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Reflections and memories


Stonebreakers Posted on Wed, November 28, 2018 15:05:31

“It’s rare to meet the most complete expression of poverty,so an idea for a picture came to me on the spot. I made an appointment with them at my studio for the next day” Courbet wrote in a letter to Francis Wey about the moment he saw the two men.

In ‘Gustave Courbet, His Life and Art’ (1972) Jack Lindsay writes ; “he posed the two models separately. The old man , Gagey, had spent his whole life on the roads around Ornans and was a well known character. The painting was much admired by local folk, who, according to Proudhon, proposed to buy and hang it over the altar in the parish church, as it pointed so strong a moral, that was no doubt a tale told him by Courbet. And in a later fragment; “His remarks during the work on the canvas to Wey and Champfleury show that he particularly felt his emotion because of the way in which the working-together of the old man and the youth expressed the cycle of unending misery that the system around him perpetuated. He was not painting two workers doing a specially backbreaking job and getting a poor reward for it, but the whole endless repetition of hopeless toil among large sections of his people, the whole endless cycle of exploitation. The strength and fullness with which he felt the nature of the image was determined by the movement to socialism which was going on inside him”. This fragment clearly shows that Lindsay writes from a Marxist art -theoretical perspective.

According to Michelle Facos; stonebreakers were peasants forced off the land into backbreaking and poorly compensated wage labor, the benefits of which went directly to the middle and upper classes. Because of this, Courbet’s stonebreakers did not represent an ideal image of the rural peasantry to contemporary viewers. Significantly Courbet did not idealize these stonebreakers, they wear dirty, tattered and mended clothing. These strong and oppressed workers who spent their day hacking apart stones, seemed threatening to contemporary, middle class viewers in 1850, the year stonebreakers debuted at the Salon. While the majority of 1848 revolutionaries were urban craftsmen and workers Courbet’s stonebreakers instilled fear because they wielded implements that were potential weapons and produced the paving stones used for barricades and projectiles by revolutionary insurgents

Courbet encouraged a feeling of mistrust by shielding the men’s faces from the viewer. Because their expressions and physiognomies could not be read, viewers could not determine whether these men were dangerous or submissive. Courbet painted an image that provoked anxiety in a destabilized and modernizing world”.

TJ Clark describes this feeling of unease; “(…)if people and bourgeois were true allies, then the People must be represented– and the bourgeois was going to find himself in their midst, one against four, or one against hundred, a colonial planter surrounded by slaves.”

The final version of ‘the Stone Breakers’ didn’t survive the second World War and was destroyed when a transport of paintings from the Dresden Gemäldegalerie to Königstein Castle was bombarded by American war planes. Purely by associating I had to think about Kurt Vonegut’s book ‘Slaughterhouse five, or a children’s crusade’. In it Vonnegut describes his own experience as a prisoner of war, and the senseless destruction of Dresden, in the only possible way he saw fit. His main character Billy Pilgrim seems to travel through time and space, human years do not seem to matter and chronology is in a total mix up. Billy seems to float from sphere to sphere, his total acceptance and the way Vonnegut describes everything in a clinical way makes reading the book an intense experience.

Still from the movie ‘Slaughterhouse 5 or a Children’s Crusade’, 1972, director George Roy Hill. ( Music score by Glenn Gould!)

“Many holes were dug at once. Nobody knew yet what there was to find. Most holes came to nothing- to pavement, or to boulders so huge they would not move. There was no machinery. Not even horses or mules or oxen could cross the moonscape. And Billy and the Maori and others helping them with their particular hole came at last to a membrane of timbers laced over rocks which had wedged together to form an accidental dome. They made a hole in the membrane. There was darkness and space under there. A German soldier with a flashlight went down into the darkness, was gone a long time. When he finally came back, he told a superior on the rim of the hole that there were dozens of bodies down there. They were sitting on benches. They were unmarked.
So it goes.
The superior said that the opening in the membrane should be enlarged, and that a ladder should be put in the hole, so the bodies could be carried out. Thus began the first corpse mine of Dresden.”

Because of his role in the Paris Commune Courbet was imprisoned and later held personally accountable for the destruction of the Colonne Vendôme. He was sentenced to pay a sum of ten thousand francs a year to pay for its reconstruction.

In this caricature by Schérer Courbet is pictured as a convict, the text reads; “The man who was called to demolish the Column might just as well start working as a stonebreaker”

The conviction and trouble to bring in the 10.000 Francs a year was so oppressive that Courbet decided to flee to Switserland in 1873, where he died on the 31st of december 1877.

