Mary Tomkins-Lewis

Conférence donnée lors du colloque « Cezanne en tous ses ateliers »

Courbet, Cezanne and the Studio as Stage: Modernity and the Painted Performance1

Courbet,L'Atelier du peintre , détail

fig. 1 : Courbet,L’Atelier du peintre , détail

Nature morte avec l'amour en plâtre, 1895, 70x57cm, NR786, Londres Courauld Institutes Galleries

fig. 2 : Nature morte avec l’amour en plâtre, 1895, 70x57cm, FWN692-R786, Londres Courauld Institutes Galleries

A picture of an artist’s studio is an invitation to enter his private realm, to ponder his perception of the creative process, and to marvel at the extent to which art, at its most profound, can transcend the limits of its historical moment and constructed space. But it can also be a parochial subject — a record of a painter or sculptor laboring over a work in progress, or an image of a specially outfitted place that would appeal to other artists or those particularly interested in professional practices. Both inspired and mundane, the studio was a space in which artists could create not only art but allegories of its meanings. For Gustave Courbet and Paul Cezanne (figs. 1 and 2), it could be also a theater — as it were — in which the painter could position himself and his art at center stage, or conversely, orchestrate a series of dramatic visual and thematic ploys that confounded the reality of the atelier and the aesthetic refuge it offered. In this essay, I will explore Courbet’s and Cezanne’s shared fascination with the studio theme of the écorché, a subject they staged with extraordinary invention in their art, and then consider a handful of overtly theatrical images from their respective oeuvres that seem to push the equation of the studio as stage even further. Ultimately, I will argue that Courbet and Cezanne shared a kindred conception of the artist’s studio as a mutable, dramatic sphere in which reality could be as fugitive, summary and illusory as the subjects they constructed within it, in other words, the space and subject of the studio as inherited by 20th century painters.

Courbet, Les Joueurs de Dames

fig. 3 : Courbet, The Draugts Players, (Les Joueurs de Dames), 1844 col. priv , Caracas

Courbet’s flamboyant brand of realism was as different from that of his fellow painters in Paris, especially the urbane Edouard Manet, as was the artist himself, and it was crucial to the explosive new painting and artistic persona Cezanne would create in his early years in the capital city.2 Over the course of his career the Ornans painter fared far better at the Paris Salons than would Cezanne, but his early record there was bleak: all but a handful of the eighteen works he submitted to the jury before 1848 were refused for exhibition, including many views of life in his native village.3 His small painting The Draughts Players (fig. 3), one of four works to be rejected by the jury in 1845, suggests already, in its conflation of genre, the trope of the artist’s atelier and stylized self-portraiture, the staged, theatrical quality of many of Courbet’s studio paintings. Dated to 1844-45, the canvas is also the first work we know of in which the painter pictured a cast of the écorché then attributed to Michelangelo, a motif in which internal sensation is given primacy over visual perception, and thus the painter’s impassioned, materialist technique rewarded.4


fig.4  : A. Vesalius, seventh plates of muscles from the second volume of de humani coerporis fabrica, 1743, Washington  National library of Medecine.


fig.5  : Picasso, The Dryad, 1908, Saint-Petersbourg Ermitage

The term écorché literally means “flayed” and connotes the depiction of the corporeal systems of the body, and especially the musculature, without a protective envelope of skin. Although the word was coined in the parlance of the nineteenth-century academy, illustrations and casts of dissected and flayed cadavers had figured in scientific and artistic instruction manuals and texts since the Renaissance. A history of such images establishes that two defining patterns — the generalized muscular studies of the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius (fig. 4), and the more precise and accurate renderings produced two centuries later by Bernard Albinus — existed in the two related but distinct fields in which they were utilized: in the realm of the écorché and its influence on artistic practice, and in anatomical treatises themselves.5 However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, although casts of flayed figures were still mass produced for use in private studios and art academies, the split between artists’ and anatomists’ concerns widened. Vanguard artists increasingly bypassed traditional anatomical texts and models to study the external form of the body more subjectively, whether from sculptures modeled in the round, from photographs or from life.6 Accordingly, écorchés figured less often in depictions of artists‘ studios. As emblems of an earlier definition of corporeal naturalism and a method of scrutinizing the body and as visceral pictorial forms on their own, they attracted now not so much scientific interest as formal and poetic interpretation. As John Richardson has suggested, Picasso was only one of countless modern painters to explore the genre of the écorché from this more evocative aspect in his art (fig. 5).7 Given their visceral pictorial forms, powerfully emotive contexts and often explosive challenges to academic tradition and practice, it is easy to fathom the potent appeal of écorché figures in the modernist canon of the body.8


