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Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist

Gustave Courbet, 1854-55
Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Following his visit to Courbet’s one man exhibition in 1855, Eugène Delacroix commented on The Painters Studio in his 3 August 1885 diary entry:

“I went to the Courbet exhibition. He had reduced the price of admission to ten sous. I stayed there alone for nearly an hour and discovered a masterpiece in the picture which [the Exposition universelle jury] rejected; I could scarely bear to tear myself away. He has made enormous strides…In …[The Painter’s Studio] the planes are well understood, there is atmosphere, and in some passages the execution is really remarkable, especially the thighs and hops of the nude model and the breasts – also the woman in the foreground with the shawl. The only fault is that the picture, as he has painted it, seems to contain an ambiguity. It looks as though there were a real sky in the middle of a painting. They have rejected one of the most remarkable works of our time, but Courbet is not the man to be discouraged by a little thing like that.”

Cited in Lorenz Eitner, Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750-1850, vol. 2: Neoclassicism and Romanticism (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1970), 120. 


Paul Crapo finds evidence for Courbet’s Painter’s Studio as a negative portrait critical of Napoleon III:

“Moreover, many of the peripheral figures are present to refresh the emperor’s memory regarding his past promises. Lazare Carnot,* the ‘vrai Republicain’ [true Republican] of [17]93, hopes that Louis-Napoleon will act on his campaign pledge of 1848 to devote himself to the ‘République démocratique.’ Garibaldi, Kossuth, and Kosciuszko wonder if the emperor will realize one of the basic principles of another of his famous tracts, Les idées napoléoniennes (1839): freedom for the oppressed nationalities of Europe. And, finally, the impoverished woman leaning on the painter’s easel…graphically reminds Louis-Napoleon that he has yet to remedy the plight of the working classes.

For a number of reasons, it seems to me that Courbet’s enthusiasm for the emperor has diminished considerably…and that he paints a critical portrait of the regime as it stood in 1855. Notice, for example the two sinister figures who add a disturbing note to the emperor’s entourage. In the guise of the ‘croque-mort’ [mute], we discover the opportunistic Emile de Giradin who, attentively listening to Persigny, symbolizes a venal press ready to spread Bonapartist doctrine. And, barely visible behind Fould, the ‘priest’ whose features are those of the catholic polemicist, Louis Veuillot.  Veuillot represents the conservative wing of the Church – the clerical party – whose influence over the emperor seemed to have increased markedly since the coup [in 1851]. 

Moreover, the allegorical guises – poacher, Jew, traveling salesman – which Courbet gives to the chosen notables of the imperial regime cast suspicion on their integrity and suggests they will govern as a band of adventurers, rather than statesmen. And finally, the choice of Fould and Persigny, over other Bonapartist figures, as the ministers most representative of the regime, leads us to believe that Courbet intended to paint a negative group portrait. Conspicuous by their absence are de Morny, Courbet’s benefactor, who projected the image of a cultivated patron of the arts, and Prince Jerome Bonaparte, the emperor’s cousin, commonly considered the most progressive member of the imperial family, who was serving as President of the Universal Exposition. Surely their omission is deliberate and indicative of the painter’s critical intentions.”

*Lazare Carnot (1753-1823) created the French Revolutionary army, more than doubling the
 number of troops between 1793 and 1794, when there were 1.5 million soldiers.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1808-82) was a progressive military and political leader, a secularist who advocated universal suffrage (for women too) and the confiscation of church property. 

Lajos Kossuth (1802-94) was a political leader who fought for Hungarian independence and became the first governor-president of Hungary (1849).

Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817) was a Polish-Lithuanian military leader who led an unsuccesscul uprising to prevent the partition of Poland in 1794. He also fought on the American side in the American Revolutionary War.

Jean Gilbert Fialin, Duc de Persigny (1808-72) was a pro-Bonaparte French politician who helped Napoleon III come to power.

Emile de Girardin (1802-81) was a French writer and politician, a supporter of Napoleon III.

Paul B. Crapo, “The Problematics of Artistic Patronage under the Second Empire: Gustave Courbet’s Involved Relations with the Regime of Napoleon III ,” Zeithschrift für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 58, no. 2 (1995): 250. 


Linda Nochlin assigns great importance to the figure of the Irish beggar woman in Courbet’s Painter’s Studio :

 “For me…the Irish beggar-woman constitutes not just a dark note of negativity within the bright utopian promise of the allegory of The Painter’s Studio as a whole, but rather, negates such promise as a totality. The poor woman – a dark, indrawn, passive, source of melancholy within the painting as well as a reference to it outside its boundaries – constitutes both a memorial to melancholy past and the repressed that returns, turning against both the triumphant harmony of Courbet’s allegory, interrupting the flow of its intentional meaning. In short, to me, reading as a woman, the beggar-woman sticks out like a sore thumb. In her, the would-be allegorical connection between thing and meaning is really fumbled. Because of the material specificity of Courbet’s language, we are made aware, in the most substantial and moving way possible, of allergory’s other potential: to emphasize the signifier at the expense of the signified. Embodying in a single figure the convergence of gender and class oppressions, the Irishwoman for me becomes the central figure, the annihilation-cancellation of Courbet’s project, not merely a warning about its difficulty. Figuring all that is unassimilable and inexplicable – female, poor, mother, passive, unproductive but reproductive – she denies and negates all the male-dominated productive energy of the central portion, and thus functions as the interrupter and overturner of the whole sententious message of progress, peace and reconciliation of the allegory as a whole. In my rereading of Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio, the Irishwoman as a figure refuses to stay in her place and act as a mere vehicle of another more general meaning, be it Poor Ireland or the Problem of Pauperism, an incidental warning signal on the high road to historic reconciliation. In her dumb passivity, her stubborn immobility, she swells to the dimensions of an insurmountable, dark, stumbling block on that highway to constructive progress.”

Linda Nochlin, “Courbet’s Real Allegory: Rereading the Painter’s Studio,” Representing Women (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 125.


Linda Nochlin offers a gendered reading of Courbet's Studio of the Painter:
"Courbet, then, allegorized as the artist in the heart of The Painter's Studio, is definitely gendered, and this gendering is underlined by the position of his opposite – his would-be object included in the image: the female model. Here gender is overtly and blatantly positioned as opposition – and domination. One might say that Courbet goes so far as to cross out woman in the Lacanian sense by substituting 'nature' for her as the signifier of his creation on the canvas-within-the-canvas…This easy replacement of the woman's body by landscape – an incarnation of the nature/woman dyad par excellence – bears a precise relation to the almost infinite mutability of the feminine itself under patriarchy. 'Femininity,' says Klaus Theweliet in his provocative study of gender relations,Male Fantasies, 'has retained a special malleability under patriarchy, for women have never been able to be identified directly with dominant historical processes…because they have never been the direct agents of those processes; in some way or other, they have always remained objects and raw material,pieces of nature [my emphasis] awaiting socialization. This has enabled men to see and use them collectively as part of the earth's inorganic body – the terrain of men's own productions.' This seems to be exactly the point at issue in Courbet's real allegory: women and nature are interchangeable as objects of (male) artistic desire – and manipulation."
Linda Nochlin, Courbet (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 171.

Web Resources:

smarthistory: Courbet, Painter's Studio

About the Artist

Born: Ornans, 10 June 1819
Died: La Tour-de-Peliz, Switzerland, 31 December 1877
Nationality: French