Perhaps the most fascinating thing about a realist painting is the tangible sense of the progression of time presented in a still fixture. A renowned master, Gustave Courbet must have truly loved to paint. Evidenced in the body and mind of “The Painter’s Studio; A Real Allegory” is the soul, the vision that does not separate. Gazing upon this painting is effortless. All at once the moment comes to life. It is painted from a point of view that would seem impossible, as Courbet himself is in the midst of a crowd. A true expert, his painting enables its watcher to pretend that he is a part of the scene. The combustion is truly interesting enough to consider. Could a description of the “Painter’s Studio,” an analysis of the principles of art used, and the meaning of the “real allegory” reveal Gustave Courbet’s intentions?
“The Painter’s Studio; A Real Allegory” (1855) Gustave Courbet
Courbet allows for a lot of detail. The Painter’s Studio is a painting of. . . a painter’s studio, however it seems more like a party. Roughly twenty-five people, including Courbet, are gathered amongst the mural-covered walls. An abundance of light allows detail, both in the painting Courbet is working on in the painting, and the painting itself. The most necessary face amongst the sea of people is from a naked woman standing behind Courbet; watching him paint. Her head is tilted to the side and her expression is still, as she studies the painting for meaning. Her shoulders are relaxed and she seems indifferent to her nakedness in relation to the people surrounding her. A white sheet that covers her front and leaves her backside exposed surmounts her. Clearly a subject, it is this very woman who creates a sense of the progression of time. Either she has been painted already or she is waiting to be painted next. Being naked I sense an urgency to move in this painting. Although she seems comfortable, a woman needs be clothed. She will be moving. Wherever she moves, surely she will remain the focal point!
Since the focal point is directly in the middle, as well as the only lightly colored object in the painting, I take in the entire painting at once. Being instantaneous, there is no eye movement from one side to the other. As I examine the details individually I notice a writer sits along the right wall with a book. Musicians are present. There is an instrument being studied on the ground opposite Courbet and the woman, and there is a violinist playing in the deep background. It adds realism to the scene. The more I study the painting, the more noises are apparent, and movement necessary to add themselves. There are cats and dogs that would be making noises. There are two children. . . one is playing with a cat, and another, possibly the woman’s child, stands near her mother imitating her interest in Courbet’s creation. The crowd likely isn’t silent.
Some elements and principles of art are more apparent than others in “The Painter’s Studio.” This piece is an oil on canvas painting. The texture appears smooth, like the surface of a photograph. Line is demonstrated in a true realist talent. Neither too soft nor too hard, the usage of line is not over-abundant or too light to see. The outlines of everything in the foreground, from the people to the canvas, create a kind of tangible feeling in me. It is tangible in the sense that I wouldn’t have even considered it. The lines are where they are supposed to be. Courbet’s use of color is very distinct, although the absence of bright color would seem to contradict that statement. There is stength in his choice of rustic colors. They create age, and thus an idea of maturity. With this maturity is the absence of confusion. The content of the painting creates my thought, not the usage of colors.
This painting of Courbet’s studio lacks space in the area where he works. There is no one and nothing behind him, however, as though everyone accumulates in only one side of the room. This absence of objects creates a sense of distance, and along with the support murals, do not end at a ceiling. Does this room have a roof? Though the room could be very big, Courbet proportioned it to create a sense of intimacy. In addition, there is repetition evidenced in the silhouettes of the crowd as well as the canvas, which is directly in front of a similarly shaped door. It creates a sequence of round and vertical shapes, which adds a realist sense of variety and rhythm. The shapes of Courbet’s friends in the studio are clearly defined. Only the mural behind them is sketchy. I can barely make out a house, trees, and some clouds.It is hard to tell what is it a painting of. This backdrop of uncertainty in contrast to the foreground of clarity, to me, actually adds emphasis to the foreground. Since it is hard to discern any concrete image amongst the wall, my eyes decide that they don’t want to work so hard, and they adjust to the other details of the studio.
The angle of Courbet’s canvas is the most noticeable example of a diminishing scale in this painting. There are others, however. Near the rear left side of the painting are three gents from biggest (front) to smallest (back), although they are all likely the same height. The people on the right are slightly angled in a similar fashion. Though not exactly symmetrical, the left and right sides seem to mirror one another to create balance. They lightly create the form of a road that gets smaller as it approaches the horizon, with Courbet, the canvas and the woman where a car would be.
I initially overlooked an important detail. A woman is slumped beneath the canvas. She appears impoverished and pathetic as she could be an allegory for the poor working class that dominated this time period in France. To the right is a woman dressed in a heavily embroidered flowing gown. She is clearly wealthy. She stands proudly next to her husband. The contrast in the posture of the two examples of class is quite a statement about the nature of the revolution. The poor struggled and were overlooked, while the rich stood through the times and were acknowledged. Courbet could be saying that there is no discernible difference in people regardless of class, because both rich and poor join Courbet in his studio, and everyone can appreciate art and understand its meaning. Interestingly enough, the young child watching Courbet is indifferent. He seems neither rich nor poor and thus he represents a kind of innocent awareness to me. An exponent of realism in its most traditional portrayal, whether or not this entire moment took place in time seems irrelevant because it absolutely could have. Indeed, I buy that this environment might have been where Courbet often painted; he could have painted it from memory.
These realist human elements are not an allegory because they are very real. Courbet used his paintings to create strong statements about the times he witnessed and the happenings in his world at large – and at small. To name the painting a “real allegory,” is to strengthen the meaning within the paintings realism, perhaps to viewers who might have simply seen an artist, his canvas, and his friends and admirers. He adds meaning without any trickery, as the very nature of the classes is evidenced in the spirit, worn on the sleeve of the individual. Effortlessness and suffering are very real.