fig. 6 : fron Michelangelo ( modello) : Plaster Cast of the Ecorche

The tiny flayed figure attributed to Michelangelo is a wax modello in the collection of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin, and was commonly reproduced in plaster casts (fig. 6).9 One such cast was found in pieces in Cezanne’s studio at Les Lauves . Although today the original is most often given to Pierre Puget, who may well have known an earlier version of the subject by one of Michelangelo’s students or early imitators, the extravagantly contorted, kneeling figure’s longstanding attribution to the Renaissance master is hardly by chance. Within the almost perfect ellipse configured by its unusual and unnatural stance, the sculpted figure holds in tension the subject’s strained muscles, violent torsion and tragic pose, in essence, its brutalized form and highly dramatic subject. The crouching flayed figure was not as well known as Michelangelo’s monumental two slaves in the Louvre, which Cezanne and countless other French artists of his era copied, and or the Sistine ignudi it closely resembles, but was likened to both in the nineteenth century and engendered a similar critical response.10 Despite its diminutive scale, the écorché too was seen as a potent manifestation of Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic beliefs, in which tormented, twisting figures could offer a tangible metaphor for the struggle of the human soul to escape the physicality of the body. And it could serve, in effect, as a symbol of the artist’s struggle to realize his vision in his art. In the widely divergent works by Courbet and Cezanne in which it appears, we find an index to the subject’s persistent appeal in their era. For Courbet, it was a emblem of an earlier, anatomic truth, an academic discipline and definition of reality he wholeheartedly rejected. But for Cezanne, as attested by his countless drawings of the model, the écorché offered a powerful embodiment of Michelangelo’s sublime terribilità, and its evocative formal appeal was irresistible.11

fig. 7 : Marc Mourgery

fig. 7 : Jean- Baptiste Marc Bourgery, frontispice, Complet de l’anatomie de l’homme comprenant la médecine  opératoire , Paris 1831-1854.

Courbet most likely knew this version of an écorché from anatomical studies: it had figured, notably, in the frontispiece of Jean-Baptiste Bourgery’s recent, immense and exquisitely illustrated anatomical treatise (fig. 7), where it assumed a subordinate position that suggested its increasingly diminished role in academic practice.12 Likewise it is pushed to the background of The Draught Players, Courbet’s earliest painting of his studio. Other stock genre elements of the artist’s workplace clutter Courbet’s composition: painters’ brushes, jars of pigment, stretched canvases turned from our view, and at right, a rack of pipes grace the back wall of a space that has been identified, given its prominent wooden arches, as the studio the painter occupied in a converted chapel in the rue de la Harpe in Paris beginning in 1843.13 Below the shelf hang an artist’s palette, a landscape in a gilded frame, and other paintings. In front two youthful figures appear, the one at left in contemporary dress and the other, usually identified as a self-portrait, in fanciful medieval costume.14 They share a drink, a smoke, a game, and a jovial air that suggest Courbet’s awareness of Dutch and Flemish gaming and guardroom scenes.


Cézanne, Les Joueurs de cartes, 1893-96, 60x73cm, NR713 London, Courtauld Institutes

fig. 8 : Cezanne, Les Joueurs de cartes, 1893-96, 60x73cm, FWN686-R713
London, Courtauld Institutes Galleries

Although it is unlikely Cezanne ever saw it, the canvas anticipates in some ways his later paintings of cardplayers from the 1890s (e.g. fig 8). And it is interesting to learn that when The Draughts Players was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, it was erroneously entitled Courbet Playing Cards with a Friend.15 Yet Courbet’s pointed inclusion at center of a small cast of the écorché, the only reference in the work to sculpture or to academic practice, disrupts the painting’s casual camaraderie and meticulous style to highlight the painter’s dialogue with the past. With labored strokes of a heavily loaded brush, Courbet transforms the cast of the flayed figure into a robustly painted nude enframed not by excoriated limbs but by encrusted touches of paint, its vitality restored and its reality defined by its vehement pictorial presence on the canvas.


Courbet, Portrati de lartiste dit l'homme à la ceinture de cuir, 1845-46, 100x82cm, Paris musée d'Orsay

fig. 9 : Courbet, Man with a Leather Belt, (Portrait de l’artiste dit l’homme à la ceinture de cuir), 1845-46, 100x82cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay

In Courbet’s grave and much quieter canvas from the following year entitled The Man with the Leather Belt (fig. 9), one of a number of the painter’s early self-portraits, the écorché again appears in a studio context but lacks the same sculptural force. Placed atop a folio of sketches or prints and the artist’s chalk in its holder, the flayed figure is seen from the back in the shadowed recesses of a painting that alludes to Venetian, Spanish and Dutch prototypes but celebrates above all the powerful presence and physical proximity of the painter.16  Scholars have described the artist’s contrived, expressive pose here — the insistent, sidelong glance, the opposing gestures of his oversized hands, one tensed and one relaxed, the gentle torque of his figure to the right in a space that paradoxically pushes him forward — as an exploration of the formal tensions that marked the mannered Renaissance model behind him. In addition, the discovery, based on an X-ray of Courbet’s painting, that he painted his own likeness over an earlier copy of Titian’s Man with a Glove in the Louvre, suggests that Courbet was indeed modeling himself on or measuring himself against the light of the past.17 Yet, his Man with a Leather Belt also intimates, as do many of his early and openly narcissistic self-portraits, a certain smug satisfaction and self-absorption: even the écorché, a symbol of the artist’s struggle, is relegated to the shadows. It is not surprising that the Michelangelesque écorché has no place in Courbet’s canvas The Painter’s Studio of 1855 (fig. 1), the massive, aggrandizing but resolutely ambiguous painted manifesto in which the artist again aggressively takes center stage. Among the myriad iconographic sources that have been cited for this work is an allegorical image by Henri Valentin of a raucous studio that the Besançon sculptor Jean-Baptiste Clésinger allegedly shared with the painter Camille Roqueplan.18 It depicts an artist at his easel and a muse in attitudes much like those assumed by Courbet and the attendant nude in his later painting, and likewise is crowded with patrons, models, and perhaps fellow artists. The engraving, which was published in the Magasin Pittoresque in November 1849, may well have been known to the Ornans painter, and if so, could explain not only formal aspects of his own composition but also the absence of the écorché in what is arguably Courbet’s greatest studio production: Cast aside in the engraving’s shadowed foreground is the tiny flayed figure, a vestigial emblem of science, anatomical truth and also of the anguished creative process rendered inanimate and immaterial amid the detritus of the successful, modern artists’ atelier. What for Courbet was an antiquated emblem of a discipline that had little place in his practice or studio was for Cezanne a catalyzing object of a very different order.

