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Tag Archives: Courbet


Tomorrow I’m going to the Louvre, so please indulge me the cheap rhyme in the title of this post:  April is, after all, National Poetry Month and rest assured, nothing rhymes with “Louvre” in English (it’s now 2:42 a.m. and I’ve been lying in bed trying to think of something).

Today was the much anticipated day to see the Courbet paintings that I’ve been reading about over the past year.  The one that really packed a whollup was Courbet’s self-portrait Man with Leather Belt (pictured above).  This painting is much like the self-portraits of Rembrandt that whisper to you from a quiet space filled with inner light, materializing from darkness to be (quite suddenly) in front of you with tangible fullness and emotion, as if you were alone in a dark room, shining a flashlight onto them one at a time.

Much has been said about this self-portrait, the most interesting comment coming from Michael Fried who observed that the hands in Courbet’s self-portraits are often mirror images of the artist in the act of painting, holding his palette (see the belt) and the paintbrush (the left hand, which reminds me of the hand in Da Vinci’s St. Jean Baptist, but rather than pointing to heaven, the hand of the artist is solidly anchored in the here and now).

Michael Fried aside (gods of Art History, please spare me), what really struck me today was a detail smack in the center of the painting:  the white cuff of the artist’s sleeve.  I is almost as if Courbet literally pressed his sleeve against the wet paint on the canvas.  The rest of the painting has a smooth, academic surface, so this small textural gesture reaches out of the painting (much like Rembrandt’s figures out of the darkness) with the material tangibility of rough cotton or linen.  This little patch of painting breaks through the rest:  it is so physical that it made me want to itch my wrist (or touch the painting, and we know what would happen then in France:  the riot police would be in front of Orsay in five seconds flat).

Speaking of the CRS, the (which makes the Chicago Police look like a bunch of donut-eating sissies), I was a bit worried about interviewing people in French museums, which are more formal than their American counterparts.   For instance, no one (and I mean no one) sits on stairs or fills out school worksheets on the floor like in American museums.  I once observed guards telling visitors in a newly renovated sculpture court in the Louvre not to sit on the cool, inviting marble stairs (there are no benches) about once every ten seconds, thinking that if a smart curator were to observe this she would come to the conclusion that the was a policy problem, since so many people were, quite naturally, committing the same infraction.


In addition to a more formal decorum, there is a rule in French museums regarding who can and can’t “prendre la parole”.  “Prendre la parole” is a fancy way of saying “to speak”.  When I take students to the Musée d’Orsay  in the summer, even if it is a very small group, I have to procure a special badge giving me the right to speak within the public space of the museum.  This special badge indicates that I’m an expert, someone who can dish out the correct version of Art History (capital a, capital h).   This is all strangely wonderful in a country where one can bring one’s pooch to a two or three-star restaurant.

In any case, my fears were unfounded.  The only comment (friendly, in a critical, French sort of way) was from a guard who saw me scrawling in my notebook, Caliban-like, my pencil grip having been passed down to me from a great-great-great-great-great-Neanderthal aunt who never got along with the rest of my Homo-Sapien family.

More about who I interviewed later.  It is 4:19 a.m.  I hope I can get back to sleep.



«Le temps est abominable ici. Chaque matin quand je me réveille, je regarde par les vitres le temps qu’il fait : il pleut ou il neige ou, pour varier, il neige ou il pleut ou bien, chose plus amusante, il a neigé. Alors il y a sur ma fenêtre, qui est horizontale, un ou deux pouces de neige, voile très bien qui met mon atelier dans un clair-obscur charmant mais où l’on ne peut travailler. Alors je monte sur mon toit avec des baquets d’eau et je fais dissoudre tout cela fort bien.» Lettre de Courbet à son père, Paris, début 1845.

“The weather is horrible here. Every morning when I wake up I look out the window to see the weather: it is raining or snowing or, for a little variety, it is snowing or raining, or something even funnier, it is snowing. On the ledge of my window, the one or two inches of snow make a veil that gives my studio a charming chiaroscuro effect but makes it impossible to work. So I get up on the roof with buckets of water and I wash all of it away.” Letter from Courbet to his father, Paris, the beginning of 1845.

Tomorrow I continue my reflections on the weather by addressing the problem of the color white. Oh yes. It is a problem.


