Simply opening the Grand Palais reference catalog (2007) on Gustave Courbet and seeing the degree to which its authors deplore not knowing the whereabouts of this portrait of Juliette suffices to make one fully aware of its status as a hidden treasure. This expression is no exaggeration. It is certainly a work from his early youth, made when he was still far, far away from the fame he would later achieve. Nevertheless, in addition to its intrinsic value it contains the seeds of a number of qualities and pieces of information that would eventually make Courbet into one of the greatest French painters of all time.
During the early 1840s, the painter born in 1819 in Franche-Comté found himself up against the everyday difficulties of any novice in Paris, making his way along in a bohemian lifestyle between visits to the Louvre, painting classes and social encounters in the midst of an urban society that he did not yet dominate, having come from the countryside. Although he was still in his formative years, an individual who had neither painted nor lived very much, he already felt like and knew himself to be an artist.
However, in order to become one, Courbet had no choice but to practice with models, and very soon, studying the human figure—more than landscapes that would foment his career later—constituted his priority. One of his male academic studies is known, as are his copies of the classics and above all, portraits of his relatives. Except for the vertiginous repetition of his own effigy (one of his obsessions!) it is evident that his sisters were his favorite models: Juliette, born in 1831, appears in close competition with Zélie, three years older. Zoé, on the other hand, is far less present in his productions. Lastly, we should point out that a fourth sister, Clarisse, died in 1834, before Gustave began to paint.
A first portrait of Juliette exists, dated 1839 (Von der Heydt Museum Stadt, Wuppertal), in which Courbet is interested in her profile and a certain apathy that is somewhat pensive. This dreamlike state was handled again in a very pure drawing from 1840 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), which combines the oval of the girl’s head inclined over an open book and the ellipse formed by her crossed arms.
The portrait of Juliette at ten years of age forms part of this continuity: Courbet looked for a somewhat unstable way of framing that would reveal surprise to some extent, as if by way of the painting he had suddenly caught his model’s attention while submerged in a meditative state (here, while reading). The representation may seem to be a bit clumsy because the angle adopted (a slightly inclined, very unconventional profile) makes a harmonic depiction of the face considerably more difficult to achieve. If there is clumsiness, however, it is undoubtedly due to his desire to capture a natural moment. In 1841 it would be anachronistic to speak of a photographic effect, given that the technique was in its infancy and cannot have influenced Courbet and his composition, but the effect of “capturing the moment” interests the artist without a doubt in this painting, where the sidelong glance and the faint hint of a smile breathe spontaneity. Might this be, as is visibly the case in the portrait of a 13-year old Juliette (Musée du Petit Palais, Paris), a kind of parody of conventional portraiture, characterized by a less than comfortable alignment of the spine against the chair back? This is a seductive, yet somewhat audacious hypothesis considering the painter’s as yet immature phase in his career at the time. All the same, the MNBA’s portrait unquestionably prepares for that of 1844, which reveals a disconcerting degree of influence from Ingres.
The painting exudes an undeniable freshness on a chromatic level, dominated by cold hues of blue. It would be a mistake to believe that this is an exception of youth, in light of the dulled, brownish earth tones that saturate the pictorial universe of Courbet during his highpoint. Youth and the female figure in general inspire him on more than one occasion, and well into his mature years a kind of clear, enthusiastic impulse can be seen, as in Femme au podoscaphe (Woman in a Podoscaphe, Murauchi Art Museum, Tokyo).
Finally, if Juliette served as his model, it was not only for economic reasons. Clearly it was practical and even quite lucky for a painter without vast resources to be able to take advantage of subjects that were at hand and free of cost. However, this portrait also transmits great tenderness from Gustave toward his sister, similar to that which he felt, by and large, for the whole family and his friends. It should be added that Juliette was extraordinarily present throughout her brother’s entire career, making efforts to support him through great personal sacrifice. In a sincere and moving letter addressed to Castagnary immediately after Gustave’s death, she wrote that her “existence [was] linked to his like a vine clings to a tree” (1). In fact, she worked very hard on his rehabilitation and gaining appreciation for his work. It was she who donated Un enterrement à Ornans (A Burial at Ornans) to the Louvre in 1881.
In spite of its modesty, it can be said that this portrait marks a crucial and at yet touching affinity, and that by way of a certain metonymy, its anecdotal nature conceals elements that will be of great importance in the development of Gustave Courbet’s realism.Thomas Schlesser
1— Michel Ragon, Gustave Courbet, peintre de la liberté. Paris, Fayard, 2004, p. 450.
1978. FERNIER, Robert, La vie et l’oeuvre de Gustave Courbet: catalogue raisonné. Lausanne/Paris, Wildenstein/Bibliothèque des Arts, 2 vols., nº 16.
2007. AA.VV., Gustave Courbet 1819-1877. Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, p. 130.