fig.10 : Ecorché ( chappuis

fig.10 : Cezanne, Study from the Ecorché (1866-70, coll. privée, C0185b)

torse (Belvédère)

fig 11. : Belvedere Torso

To judge from the number of studies he executed after the Michelangelesque écorché – and we know of at least nineteen — we have reason to trust Joachim Gasquet’s exuberant assertions as to Cezanne’s devotion to the subject in his later years. “In this period,” the Provençal poet wrote, “his life was as was regular as a monk’s. He arose with the day, went most mornings to first mass, returned and spent an hour … copying some plaster cast, particularly Michelangelo’s anatomical figure from every aspect, walking around it to make sure of all its movements.”19 At the end of his career, in fact, when Cezanne looked back over a lifetime of study after the old masters and pronounced Michelangelo the great “constructor” of his age, the painter’s assessment was likely shaped by the dynamism and emphatic vitality that drew him repeatedly to the tiny écorché.20 In studies that stretch throughout his career, Cezanne continually explored the generative, irrepressible force — at once imprisoned within the figure and outwardly animating its torqued, tormented form — that would make it such an enduring motif in his studio.21 Cezanne’s first drawings of the Michelangelesque écorché, which date to the late 1860s, are contemporary with his earliest studies of the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli’s anatomies in the Louvre and suggest the model’s classicizing, formal impetus at this primal stage in the artist’s career.22 In several of these early drawings, Cezanne traces the figure’s contours as seen from behind and slightly below, an aspect that renders the head virtually invisible and the figure’s broad muscular back emphatic. Nineteenth century critics preferred this angle, in fact, because it suggested the cast to be a mannered take on the famed, classical Belvedere Torso(fig.11). In sketches such as Chappuis 185 (fig. 10), the drama is tightly contained, already purely pictorial and carried out almost in dialogue within the figure: the rippling left edge of the model’s torso, lightly traced with a repeated, undulating line, finds its antithesis in the blocky geometric contours of the figure at right, which echo and employ the pockets of striated shadow and spatial definition found at the sculpture’s base.

Ecorché ( chappuis 568)

fig. 12 : Cezanne, Drawing after  the Ecorché (C0568), c. 1879-1882, sketchbook, Art Institue of Chicago


fig. 13 : Cezanne, Drawing after the Ecorché (C0569), c. 1879-82, sketchbook, Art Institue of Chicago

Cezanne returned to the subject at the end of the following decade and, as reflected in three masterful pages of c.1879-82 from the sketchbook at the Art Institute of Chicago, varied his viewpoint and technique to enhance the play of formal conceits and spatial ambiguities it inspired. In Chappuis 568 (fig. 12), for example, Cezanne views the figure from the front and from slightly below, so that the successive contours of the torso and arms, which are freely drawn and modeled with patches of shadow, draw our eye upward and back, in a dramatic demonstration of bodily perspective, to the figure’s straining neck and agonized head, which is locked in his viselike hands. In a second sketchbook sheet, by contrast (fig. 13), rhythmic, knotted muscles on either side form an elegant frame for the nude. They are highlighted at left by a pool of contrasting shadow and, like the figure’s now beautifully realized face, mitigate any expression of torment or tension. Below, the nude model’s massive clenched limb opens to the blank space of the page. Finally, in a third drawing in Chicago (fig. 14), Cezanne radically transforms his motif into a magnificent study in formal contrasts. A structure of even, parallel pencil strokes on the front of the torso match those on the wall behind it and, in the words of a scholar describing a different drawing, “provide an armature that the painter Juan Gris would have appreciated” against the enveloping flatness of the white sheet.23 Any hint of dramatic conflict or formal tension is replaced by a studiously orchestrated equilibrium. Cezanne, Drawing after the Ecorché, 1879-82, sketchbook Art Institute of Chicago

ecorché Goldschmidt

fig. 15 : Cezanne, Drawing after the Ecorché, (C1089) 1893-95, coll Herr and Frau Goldschmidt, Zurich.

fig 14

fig 14 :  Cezanne, Drawing after the Ecorché (C0571), 1879-82, sketchbook, Art Institute of Chicago

ecorché haupt fig. 16 : Cezanne, watercolor after the  Ecorché (RW559), 1900-04, coll .  Haupt, New York.

