The big Courbet show now in its last days at New York’s Metropolitan Museum is a reminder that Cindy Sherman wasn’t the first artist to get hooked on role playing. In a grand display of curatorial borrowing power, the Met show opens with a gallery containing about a dozen of the self-portraits Courbet produced in the early and mid-1840s.
Like most people who think about him at all, I think of Courbet as one of those swaggering, self-regarding artists, the prototype for Julian Schnabel, if Schnabel were a better painter. The kind you would expect to work, as Courbet did, with a palette knife, if not a trowel. His self portraits fit with that image. He was a young man in his twenties when he did them, the future arch-Realist still trailing the dreamy atmospheres of Romanticism. Even when he casts himself as meditative and inward-looking, his narcissism is the main note. You feel as though you’re being invited to admire him as much as he admires himself.
Naturally the self-portraits are also demonstrations of mastery. There are borrowings from Titian and Le Brun, from Italian Mannerist drawings or whatever other models he was looking to digest. All the while he tries on different roles — lover, musician, Bohemian — and always playing one role behind all the others, artist. In some, like Self-Portrait With Black Dog, he’s plainly costumed as one, a young man just taking on the role he plans to inhabit for life.
He can be hilariously self-dramatizing. The Wounded Man is his famous representation of himself as just that, though the wound is romantic — the picture originally showed a woman lying against his chest. Ten years later, when the relationship had soured, he painted her out and added a patch of blood where she had been. And then there’s his portrait of himself as The Desperate Man, a painting that no doubt grows out of the 19th-century fascination with physiognomy, but that looks to me like the picture of a guy who can’t get enough of himself, even in extremis.