Journal of Romance Studies

Theatricality, irony and artifice in Gustave Courbet’s self-portraits

Journal of Romance Studies (2013), 13, (2), 41–61.

Abstract

This article offers a new interpretation of Gustave Courbet’s self-portraits. It argues that the disguises, role plays and mise-en-scène of paintings including Le Coup de dames [Checkers Players], Le Sculpteur [The Sculptor] and La Curée [The Quarry] and the references to acting in a number of letters expose a self-reflexive theatricality. Resituating Courbet’s art within Baudelaire’s aesthetics of modernity, this study emphasizes the importance of the poet’s idea of the artist as actor and shows how these disguised self-portraits use theatre in an ironic, questioning way. It shows how these unusual self-portraits not only reveal Courbet’s understanding of his public persona as a mask, but also express his conception of the artistic process as a mise-en-scène involving painter, painting and spectator; one which ultimately reveals the artifice inscribed in his art. This interpretation draws attention to this lesser-known group of paintings to show how art for Courbet is at its essence a construct, where disguise is a device to create an ironic discourse on realist representation. This is significant since Courbet’s self-conscious theorization of his art through theatre and artifice reveals a new dimension to his importance in the history of modern art: not only as the leading proponent of realism, but as a critical commentator on realist aesthetics.

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Author details

Moran, Claire