When he turned again to the écorché subject in the cluster of drawings that dates to the mid-1890s and includes the large sheet that Edgar Degas purchased for his collection (fig. 15), Cezanne’s delicate flowing strokes delineate the form in its entirety and intensify the rhythmic surface and pulsing, organic unity of the whole. And in his last écorché image, a small pencil and watercolor study of c. 1900-04 (fig. 16), Cezanne viewed the sculpture from close-up and above, a vantage point that, as John Rewald has written, “produces dynamic foreshortening” and, again, a most “impressive sense of movement.”24 In many ways, as his own canvas ofThree Bathers would famously sustain Henri Matisse (as Matisse recounted in an oft-quoted letter), Cezanne’s studies after the flayed figure seem to have sustained him, and they reverberated in his paintings.25 The fruits of decades of his drawings after the Michelangelesque écorché are found above all in Cezanne’s masterful and mysterious Still Life with Plaster Cast of c. 1895 (fig. 2), where the subject’s anatomic significance is long forgotten and even its metaphoric meanings recede in the face of extraordinary pictorial invention that literally brings the studio painting to life. The vertical format of the Courtauld painting and its degree of studied artifice make it rare even among Cezanne’s late still lifes, where so many levels of reality are undermined. The billowing, blue drapery that emerges from the painting quoted behind it, the illogical, raking and stagelike floor, and the opposing plaster casts — one sculpted, monumental, sensual and looming close-up, the other (the écorché) fragmented, thinly painted and pushed to the background — and countless other spatial and visual ploys convert the painter’s studio into a pictorial theater, where an intricate parallelism reigns and equilibrium is achieved between opposing forms and spaces held in exceptional visual tension. In a passage that can be likened to contemporary critical discussions of the life-giving force Michelangelo brought to his sculptures, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described Cezanne’s painting in this light: “It seemed to [Cezanne] that his most crucial task was to be convincing, to give life to objects, by his own perception of them to imbue them with a reality so intense as to be indestructible.”26 Some sense of the extraordinarily vital, perceptual experience that is at the heart of what is arguably Cezanne’s most complex studio painting found its genesis in his studies after the tiny, redolent, and endlessly engaging plaster cast.

Mardi gras, 1888, 102x81cm, NR618, Moscow, Puchkin Museum

fig. 18 et 27 : Cezanne, Mardi gras, 1888, 102x81cm, FWN668-R618, Moscow, Puchkin Museum


fig. 17 : Courbet, Louis Gueymard as Robert le Diable, 1857, New York, Metropolitan museum.

Against the backdrop of the elaborate artifice that surrounded their staging of the écorché in their studios, a small handful of solemn, strangely enigmatic but overtly theatrical works, including Courbet’s Louis Gueymard as Robert le Diable of 1857 (fig. 17) and Cezanne’s canvas entitled Mardis Gras of 1888-90 (fig.18) repay further study. Though they seem to stand apart from the respective ouevres of the two artists, the paintings may in fact explore a familiar poetic reality. They are self-consciously staged, studio productions that challenge the very nature of portraiture and realist painting and engage the theatrical world in far more than their unsettling subject matter. In uncomfortably and overtly mannered forms, they not only conflate established genres but exploit the creative tension between traditional subjects and realist forms and a stage-like language of artifice, masquerade and improvisation, a creative autonomy inflected by the language of theater. Unlike the histrionic persona he fashioned for himself as a young painter in Paris, Courbet’s abhorence of the theatrical in his art was legendary. The 18th century philosopher Denis Diderot’s clarion call to modern artists to abandon in their painting even the slightest awareness of the viewer found few more enthusiastic adherents in Courbet’s day. As Michael Fried has described, Diderot had attempted to establish an absolute distinction in painting between the dramatic, which would engage the spectator — who remained unacknowledged, and the theatrical, which overtly admitted the viewer’s existence.27 And the philosopher warned that if a painter’s composition and figures were shaped not by natural signs of settings, intentions or emotions but feigned spaces, and expressions and actions knowingly addressed to a spectator, the work as a whole would fail, its theatrical artifice exposed and its capacity to engage the spectator destroyed. As they do in so many others regards, Courbet’s self-portraits may stand apart in any discussion of the artist’s resistance to theatricality. We have noted a certain stagelike quality in Courbet’s Man with a Leather Belt of 1845, and scholars have likewise suggested that in hisDesperate Man of c. 1844-5 (private collection), the artist not only addresses his own startled visage in a mirror but performs in striking physical proximity to a spectator on this side of the canvas. But the conspicuous anti-theatrical quality of most of Courbet’s signature paintings, such as his Stonebreakers of 1849 or The Grain Sifters of 1855, for example, is undeniable, and their ability to captivate us as viewers a product of the careful balance they achieve between an action performed unaware in front of us, and the sheer materiality of their surfaces.28All of which goes to explain why Courbet’s canvas of Louis Gueymard as Robert le Diableseems so inexplicable in the context of his art as a whole. When it was exhibited in 1857, in fact, the painting stunned his critics, disappointed his supporters, and landed the painter in very unfamiliar territory. Courbet seems to have labored over his portrait of Gueymard, which he began in 1856, and as recorded in a letter to his father, he was still at work on it the following year.29 It is one of his rare portraits of performers. The artist’s subject, the tenor Louis Gueymard, had made his Paris Opera debut in 1848 in the title role of Giocomo Meyerbeer’s opera of 1831 Robert le Diable in a celebrated performance that immediately established the singer’s reputation.30 The character of the medieval duke Robert continued to be Gueymard’s most popular role, and one that he would perform over five hundred times in his career. In Courbet’s painting, Gueymard reenacts a scene from the first act in which the duke proclaims that “Gold is but an illusion” and challenges his knights to a game of dice, in which he would lose his fortune.31 The loosely painted landscape background of Courbet’s canvas likely alludes to the corresponding scene from Meyerbeer’s opera, which was staged before a backdrop of the Sicilian port of Palermo.

