Located in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, The Artist’s Studio, a huge 20 feet (6 m) wide oil on canvas created by the French artist Gustave Courbet in 1855, is seemingly a mysterious composition and an unrepentantly didactic work. The comment added to the title by the artist as a real allegory summing up seven years of his artistic and moral life is also confusing, as the words real and allegory are contradictory and have opposite meanings. There is no such thing as a real allegory, because an allegory is not real, it is a symbol with hidden meaning.
The subtitle added by the artist is actually a subtle pun, since the canvas depicts both an allegory of life as seen by him, as well as an allegory of his personal impression about Realism. By expressing and exhibiting his personal manifesto on the canvas, he also challenged the hierarchy of the genres and their conventions.
After completion, Courbet presented the painting for display at the 1855 Paris World Fair, and although eleven of his other works were accepted, The Painter’s Studio was rejected due to its huge size. As a mark of retaliation and an act of self-promotion and defiance, Courbet took the help of Alfred Bruyas, a reputed art collector and one of his personal friends, to open his own exhibition called The Pavilion of Realism, close to the official exposition, and displayed forty of his paintings, along with The Painter’s Studio.
The huge, crowded canvas depicting the Artist’s Studio has two large groups of people, separated by Courbet himself, engaged in the act of painting, creating a landscape. The group on the left depicting everyday life is represented by a priest, a Jew, an unemployed worker, a hunter resembling Napoleon III, holding a firearm and accompanied by his dogs, a woman suckling a child, and a beggar girl representing poverty.
The group also containing a guitar, a dagger, and a hat represents the ordinary country folk whom Courbet used to face in his everyday life and condemns traditional academic art. The contorted male nude in the posture of crucifixion probably also signifies the death of the old-fashioned style of painting promoted by the French Academy. However, it may also represent his own satirical portrayal as a martyred saint because of his sufferings at the metaphorical hands of the French art critics.
In contrast, the opposite side of the canvas depicts a far more handsome and well-dressed Paris elites that include, among others, the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, a close friend of the painter, absorbed in a book, and Jules Champfleury, a French art critic and novelist, and a prominent supporter of the Realist movement in painting and fiction. Behind the bearded profile of Alfred Bruyas, the art collector and the main patron of Courbet in the background, stands the radical political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a forerunner of Karl Marx.
While the couple in the foreground represents art lovers, the pair of lovers by the window signifies free love. Interestingly, most of these figures on the canvas were copied either from previous portraits or from photographs, especially the portrait of Baudelaire was directly copied from the portrait of the writer, painted by Courbet himself in 1847.
The centre of the canvas is recognizably occupied by the bearded artist with his head cocked back, seemingly admiring the landscape he is in the process of painting. He is flanked by a nude model on his right with her dress strewn at her feet and a little boy, looking up at the artist as he paints, along with a cat on his left. While the model was seemingly posing for him, Courbet is not looking at her as he does not need to. He is engaged in painting an unpopulated landscape, and the model also directs her gaze to align with Courbet’s and gazes at the landscape he paints. In the realm of reality, the nude female acts as the model, while in allegory, she may be the naked truth or liberty. However, she could also be the symbol of Courbet’s inspiration as they were lovers. However, the most interesting part of the section is the little boy who is looking up with admiration at the creation of the artist. As his view is unsullied by the illusions of adulthood, Courbet seems to value his opinion more than the critics and the others. The boy represented an important goal for him, the goal to unlearn the lessons of the art academy. Courbet sincerely sought to return to the pure and the direct sight of a child, away from the sophistication of urban industrial life. The cat, however, is often suggested as a reference to independence or liberty.
Although The Artist’s Studio, created by Gustave Courbet, is often described as a significant work that stands at the threshold of modern art, it is also a deeply personal work, expressing a social philosophy to which the artist remained faithful throughout his life.