Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Gustave Courbet

I had talked about Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) a while back in this post about Facebook censorship. I didn’t discuss at the time how influential Courbet was, but his work can be traced through a number of other painters, including Monet, Cezanne, Whistler, and, reaching well into the 20th Century, Edward Hopper. A good deal of his notoriety is due to the eroticism of many of his paintings, but he also produced wonderfully moody landscapes and disturbing, psychologically-charged self-portraits.

A lot of his work was overtly political, quite unusual for painters of his day. He felt a responsibility as an artist to portray the life around him, and ethos that was handed down through the Impressionists to the American Realists of the early 20th Century. He was not necessarily well-liked for his efforts but he was greatly admired by other progressive painters in mid-19th Century Paris.


Stream in the Jura Mountains/The Torrent (Gustave Courbet, 1872-73)

I started digging into Courbet’s work only because of the censorship thing I wrote about last year. I’m intrigued by what I found. He was a painter of considerable wit, insight, and talent. He drank himself to death at age 58, meeting the kind of tragic end that stalks so many talented people. I, for one, am grateful for the visual legacy he left behind.

The Wounded Man: A Self-Portrait (Gustave Courbet, 1855)



From the Huffington Post this week we have this entry from one G. Roger Denson, described as an essayist and cultural critic, chastising Facebook for removing a sexually graphic image and suspending the guy who posted it. What makes this little tempest noteworthy is that the image in question is no ordinary camera-phone beaver shot but a 1866-vintage painting by Gustave Courbet, a 19th Century French Realist painter of extraordinary talent.  The poster isn’t a precocious 15-year-old prankster but an artist of some reputation by the name of Matthew Weinstien.

Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man) - Gustave Courbet 1843-45

This is controversial because Courbet’s painting, L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World), is pretty much indistinguishable from a lot of what is historically considered pornography, from the grainy black-and-white Swedish magazines we used to occasionally find in the ditch when we were kids to the millions of internet porn sites available today.

L'Origine du monde (Origin of the World) - Gustave Courbet 1866

Denson is a smart guy. His more recent post on Huffpo on the art of The Left (which I’m going to discuss in a blog post later this week) is brilliant and insightful. On this issue, however, Denson is out to lunch and I think this discussion shows why art has become so disconnected from the lives of ordinary people.

Denson apparently gives a lot of weight to the fact that it’s a Courbet painting at issue and that it was posted by someone he considers a legitimate artist. I’m willing to accept that Weinstein IS a legitimate artist but I’m not sure that’s the point. While Denson denounces Facebook administrators as prudish Philistines, I think they were absolutely right in taking the image down, although I think suspending Weinstien’s account was a bit of overkill.

There is something condescending and sanctimonious in Denson’s position. I would like to see him explain, in practical terms, the difference between Courbet’s painting and the stack of Polaroids in your daddy’s bottom drawer, what makes L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World), in his words, “an art-historical icon” and the latter pornographic trash. He may actually have a good explanation but he certainly doesn’t offer it. We’re expected to accept the Art World’s pronouncement of legitimacy.

In the plain language of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, the line Denson is drawing doesn’t exist:

“You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence (emphasis added).

Does the Courbet painting contain nudity? Yes. End of discussion? No. Facebook ultimately caved and issued a inane apology with some ridiculous reference the “real-world nudity,” whatever that is. I wonder if they’ll amend their terms of service to make that distinction. Either way, good luck enforcing that policy now.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I don’t have a problem with graphic sexual imagery. That’s not what this is about. This is about one group of people, in this case, the self-appointed art elite, setting itself apart from the rules that the rest of us are supposed to live by. In a broader sense, it’s the artist’s responsibility to venture into new and uncharted territory, but we’re not talking about a broader sense, we’re talking about a private website with clear and specific rules that’s now expected to bend those rules for someone who’s smarter than everyone else. It’s about treating my 16-year-old niece to Courbet’s iconic art-historical beaver shot because G. Roger Denson says it’s OK.

I’m wondering now what Facebook will do if I decided to post Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic art-historical self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his ass, or maybe one of his more graphic but equally iconic images along those lines. They’ve been pronounced genuine by the Art World, so who am , or they, to argue?