fig. 19 : Valloiu de Villeneuve, Photogrph of M. Regnier as Sccapin, musée Nicéphore Nièpce, Châlons sur Scône

fig. 19 : Vallou de Villeneuve, Photograph of M. Regnier as Sccapin, Musée Nicéphore Nièpce, Châlons sur Saône



The portrayal of performers in a role for which they were recognized was a tradition in French art that stretched back to the 17th century, and was well represented in Paris in the Foyer des Artistes of the Comedie Francais.32 By the 1850s the theater’s collection contained an impressive “gallery” of paintings commissioned by well-known artists. They typically focused on a single, costumed performer set against a neutral or vaguely historic background. Likewise, numerous images of performing actors figured in late 18th and early 19th century engravings that extended the tradition into the realm of popular and fine art prints. And by the mid-19th century there also existed a related vogue in France for photographs of costumed actors recreating well-known roles, as popularized especially by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve. His photograph of M. Regnier in the role of Moliere’s rapscallion Scapin (fig. 19), for example, served as a model for the painting by Louis Eustache Lorsay (fig. 20) in the Comedie Francais collection.33 This rich tradition of single, costumed figures inhabiting a character instead an enacting a scene was ripe for modernist adaptation, and its resonance in the 19th century helps to explain both the peculiarity and deeply critical reception of Courbet’s painting. By including other, secondary costumed figures, an elaborate stage set and contrived gestures and expressions, Courbet contextualizes his representation of Gueymard as an actor playing a role, emphasizes the artifice of the image and blurs the boundaries between portraiture and a popular form of historic genre. As Petra Chu has argued, it is closer in fact to such minor theatrical genre pieces as Francois-Gabriel Lepaulle’s “Trio of Robert le Diable” of 1835 than to portraiture34. Critics were quick to grasp the awkward, retardataire character of Courbet’s painting, and pointed out that action and narrative content were uncomfortable terrain for the artist. Even Théophile Gautier, usually a staunch supporter, echoed Diderot’s directive when he complained that Courbet’s painting failed because it so thoroughly broke with any sense of theatrical illusion.35 And in his Jury au Salon of 1857 Nadar would capture such critiques in a brutal caricature of Gueymard as a marionette whose unconvincing jerky leg and arm movements were controlled by ropes.36

fig 21 : Pierrot (photo Nadar)

fig 22 : Pierrot (photo  Nadar

de paul Legrand), 1885.

In 1859, in the wake of the painting’s unsuccessful debut and disastrous public reception, Courbet literally turned his studio into a stage when he invited Gueymard and others to see a production presented there of a comedy by the popular French mime Fernand Desnoyers.37Courbet’s earlier drawing for a poster of a play by Desnoyers entitled Pierrot and the Black Arm (fig. 21), in which the mime assumed the role of Pierrot, disavows the artifice of the staged studio portrait, and was likely shaped by the theatrical tradition of single figures that the artist subsequently rejected in his portrait of Gueymard. Arguably, Nadar’s photographs of single actors absorbed into the character of the popular commedia dell arte figure seem to stand behind Courbet’s conception (fig. 22). And like Courbet’s singular drawing, Nadar’s enormously successful series of actor photographs, which debuted at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, also trumpeted the return of the commedia dell’arte to popular French culture.38 Long before its irreverent band of socially marginal figures had come to inhabit the canvases of such early modernist painters as Picasso, Derain, Rouault, Klee and the Italian futurist Gino Severini, the commedia dell’arte had proved visually resonant, and provided painters, photographers and the popular stage with improvised subjects and stylized charades that were only loosely bound to a narrative. Originating as vernacular street theater in Italy, the comedie in France had become a staple of popular culture by the sixteenth century and its unruly heroes a commonplace in French painting since the age of Watteau.

étude pour Mardi Gras (Basel)

fig 23 : Cezanne, étude pour Mardi Gras (son fils) (C0938) , 1888, Cabinet des dessins du Louvre )

fig. 24 : Harlequins basel

fig. 24 : Cezanne,  Harlequins (C0937) vers 1885-88,Basel (Cabinet des dessins Kunstmuseum)

BIn the 19th century, the figure of Pierrot — already immortalized by Watteau’s elegant, sad clown Gilles — was reborn in the Théatre des Funambules as a wan, wistful dreamer in the guise of the mime Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Deburau, also a favorite subject of Nadar (fig. 26). Even in the most contrived situations, Pierrot’s opposite was the devilish trickster, Harlequin. With his distinctive diamond-patterned costume, rakishly cocked hat and cocksure erect pose, he personified the insolent sexuality and arrogant mocking tone that delighted comedie audiences. In his large and strangely somber painting of the Mardi Gras, Cezanne seems to have absorbed the character’s attributes as shaped by the ephemera of the theater. Cezanne’s son Paul remembered posing for the Mardi Gras with his friend Louis Guillaume in the artist’s small studio on the Left Bank. Several unusually finished portrait drawings of the two boys preceded the final work, including sensitive studies that beautifully capture the maturing features of the artist’s sixteen-year-old offspring (fig. 23). A small number of exquisite watercolor sketches and fluidly painted oils of the right-hand figure are also related to this project, attesting to the unusual significance it must have held for the painter.

