Imaging and Imagining the French Peasant: Gustave Courbet and Rural Physiologies

Auteur / Author: 
Lauren S. WEINGARDEN (Florida State University, États-Unis)
Mardi 23 Août 2011 - 10:15


The discursive influence of the nineteenth-century genre of physiologies, such as Les Français peints par eux-mêmes has escaped the attention of art historians. The Realist painter Gustave Courbet however made extensive references to both the techniques of representation and the represented types presented in these texts. This paper will show that Courbet engaged in a socio-cultural discourse on physiologies which, in turn, aligns him with earlier proto-Realist writers, such as Balzac and Sand. In these writings, characters are often described with physical attributes and manners of dress and within topographic locales through which authors and readers identified the characters’ social status. This method of description and interpretation replicates the verbal-visual hermeneutics of the physiologies and their imaginary functions. That is, the physiologies fixed contemporary social types in the collective visual and textual imagination during the 1830s and 1840s.

Courbet defined his Realist agenda by a commitment to portray individual types associated with the Franche-Comte town of Ornans, his place of birth and artistic return. This agenda likewise signified the artist’s rejection of and freedom from the French academy, its conventional practices and its prescribed “Old Masters”. While scholars have identified Courbet’s alternative models in popular imagery, especially the “images d’Epinal,” they have not considered how Courbet referenced the physiologies as a subversive strategy and as a shorthand for identifying social, and especially, provincial types. As I will show, both his own and his critics’ writings support visual evidence of Courbet’s use of physiologies in his paintings. The latter is especially signified by the individuation of figures within their landscape, interior or social surroundings as well as by the (formal and material) specificity of their clothing, stature and physiognomies. Finally, I argue that although Courbet intended his Realist methods and iconography to signify his own modernity and the changing mores of provincial life, his typological figurations fossilized the characters’ social status as rural types in the eyes of his urban viewers. Like his literary counterparts, Courbet thereby exacerbated the socio-cultural divide between Paris and its imaginary rural other.