According to historian Pierre Chessex Courbet’s family wanted to bury him in Ornans; “but on Monday Dr Blondon of Besancon, the fiancee of Courbet’s sister Juliette, bought a concession in the morgue of the cemetry of La Tour- de -Peilz.” From 1878 until 1919 Courbet’s body rested in a double coffin of oak and lead in the morgue. Today one can find, hidden between a couple of shrubs, a plaquette marking the location of Courbet’s temporary grave. Body and tombstone were moved to Ornans in 1919. What I find striking when I look at the two photographs is the fact that while the grave in La Tour-de Peilz was covered in ivy, the Ornans grave is covered with gravel!


‘Gustave Courbet, His Life and Art’ (1972) Jack Lindsay, Jupiter-London 1977, ‘An introduction to 19th century art’, Michelle Facos , Tailor & Francis Ltd, 2011,

‘The Absolute Bourgeois, Artists and Politics in France 1848-185’, T.J.Clark, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1973. Slaughterhouse 5, or the Children’s crusade; A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut, Vintage UK , 2000

On disappearing

Stonebreakers Posted on Mon, November 19, 2018 10:08:15

It seems quite likely that my mother-in -law, Mien Thissen-Mulder, found this book while browsing in the second-hand shop where her sister Doortje volunteered. It is called ‘De schilderkunst der XIXe eeuw’, (painting of the 19th century) written by Léonce Bénédite, curator of the Musée de Luxembourg, its date 1910. And, as was her habit, she must have asked her daughter, my wife, “do you think Stijn has any use for this?’ I haven’t seen it for a long time but now that I started this blog I’m glad I kept it because it offers many interesting starting points.

The Paris Bibliotheque Nationale is the keeper of ‘Courbet, Gustave (1819-1877) Critique et interprétation’ a biography and critical essay written by Léonce Bénédite. I intend to translate it from the French and read it because I’m curious about the content. I will come back to that later on. If you want to read it already you can find it here:

Curiouser and curiouser I get ( thank you Lewis Carroll ! ) by reading this fragment from an article by Oliver Larkin, titled; ‘Courbet and his contemporaries, 1848-1867’ (Science & Society,Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1939), pp. 42-63)

“Because Courbet was so long a prophet without honor in his own country, a large proportion of his work is owned by museums and collectors outside France. Many phases of his career, notably his activities during the Commune, are still imperfectly understood. Before 1900 scarcely a single French art journal of repute cared to publish material on the painter. Belatedly in 1919, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum was honouring the centenary of his birth, France bought the Atelier for seven hundred thousand francs. Two years later, Léonce Bénédite was invited to represent the State at the unveiling of a tablet placed on Courbet’s birthplace at Ornans. The curator of the Luxembourg declined to attend the ceremony on the ground that he had “received counter-instructions”.

This is a page from my book.

The caption under the reproduction of ‘The Studio’ still gives Collection Desfossés as its owner, and the caption under ‘the Stonebreakers simply mentions Museum, Dresden. The enlarged image shows that an error occured, it is the wrong painting. This, mirrored, version is today in the Collection Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur.

But it looks like a very different painting when I study the reproduction on the site of the Oskar Reinhart Collection. It seems to have darkened almost beyond recognition. Time and the use of bitumen in the paint have done their work. Courbet painted it in 1849, the book for publishing house Flammarion was produced in 1905, the work was possibly photographed at the time that the painting was 55 years old. And now the painting’s age is 169 years, so the discoloration took place over a period of 110 years. The effects of bitumen are common knowledge and many of Courbet’s works fade into darkness, an extra stimulant is his preference to work on dark tinted canvases.

This is the painting from the Dresden Museum collection. Together with 154 other paintings it was loaded in februari 1945 into a van and on transport from the Zwinger Museum in Dresden to Königstein Castle (The King’s Rock). In times of conflict this was a well known practice. The castle offered sufficient protection. But the road did not, the danger came from above. The transport was bombed by Allied planes.

December of last year I was offered a working period in a guest studio of the Vincent van GoghHuis in Zundert. I was able to go deep into van Gogh’s work and his engagement , and made a lot of painted monotype prints on the small etching press I brought along. After you have printed the image, the printing plate still shows a shadow of it on which you can react again with ink. Degas was very accomplished in this technique. I was fascinated to try out one of the possibilities I hadn’t experimented with and that was the ‘black manner’. With ink you cover the whole surface of the printing plate and start working back from dark to light by using brushes, cloth, sticks and fingers to delve up the image. It is a slow and time-consuming manner of working resulting in just one ‘good’ print. To start with I chose a reproduction of ‘the Stonebreakers’, the lost Dresden version.

The first fully inked print. And without adding any more ink to the plate I made three more prints on pink tinted paper, gradually losing more and more of the image.

Stijn Peeters 2018.