fig. 25 Degas, Harlequin Chicago

fig. 25 : Degas, Harlequin 1885, The Art Institute of Chicago

fig.26 : photo Nadar

fig.26 : photo Nadar, The mime Debureau, Pierrot listening, 1854-56, Paris Musée d’Orsay

fig 28 : Cézanne Harlequin

fig 28 : Cezanne, Harlequin (C0941), drawing, c.1885, The Art Institue of Chicago

Even the finished painting bears the crusted marks of numerous re-workings. But in its final form, portraiture recedes to make the painting above all a fanciful, theatrical construction in which Cezanne distills the essence of the stock commedia dell’arte characters of Pierrot and Harlequin. By the time he took up the subject of his large theatrical painting, Cezanne was clearly well versed in the anarchic antics of the commedie characters: in the late 1880s he had produced at least three narrative sketches with Harlequins, including the sheet now in Basel (fig. 24). In these scribbled and roughly worked drawings he vividly captured the character’s rapacious sexual appetite and the stagey, vaudevillian violence of the popular tradition as a whole — and the comedie’s typical conflation of the two must have struck a distant familiar chord. All three drawings represent the same capricious episode: as one Harlequin reaches lustfully towards a seated female figure, another Harlequin, with the tricorn hat that indicates a cuckold, bursts through the door. Cezanne may have been familiar with several contemporary operas, or a current ballet, based on Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s play of 1782, Les Jumeaux de Bergame, in which two brothers, both harlequins, battle it out for the same woman. Degas also seems to have known this particular storyline: scholars have linked several of his pastels of Harlequins from this period to specific scenes in an opera based on Florian’s play that opened in Paris in January 1886.39Although Cezanne’s solemn painting neither invites a close narrative reading nor captures a specific scene, it is a blatantly theatrical production. With spectacular curtains, a tilted, stage-like space, elaborate costumes, props (such as Harlequin’s customary white baton and black, handheld mask), mannered postures and even Harlequin’s trademark sneer, Cezanne has inscribed his Mardi Gras with much of the subject’s traditional subversive import. Even the element of provocation that was common to comedie subjects is captured here in the opposing gestures of the two figures that is often described as “automatic.” The ramrod-straight stance of the figure of Harlequin, who stays in character even in his pose, is rehearsed in numerous studies (e.g fig. 28), while his shy, tentative Pierrot, who stoops awkwardly forward, captures the most expressive characterizations of Harlequin’s companion, as also seen in Nadar’s photographs (fig. 26). The effect indeed is ritualist and strange, and a clear departure from the preparatory portrait drawings. In several senses, then, the artist seems to have stepped back from his immediate visual motif and initial impetus for portraiture to create in his studio a monumental costume piece that explores, as did the commedia dell’arte itself, the compelling creative tension between traditional forms of narrative and the theatrical artifice of the stage. And when it hung in Vollard’s gallery in Paris in the 1890s, Cezanne’s Mardi Gras threw down a gauntlet for avant garde artists, and especially Picasso, who saw it there and recognized not only how thoroughly it codified the commedia dell arte subject but the poetic or theatrical realm it celebrated in the artist’s studio. Just as the subject and formal invention of the ecorche had sustained Cezanne, the crafty, changeable trickster Harlequin seemed to sustain Picasso. The figure, with whom he came to identify, constantly reappeared in Picasso’s painting, as Yves_Alain Bois has argued, at moments when the artist questioned his path or contemplated stylistic change.40

fig 29 Picasso, Seated Harlequin, 1901, New York, Metropolitan

fig 29 : Picasso, Seated Harlequin, 1901, New York, Metropolitan

fig.30 : Harlequin, 1915, New Yorl, MOMA

fig.30 : Picasso,  Harlequin, 1915, New Yorl, MOMA

If his  melancholic Harlequin of 1901 (fig. 29) strangely conflates the sad Pierrot with his antagonist in a brilliant cabaret painting that announces the artist’s Blue period, Picasso’s Harlequin of 1915 (fig. 30), which he considered his best painting to date, relocates the subject in the artist’s studio.41 In a brash expression of his synthetic cubist style of the teens, his harlequin now carries an unfinished canvas, stands before an easel and shares a toothsome grin with a flattened Pierrot behind him.




fig 31 : Picasso, Parade, Parsi Centre Pompîdou

fig 31 : Parade,1917, Paris Centre Pompîdou

fig. 31 : Picasso, Artiste et modèle

fig. 31 : Picasso, The Artiste et his model, 1914

And in his design of 1917 for the curtain of Erik Satie’s ballet Parade (fig. 31), Picasso returns the subject to the theater, adding the figure of Harlequin in fact to the cast of the performance in which the comedie character had no part.42 Yet at the same time he took stock of all that Cezanne’s painting and its characters held, Picasso also looked to Courbet and, as Michael Fitzgerald has shown, invoked the earlier artist’s studio as a passage from the present to the past.43 Picasso’s unfinished painting of The Artist and his Model of 1914 (fig. 32) exhibits the classicizing style that would inflect much of his work in the following decade, but in its scenario of a semi-nude model and a painter in front of an easel that holds a landscape, it also harks back to Courbet’s painting of his studio. Long forgotten by the end of the 19th century, Courbet’s mysterious manifesto too had a new, and overtly theatrical afterlife in the first decades of the following century. Except for two provincial exhibitions, it remained rolled up in a corner of the artist’s studio for decades. In 1897, however, it was purchased and installed as a backdrop for an amateur theater company at the Hotel Desfosses on the Rue Galilée in Paris, where it would remain as stage scenery until 1919.44 What better place for Picasso, and us, to parse the oxymoronic “real allegory” of Courbet’s painting, or for that matter, the artifice and poetic reality Cezanne engaged in his studio than in the realm of theater?


