As the story goes, an eager young student once showed Gustave Courbet the figure of an angel he had painted. Courbet, taking a look, bellowed:
Why do you make an angel? Have you ever seen one? No, I thought not! Put that aside and paint a portrait of your father whom you see every day.
This command to paint the everyday was at the heart of Courbet’s beliefs about the role of art, and this portrait of a peasant girl is a fine example of his approach. Like many of his other subjects, she was surely plucked from his world—either the rural country near his hometown of Ornans, France, or his social milieu.
The girl’s checked dress and kerchief indicate she’s working-class. Although Courbet has captured her in a moment of relaxation, her cheeks are peach-bright and glow as if she’s just been hard at work in the fields or forest. Look closely at this painting’s surface and you’ll see Courbet’s smooth, blended handling of the paint. But the brushstrokes are still visible, particularly in her neck, face and hands. Courbet wanted to draw our attention here, to the painted canvas; he wanted us to look at his paintings—not through them.
But if your attention wasn’t on the brushwork, it was surely taken up with the woman herself. Compared to the wooded landscape in the distance, she’s almost over-sized—monumental, really. Placed right against the picture plane, she feels very close to us. At the same time, it’s hard to grasp what she’s doing—is she leaning or sitting? In a way, she’s hovering. Not unlike an angel, after all.
Courbet was the father of the Realist movement in painting. Eschewing the angels and make-believe of academic history painting in favor of “objects that the artist can see and touch,” Courbet devoted much of his early career to the peasants of his native Franche-Comté, a region rocked in the mid-nineteenth-century by the mechanization and modernization of farming. Here a young girl, flushed with sun (or perhaps desire), appears in uncomfortable close-up, gazing into the distance, where a man retreats into the shadows. The picture’s peasant subject and the willfully awkward relationship between figure and landscape would have discomfited many contemporary Parisian viewers, who regarded such choices as not only aesthetically radical but politically radical as well. “Realism,” as Courbet insisted, “is essentially democratic.”
- Artist Name: Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
- Title: Peasant Girl with a Scarf
- Date: c. 1849
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Dimensions: 23-5/8 x 28-3/4 in. (60 x 73 cm)
- Credit Line: Norton Simon Art Foundation
- Accession Number: M.1989.2.P
- Copyright: © Norton Simon Art Foundation
D’Ol*** (sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 9 December 1876, lot 20, as Tête de femme);
[Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris];
A. H. Stirlin, Zurich, by 1935, by inheritance to;
H. R. Stirlin, Zurich and St.-Prex, Switzerland, still in 1955, sold to;
[Drs. Fritz and Peter Nathan, Zurich];
[Acquavella Galleries, New York, sold 1966 to];
John T. Dorrance, Jr., Gladwyne, Pennsylvania (sale, New York, Sotheby’s, 18 October 1989, lot 2, color ill., as Paysanne au madras), to;
[Acquavella Galleries, New York, sold 7 December 1989, as Peasant Girl with a Scarf, to];
Norton Simon Art Foundation.
Exposition Gustave Courbet
- La Tour de Peliz, Musee Jenisch, 1950-07-08 to 1950-10-03
Gazette des Beaux-Arts, no. 32
Fernier, Robert, La vie et l'oeuvre de Gustave Courbet: Catalogue raisonné, no. 210 p. 40, 131
Brettell, Richard R. and Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth-Century Art in the Norton Simon Museum, volume 1,
Campbell, Sara, Collector Without Walls: Norton Simon and His Hunt for the Best, cat. 1732 p. 440
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