Drats! Blasted 19th century infant mortality! Yesterday, I went back to the Ryerson library to finish reading Roger Bonniot’s Gustave Courbet en Saintonge in the hopes of finding some clues about Gabrielle’s descendants. The news was sobering. Let’s start out with her mother, Laure. She had five children: Louise Corinne, Louise Laure, Gabrielle (not my Gabrielle, I’m getting there soon), Jules Ernest, and Jules Lucien. Three out of the five died before their second birthday. It turns out that my Gabrielle is actually Louise number two (her full name was Louise Laure Zoïde Borreau). Her parents nicknamed her after her sister Gabrielle who died shortly after she was born, a bit like Van Gogh’s parents did Van Gogh. That wasn’t a happy ending either, now was it?

The Borreaus moved to Paris from the Saintonge region in 1870. Monsieur Borreau set up a toy workshop in their apartment. Laure and her daughter Gabrielle visited Courbet often during his stay at the prison Sainte-Pélagie (where he was for his role in the Commune). It is possible that we have one more painting of Gabrielle Bourreau – Courbet painted Head of Woman and Flowers while in prison and some scholars have suggested that it is Gabrielle. For those who don’t find Rêverie as bewitching as me, don’t even click to see Head of Woman and Flowers. It is a dreamlike, if not disturbing painting (signaling the work of Odilon Redon and the Nabis): neither face nor bouquet look entirely finished and we see them as if through a filter that distorts images, much in the same way that those mirrors do at carnivals (or the “bulge”, “dent”, “twirl” and “stretch” features in Photo Booth which transform any normal person into Elephant Man).

During one visit at Sainte-Pélagie, Courbet gave Gabrielle a painting of flowers that she hung onto all her life, in the end donating (anonymously) to the French government. Gabrielle took over the family business in 1882 and won honorable mention at the 1889 Universal Exposition for her handmade dolls. In 1882 she married widower Thomas Breban and they had two children, Laure who died at four and Jules who died at six. Gabrielle’s remaining brother (Jules Lucien) died in 1902 and was followed to the grave three years later by his only son, aged fifteen. Gabrielle herself died in 1918, four years after her husband. She made it long enough to see World War I and the advent of trench warfare. Joy. Her son-in-law (her husband’s son from his first marriage) described her as “thin, lonely, and full of melancholy”. Gee, I wonder why?

The whole story begged for a dead baby joke, but I was in no mood to think of one yesterday in the Ryerson Library. Not a single Borreau remains. Zip. Zilch. Zero. I had already purchased my ticket and was ready to sleuth through Paris to find Gabrielle’s descendants. Now what was I going to do? Luckily I have a friend whose strength is bringing me back to reality. She reminded me that there are museums, great food, and lots of wine in Paris and that just because I wouldn’t find some dead person’s relatives didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have a good time. Touché.

Amidst all the dead babies, adultery, and prison there is at least some sunny news! Yesterday in gallery 222, brandished with my new questionnaire on Rêverie (Portrait de Gabrielle Borreau), I interviewed an older couple about the painting. They spent at least five minutes staring at it and coming up with responses. When they came over and joined me on the bench, a whole other group of people quickly went to look at the painting (what were they missing?). I looked out of the corner of my eye and smiled. Gabrielle is on her way, albeit posthumously, to stardom.

Postscriptum: I’m seeing her face all over Chicago now. If you live here and are on the North Side, check out the H & M billboard at Belmont and Sheffield, the girl to the very left.


One of my favorite paintings at the Art Institute is Rêverie (portrait de Gabrielle Borreau). (This painting is mentioned in an earlier post about asymmetric faces – see Putting your best face forward.) The painting is in gallery 222 in a corner, right next to a hydrothermograph. Unfortunately, most visitors spend more time watching the hydrothermograph’s hypnotic needle trace its path on the roll of paper than they do looking at poor Gabrielle. I have therefore decided to champion her cause. At the moment you can’t even buy a postcard of Rêverie at the museum shop. By the time I’m done maybe there’ll even be posters and mugs!

