Misogynie was a term unknown to me until recently. Since the election of a bragging pussygrabbing guy to the highest position in the USA, his unworthy behavior illustrates the meaning of this term perfectly. Hate towards women, the sense of being wronged by them, the feeling of entitlement to their bodies and attention. I assumed that we would have left all that behind since the movement for women’s rights started more than 200 years ago, but hey, didn’t I also think the same about religion in politics and people’s everyday lives and openly aired racism? Uncivilized behavior, intolerance, narrow mindedness, I would gladly have done away with it. House breakers seem to be more popular than builders. Where are we heading in these times of post-truth and deepfake?

The difference between civilized and uncivilized behavior becomes painfully clear when you compare the attitude and actions of New Zealands Prime Minister Jacina Ardern after the terrorist attack in Christchurch with those of her male colleagues in politics. Let’s hope the 21 st century will become the Age of Women, it cannot be fast enough.

In the opinion of many the 19th century is seen as the Age of Men. They had the means and the power to exert total control over the lives of women. Whether it be the English pauper putting a rope on his wife’s neck to sell her in the marketplace ( 1) or the rich heir locking his spouse away in their appartment while he himself was active in society and free to enjoy the company of demi-mondes and workergirls. Apart from individuals the majority of women were confined to their allocated space, at the same time mental as well as physical. ( 2)

Male and female

Linda Nochlin compares Courbet’s “Proudhon” to “The Lictors returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons” by David, and specifically goes into male and female zones of the paintings. The dramatically grief stricken young daughters and the brooding thinker’s pose of Brutus. Whereby Courbet show’s Proudhon’s little girls reading and playing( 3)

She describes the socialist thinker as a “prude and anti-feminist extraordinaire, author of that milestone in the history of misogyny, La Pornocratie ou les femmes dans les temps modernes.”

Opposed to him the Fourierist Jean Journet represented a radically different faction of early Utopian Socialism. On the 1st of January 1857 he published a poetical pamphlet L’ère de la Femme ou la Règne de la harmonie universelle which he dedicated to the Empress Eugénie. It seems to me a puzzling move, considering his practice as a wandering prophet, spreading his message of Universal Harmony and equality of the sexes, to dedicate this utopian vision to the wife of an autocrat leader.

Flaubert in turn was absolutely not in favor of universal harmony and the equality of the sexes. In a letter addressed to George Sand, whom he views as a representative of la Troisieme Sexe’, he uses a remarkable cattle-metaphor ( remember the English pauper from before?): But then, what idea have you of women, O, you who are of the third sex? Are they not, as Proudhon said, “the desolation of the Just”? ( ) The people who have no need of the supernatural, are rare. Philosophy will always be the lot of the aristocrats. However much you fatten human cattle, giving them straw as high as their bellies, and even gilding their stable, they will remain brutes, no matter what one says. All the advance that one can hope for, is to make the brute a little less wicked. But as for elevating the ideas of the mass, giving it a larger and therefore a less human conception of God, I have my doubts.(4)

Courbet had intended to paint his friend’s portrait for some time but despite pressing Proudhon and seeking the help of friends like Castagnary he didn’t succeed to convince the philosopher to pose for him.

In contrast to the extreme ability of Courbet to handle the media Proudhon in turn was very withdrawn. Victor Considérant, another early-socialist, described him as; “ “That shy man who was determined that none should share his views” (5) Alan Bowness in going through all 14 parts of Proudhon’s Correspondance and the 9 ‘Carnets‘ hardly finds any mention of Courbet. He concludes on the basis of this research that their relationship was very uneven ( a conclusion Klaus Herding contradicts) (6)

Proudhon complains about the barrage of long letters by Courbet. In a letter to Chaudet (1st of June 1864) he writes; “I’ve had an enormous letter from Courbet. I think he went poking about in the oldest grocer’s shop in Ornans for the dirtiest yellowest coarsest exercise- book so as to write to me. You’d believe that letter belonged to Gutenberg’s century ( ) This time he covered no less than fourteen pages with the dregs of wine. It’ll be a job to answer all that”( 7)

In 1863 Courbet had asked him to, at least, have his likeness photographed.On January 13th 1865 he writes Castagnary “You must see Proudhon immediately on my behalf. Ask him by way of pretext for the letter I wrote him (..) Try to arrange it with him, or at least with his wife (..) if he dies without his portrait done, we will never have it.” Proudhon dies six days later.

Courbet fears that he will be too late to contribute the painting to the Salon that will start in two month’s time. And miss the ‘momentum’ to present the posthumous portrait of his hero.