1 As noted below, I am especially indebted to the following studies that touch on the subject of the artist’s studio, or on the écorché: Michael Fitzgerald, Picasso: The Artist’s Studio (exh. cat. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford in assoc. with Yale Univ. Press, New Haven and London, 2001), and Kathryn A. Tuma, “Le Peau de Chagrin”, Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier (exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003), 127-163 (although my discussion follows a different path). A shorter version of the first segment of this essay, on “Courbet, Cezanne and the Ecorche”, was published in Denis Coutagne, Courbet, Cezanne et le Verite en Peinture (exh. cat. Musee Gustave Courbet, 2013). 2 André Dombrowski, Cezanne, Murder, and Modern Life (Berkeley, 2013); see in particular pp.13-16,83. 3 The only early paintings by Courbet accepted by Salon juries are his “Self Portrait with Black Dog” of 1842 (RF 27), his “Self-Portrait with a Pipe” of 1844 ( RF 39, exh. Salon of 1850-51), his “Le Guittarrero” of 1844 (RF 52), and “Le Hamac” of 1844 (exh. Salon of 1848). 4 Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (Chicago, 1990), p. 75 ff. 5 James Elkins, “Two Conceptions of the Human Form: Bernard Siegfried Albinus and Andreas Vesalius” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 7, no. 14 (1986), pp. 99-106. 6 The literature on anatomical imagery in the arts is vast, and in recent scholarship includes Julie Anderson et al.,The Art of Medicine (Chicago, 2011), and for the ecorché, see especially pp. 40-41; Raphael Cuir, The Development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism (Lampeter, Ceredigion, Wales, 2009), esp. ch. 7: “The Death of the Ecorché,” pp. 155 ff; and specific studies cited below. Erwin Panofsky, in “The History of the Theory of Human Proportions as a Reflection of the History of Styles,” repr. in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Chicago, 1955), pp. 55-107, was one of the first modern scholars to survey the tradition in the arts; for its increasing subjectivity in the modern era, see esp. pp. 106-07. 7 John Richardson with Marilyn McCully, A Life of Picasso, 1907-1917 , 2 vols. (New York, 1996), 2:89. Richardson suggests that Picasso may have seen Vesalius’s écorché in the personal library of Apollinaire, a bibliophile with a notable collection of antiquarian medical texts. 8 Tuma’s discussion (p. 128-9) of Clement Greenberg’s allegorical description of early 20th century abstraction as a renouncement of the opticality of nineteenth-century Impressionism pursues this theme in depth: “The world was stripped of its surface, of its skin, and the skin was spread flat on the flatness of the picture plane.” (C. Greenberg, “On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston, 1961), p. 171. 9 On this specific model, see Zofia Ameisenowa (who rejects the attribution to Michelangelo), The Problem of the Ecorché and Three Anatomical Models in the Jagiellonian Library (tr. Andrzej Potocki, Warsaw and Krakow, 1963), pp. 29-31; L’écorché (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, 1977), cat. 2, pp. 41-42. Some scholars have seen in a similar figure in Dürer’s first etching, known as The Desperate Man, an image of Michelangelo haunted by the ideas of his works, a suggestion Panofsky discusses and rejects in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (Princeton, 1943, pp. 194-95). The ecorché was illustrated and attributed to Michelangelo in Matthias Duval and Edouard Cuyer, Histoire de l’Anatomie Plastique (Paris, 1898). 10 On the critical appreciation and renewal of interest in Michelangelo in the nineteenth century, see especially Paul Joannides, Michelangelo (exh. cat. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2003), p. 29ff. 11 I am not entirely convinced, however, that the figure relates to Cezanne’s Five Bathers of 1880-82 (Rewald 449), as Tuma has argued (p.148), or that it specifically informed Picasso’s Cezannesque figure paintings of 1908. However, Tuma’s discussion of the ecorche as an allegory of modernist picture-making (p. 154 ff) is superb. 12… Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery, Traité complet de l’anatomie de l’homme: comprenant la médicine opératoire(Paris, 1831-1854; the last volume posthumously). 13 Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877 (exh. cat., Paris and London, 1977-78), cat. no. 10, p. 87. 14 For the most extensive discussion of the work, see Fried, 95, 97-8; Paris and London, 1977-78, pp. 86-87; and Elizabeth Roark, “Courbet’s Jouers de Dames and “La Vie de Bohème’”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 112 (December 1988), p. 277-80; as discussed in James Rubin, Courbet (London, 1997) p.22. 15 Exp. Universelle, 1900, Retrospective de la Ville de Paris, No. 70; cited in R. Fernier, I, p. 26, cat. 43. 16 On this work, see especially Fried, 74-76, 80-81 et passim; and Gustave Courbet (exh. cat., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), p. 100, cat. no. 5. 