As I said in my previous post, Gabrielle is what one would call belle laide in French: her unusual features, bordering on ugly, are what constitute her beauty. However, most critics during Courbet’s time stopped at the “bordering on ugly” part of the last sentence. Take for instance this comment about the painting from the Fine Arts Quarterly Review written by Philip Gilbert Hamerton in 1863: “It is difficult to speak of Courbet without losing patience. Everything he touches becomes unpleasant. If he had to paint the most exquisite beauty, he would find something ugly about her.” Don’t get me wrong; not everyone today is as mesmerized by Gabrielle’s beauty as I am: one person I interviewed, seeing how much I loved the painting and not wanting to rain on my parade, said “I like how her head is oversized; it makes me want to know what she is thinking.” Translation: “Damn! What a big head! What was the artist thinking?”

Last week I was reading about the painting’s history: who owned it, where it had been exhibited, what had been written about it, and I noticed something strange: during its 145 years of existence the painting has had no less than three different names: in 1863 it was Rêverie, in 1922 it was Portrait de Mme. Boreau, and then in 1977 it suddenly became Rêverie (portrait de Gabrielle Borreau). Who added the extra “r”? Where did “Gabrielle” come from? I suddenly felt like a forty-something Nancy Drew with a history-mystery to solve! Vicki Schneider and the Case of the Borreau Painting. I thought of the name Borreau, how by adding a “u” to it it becomes “executioner” (bourreau) and a chill ran down my spine…

My investigation began by reading a biography of Courbet where I learned that he spent eleven months in Saintonge, a region in Poitou-Charentes, and had an affair with a woman named Laure Boreau. Bam! I was onto something. I spent the next day in the Ryerson Library at the Art Institute, a regal place where young people solemnly bring books to your table and you feel as if you should be dressed in organza or tulle instead of denim. Here’s what I found: Gabrielle was Laure’s daughter and “Borreau” is the correct spelling. Curators corrected the gaffe in 1966 during a Courbet exposition in Rome thanks to the painstaking research of Roger Bonniot who wrote a 405 page book on the eleven months Courbet spent in Saintonge – that’s approximately 36 pages per month! Bonniot combed through every document however innocuous, interviewed every living witness possible, and (thankfully) doesn’t spare us the trite, lurid, and comic tales of French provincial life in his book. My favorite anecdote: Courbet fell for Laure whose husband Jules (in slang this first name loosely translates as “loverboy”) owned a shop for ladies called La Fiancée. Well, La Fiancée was on the brink of bankruptcy and Courbet saw his opening: he saved Jule’s store and got Laure in return – he even lived with the Borreaus and set up his studio on their second floor. In short, Jules pimped his wife! Of course, Laure didn’t mind and already had quite a reputation in Saintes as a party girl. As for Gabrielle, Courbet developed a real fondness for her and nicknamed her “Briolette” (which sounds to me like a name for a mini-wheel of Brie). Briolette was also devoted to “uncle” Courbet and visited him years later at Sainte-Pélagie where he was imprisoned for political activities during the Commune.

If there aren’t posters of Gabrielle by the end of next year at least I can try to get her moved away from the distracting hydrothermograph. Of course, to be successful, I think I should go to France and do some research (perhaps track down the living relatives of Laure and Gabrielle?). I can just see myself having an apératif in the salon with Laure’s great-great-grand-daughter and later looking through old family albums and letters. I wonder if she’ll have a big head? Tomorrow I’ll finish Bionnet’s book in the Ryerson library and try to find some clues about the descendants’ whereabouts, but there are also pecuniary details to consider – getting to France is expensive these days. What I need is a big advance on my book or a Jules to pay for the trip. Maybe Oprah could help? John D. and Catherine C., where are you?


Here are some questions for consideration when you see Rêverie. Let me know what you think (and give me the reading on the hydrothermograph).

For those of you who speak French, I want to share with you two quotes from Roger Bionnet’s book Gustave Courbet en Saintonge. First, the author’s comment on Courbet’s situation with the Borreaus:

“Tirons de ces faits cette conclusion insolite que si les mécènes des Beaux-Arts se recrutent souvent dans le haut négoce, il peut se faire par exception qu’un grand artiste devienne le bienfaiteur du petit commerce.” Assez précieux notre Bionnet, n’est-ce pas?

And this one out of a letter from Courbet to Laure Borreau upon learning that she is pregnant in 1873 (which would make her well into her fifties):

“…ce qui m’étonne, c’est que vous soyez encore en mal d’enfant. Enfin! Vous voulez à vous seule repeupler la terre de républicains!” Sacré Courbet!