrying another man, and Courbet tellingly never assigned the date of the re-painting (1854) to the picture when it was exhibited in 1855, but left it dated 1844. Until the advent of x-rays this would have been the only clue to the true melancholic nature of the painting depicting a lover whose heart was fatally wounded.

[1] Bowness, Alan Gustave Courbet Catalogue, Lund Humphries, London. 1977 p109

[2] Fried, Michael Courbets’ Realism, University of Chicago Press 1992 p80

©blackdog 2009


  1. My first impression: a confusing contrast between title/blood on the shirt/sword/ the closed eyes of a possibly died person and - on the other side- the natural beauty of a very attractive young man/the calmness of his facial expressions/ the elegiac looking gestures/warm colours- the interesting history of the "transformation" of this painting might explain the ambivalent feelings- the pose of the lover who seems to enjoy his melancholic suffering, remains dominant -the wounded heart is a centuries-old motive (since the myth Amor and his arrows)- but embedded here into a gloomy scenery. Fried's interpretation has been mentioned, too- the painter Courbet beautifully suffering because he was not appreciated as genius as he should have deserved. Despite the a bit problematical themes which are depictured I like the painting because of its quiet and calm atmosphere and the lovely-melancholic pose of the painter!

  2. I am a big fan of Courbet and really liked this painting. It is true that his genius was only appreciated later, the French Academy was a stuffy old place in the late 1800s. The Fried book is a good read - lots of insights, I should probably read it again, I just have so many on my reading list at the moment.