He decides to base his hommage on a recollection of a visit to Proudhon’s family in 1853. He describes the scene he wants to paint; “When it did not rain, he was in the habit of carrying all his paraphernalia – his books, his papers, his briefcase, his writing desk- out to the three stair steps, and when the sun shone, his wife and children came to work with him. ( ) One child is playing in the sand; the other is spelling out her letters under the eye ofhet mother, who is in the middle ground.” ( to Eugene Carjat, february-March 1865)

With the help of the material he received through Castagnary ( photographs and a deathmask) he succeeds in finishing the portrait in two months’ times so he can present it at the Salon.

From a letter to Jules Luquet, ( May or April 1865). “My dear Luquet: Our friend Carjat has just written me a magnificent letter about my paintings. He is delighted with the painting of Proudhon. Only the woman leaves something to be desired as far as resemblance, the children enchant him. I cannot tell you all the compliments he pays me and has been asked to pay me by friends who have seen it. As for the woman, it was understood from the start: the woman that is there is a provisional figure that has, however, some of the quality of Mme Proudhon”.

He plans to add her portrait when he arrives in Paris: ” I felt strongly about not asking anything of an administration that has always and on every occasion behaved so badly toward me. However, if, as you assure me, I could work for a day or half a day at the Exhibition before the opening without too much bootlicking, I would, on my arrival in Paris, paint a portrait of Mme Proudhon from life on a bit of canvas and transfer it to my painting. It is a matter of three hours”.

Ten Doeschate-Chu , in a note concerning this letter; “Though Courbet probably did paint a portrait sketch of Mme Proudhon, he did not receive the authorization to alter the Portrait of Proudhon. When the Salon was finished, he decided to eliminate the figure of Mme Proudhon altogether. (8)

The work continues, in a letter from April 1866 Courbet writes; “I am still working on the portrait of Proudhon. I removed the little wall that was in the back and it is larger by half. I will be painting Mme Proudhon (of) whom I have ( a sketch) ready at my atelier”.

14 juli 1867 he tells Castagnary ; ”I removed the woman, I finished the children, I redid the background, I retouched Proudhon. It looks now splendid to me.

Courbet painted out the figure of Mme Proudhon and replaced it by a mendingbasket placed on top of some garments draped over Mme Proudhon’s chair.

A lot has been written by this decision of Courbet, as for instance this assessment by Linda Nochlin. “he removed the image of the wife of his protagonist after the picture was first shown, substituting the metonymic ball of yarn for her redundant persona, still visible in x-ray. No doubt Mme. Proudhon detracted too much from the dominating presence of her misogynistic husband, the hero of the piece”. ( 9)

( 10)


This blog offers a lot of starting points for new texts. For instance “The responses to Proudhon” by Madame d’Hericourt, or the letter of Jeanne Deroin which are contemporary documents of the early feminist movement ( 11) Also the disappearance of Baudelaire’s muse Jeanne Duval from Courbet’s painting ‘The Studio’, and the ghosts of women in ‘A burial’ that could turn into a story on painting technique and issues of restauration. And of course Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the role of women in the American elections of 2020.

1. https://historianet.nl/maatschappij/dagelijks-leven/mannen-verkochten-hun-vrouw-als-vee

2. On exceptions to the rule read; “The Woman of Ideas in French Art, 1830- 1848 by Janice Bergman Carton, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995.

3. Courbet, Linda Nochlin, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 2007, page 14

4. http://www.hotfreebooks.com/book/The-George-Sand-Gustave-Flaubert-Letters-George-Sand-Gustave-Flaubert–4.html ( 19-09-1868)

5. G.Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, MacMillan, London, 1956.

6. Alan Bowness, Courbet’s Proudhon, The Burlington Magazine Vol 120, March 1978. Klaus Herding “Proudhons “Carnets Intimes” und Courbets “Bildniss Proudhons im Familienkreis”. Malerei und Theorie/ das Courbet-Colloquium 1979, Frankfurt am Main. In this article Herding also considers Proudhon’s patriarchal individualism and the detached relationship of the philosopher and husband in dealing with his wife and family. In his words ‘the collission of practice and theory.’

7. Jack Lindsay page 185-86

8. Letters of Gustave Courbet, Petra ten-Doeschate Chu, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Letter 65-11

9. Courbet, Linda Nochlin, Thames & Hudson, 2007, page 14.\

10. A very readable article is , Replies to Proudhon, A Woman’s Philosophy of Woman; or A Woman Affranchised door Madame D’Hericourt uit 1864.


11. Female Writers’ Struggle for Rights and Education for Women in France 1848-1871 by Joyce Dixon-Fyle. Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers 2006, page 160 and further.

12. On this site one can find portraits of the older Madame Proudhon and her grown-up daughters. http://memoirevive.besancon.fr/?id=recherche&action=search%26form_search_fulltext%3D%22Portraits+–+Pierre-Joseph+Proudhon%22%26label_fulltext%3D%26tri%3D&label_complete_search=%22Portraits+–+Pierre-Joseph+Proudhon%22&type=