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Gustave Courbet: A Fluke Medal and Retribution

Gustave Courbet, being essentially self-trained was not a favorite of the Salon. However, in 1884 a movement was afoot to reform the juries of the Salon and there was no jury in that year. The following year this excessive democracy was corrected; but in one of the efforts to liberalize the Salon that occurred sporadically during the century, the new government ruled that the jury be composed of painters chosen by election rather than being appointed from the academic clique. This liberal jury awarded Courbet a medal for a picture called After Dinner at Ornans, a picture of ordinary people setting around a table in a simple interior. Courbet also had another self-portrait in this Salon, a romantically conceived painting in heavy chiaroscuro, called The Man with the Leather Belt. Courbet was a handsome fellow, and until he became grossly fat he never tired of painting himself, always in the most admiring way. The self-adulation would be more bothersome if it were less naive.

His early success did not last long in official circles. The Salon juries subsequent to the unusually liberal one of 1849 bitterly resented the fluke that had given a medal to this offensive intruder, and from that time on Courbet was mercilessly attacked by the Salon and reviled by conventional critics. One wonders what they might have said about Daumier (who was ten times the realist Courbet was), if he had offered the irritations to the aestheticians and the competition to the established painters that Courbet did. For Courbet became a real threat. While Daumier was painting in obscurity, Courbet was seeking recognition through a declaration of war just as the romantics had done before him, choosing the usual battlefield, the Salon, for his conquest. He was a threat to the intellectual lethargy of the average critic, who had no intention of examining new ideas when the old ones were so easy to repeat year after year, and he was a potential competitor to the conventional painters who had staked out a market in the gigantic salesroom that the Salon had become.

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