17 For a discussion of the X-ray of the painting, see Suzy Delbourgo and lola Faillant, “Courbet, du copiste au maitre,” Annales du Laboratoire de recherche des musées de France, 1973. 18 Hélène Toussaint, “Iconographic Sources” (exh. cat., Paris and London, 1977-78), p. 274. For a more recent and fuller discussion of the work and its significance for Courbet, see Frédérique Thomas-Maurin, “Courbet/Clésinger, oeuvres croisées” (exh. cat., Ornans, Musée Gustave Courbet, 2011), p. 124 ills. 19 Joachim Gasquet’s Cezanne: A Memoir with Conversations (tr. Christopher Pemberton, intro. Richard Shiff; London, 1991), p. 125. 20 In a letter to Charles Camoin, 9 December 1904; Cezanne Letters, 1995, p. 297-98. 21 Cezanne’s earliest image of an ecorché may appear in the underpainting of a problematic early canvas (R 81) that bears the layered signs of several compositions. On this work, its imagery and “inconclusive” attribution, see John Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cezanne (New York, 1996), Vol. 1, pp. 87-88. 22 On Cezanne’s drawings after Signorelli, see Caroline Elam, “Modern Vision and the ‘Older Masters’: Roger Fry’s Cezanne” and Mary Tompkins Lewis, “ Cezanne and the Louvre,” both in Judit Gesko, Cezanne and the Past, Tradition and Creativity (exh. cat., Budapest, 2012), pp. 166-69, 102-05. 23 The words are Lawrence Gowing’s, in a description of a different drawing in Paul Cezanne: The Basel Sketchbooks (exh. cat., New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988). 24 John Rewald, Paul Cezanne, The Watercolors (Boston, 1983), p. 228, cat. no. 559. 25 A letter to Raymond Escholier, director on the Museum of the City of Paris at the Petit Palais, on the occasion Matisse’s gift of the painting to the museum; reprinted in Jack Flam, Matisse on Art (Berkeley, 1995), p. 124. 26 Rilke to his wife, October 9, 1907; quoted by Isabelle Cahn in her superb discussion of the painting in Cezanne (exh. cat., Paris and Philadelphia, 1996), cat. no. 165. 27 M. Fried, 6-13. 28 On this see M. Fried, 152 ff. 29 Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, ed., Correspondance de Courbet (Paris, 1996), p. 140; letter 57-1. 30 The fullest discussion of this work, as noted below, is found in Gustave Courbet (exh. cat. New York, 2008), p. 308, cat. no, 142; and Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, The Most Arrogant Man in France, Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture (Princeton, 2007), p. 60-62. 31 Giacomo Meyerbeer, Robert le Diable, 1831 (New York, 1987), act one, p. 16; cited in G. Courbet (New York, 2008), p. 308. 32 Chu, 2007, pp. 6-62. Two of its best known works,Nicholas Mignard’s portrait of Moliere in the role of Caesar from Corneille’s Death of Pompeii (1658) and Delacroix’s portrait of the actor Talma in the role of Nero from Racine’s Britannicus (1852), suggest the range and depth of the collection. 33 Even Manet’s Tragic Actor of 1865 (National Gallery of Art, Washington), long studied chiefly as an hommage to Velazquez, has been examined by recent scholars in this vein. Michael Fried has also suggested that Thoré’s praise of Courbet in his “Salon” of 1866 (the year Manet’s canvas was rejected) implicitly contrasted Manet’s recent work with the “frank naturalism” of the Ornans painter. M Fried, Manet’s Modernism (Chicago and London, 1996), pp. 134 ff. 34 Chu, 2007; p. 62, ills. 35 T. Gautier, L’Artiste, Sept. 20, 1857; cited in G. Courbet, 2008, cat. 142, p.308. 36 Nadar (F. Tournachon),Jury au Salon de 1857 (Paris, 1857), p. 14; cited in G. Courbet, 2008, p. 308. 37 G. Courbet, 2008, cat. 40, pp. 154-55. 38 Courbet’s drawing for a poster and Nadar’s actor photographs are discussed in G. Courbet, 2008, pp. 154-55, cat. 40. Nadar’s famous photos of the mime Deburau as Pierrot are discussed and illustrated, although his photos of the actor Paul Legrand (1855) in the role seem to bear a much closer resemblance to Courbet’s figure. 39 Degas’s pastels are both dated to 1885. He was friends with the choreographer, Louis Meranté, and the costume designer, Count Louis Lepic, and attended rehearsals for the production in Paris in July 1885, and also a trial run at the Casino de Paramé, Brittany in August (Archives, Art Institute of Chicago). 40 This is argued by Yve-Alain Bois in “Picasso the Trickster”, Picasso Harlequin, 1917-1937 (Milan, 2009); pp.19-45 41 Bois, p. 19. 42 Bois, p. 22. 43 M. Fitzgerald, 30-31. 44 Archives de Paris, files of 6, Rue Galilée; cited in G. Courbet, 2008, cat. no. 74, pp. 225. The painting was purchased by the Louvre in 1920, and finally installed in its galleries in 1934. Within only a few years, the variable Realist styles and theatrical aura of works such as Fernand Leger’s performance piece Naissance d’un cité (1937) would give Courbet’s manifesto a new life. On this, see Christopher Green, Art in France, 1900-1940 (New Haven and London, 2000), p. 177 ff.