The Artist's Studio

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The Artist's Studio, Gustave Courbet, 1855
By SARAH XU

The title itself suggests the complexity of Courbet’s thoughts. The contrasting definitions of the words “real” and “allegory” in the title leads the viewer to believe some aspects of the painting might have a double meaning. In a letter to a friend, Courbet even says, “It’s pretty mysterious. Good luck to anyone who can make it out!” For example, the landscape on the back wall could be argued as either paintings or windows, so are they real or a representation?

Courbet himself can be seen in the middle of the painting with his signature beard jutting out in an abnormal angle, as seen in Bonjour Monsieur Courbet. Standing by Courbet’s side is a little boy who is literally looking up to Courbet and his painting. Children are known for their lack of exposure to the real world, so their innocence is still preserved. Courbet always strived to see the truth of the world, an ability children tend to have. Courbet could have possibly included the child to portray his skill, something some artists lack.

The painting is divided into two groups of people. To the left, the people are more ragged and represent the world of commonplace life, while the people on the right are more well-dressed and seem more wealthy. Courbet once said, "It's the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death." Among the wealthy in Courbet’s painting is Charles Baudelaire, Courbet’s close poet friend, who is painted in the same location Michelangelo puts Satan in The Last Judgement. Behind the easel, there is a crucified figure. Courbet sometimes referred to himself as a martyr in his paintings, such as Self-Portrait as Wounded Man, because of his “suffering” at the metaphorical hands of the French art critics. With the wealthy behind Courbet, it could signify the wealthy are supporting him in the back, while he focuses on his subject of interest, the common world.


After the completion of the painting, Courbet attempted to present it at the Paris World Fair, but due to the size of the painting, which is around 11 feet by 20 feet, the painting not displayed. As a solution, Courbet took about 39 other paintings and created his own exhibition.

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