Gustave Courbet - The Desperate Man

by Alexandra Tuschka


"In the course of my life I have painted myself many times, always when my state of mind changed. In short, I have written the story of my life." Gustave Courbet said in 1854. This work, which is called "The Despairing One", was created about ten years earlier in his 24th year. It is the time when Courbet had renounced his law studies, for which he had moved to Paris, in order to devote himself entirely to painting. He said himself that he chose a "life as a savage", and "the great independent vagabond life of the bohemian". He spent a lot of time in museums during these years, studying many old masters.

This early self-portrait shows Courbet frontally in a classical triangular composition. However, this is cropped to the two edges of the picture. The face is close to the canvas, the wide open eyes look at us confusedly. He is handsome, with full hair and beard and fawn eyes. The dark hair is tussled with both hands. The shirt is open, does not fit properly, the collar has already slipped. We see the tense muscles, the pulsating veins. What makes the man so desperate? That we could be the reason for his displeasure does not seem likely. The eyes are not awake enough, do not fixate on us, but rather look through us. It becomes clear: here it is about an inner state. The white shirt and the brown background tell us nothing more about the person depicted. An incidence of light is clearly visible from the upper left. Like a cone, it illuminates the left half of the picture, hands and part of the forehead. The rest of the face is in shadow; two small highlights are visible in the pupils. The hard boundary of a light and a dark part in the background can be commonly seen also with "two hearts in one chest" mentality of many artists. With red the painter has signed his work - unusually - on the lower left.


Courbet is shown here as a real cliché of the Romantics: the desperate artist who runs through the world misunderstood and mostly, of course, had to be a misunderstood genius. The battered, artistic soul that finds no place in the less refined world. In the same decade, Courbet painted more than 20 self-portraits, but he never seemed to be as attached to any of them as he was to this one, which remained in his possession until the end of his life and even accompanied him into exile.


During Courbet's lifetime, the academies still had a rather strict canon of rules according to which paintings were judged. Although Courbet repeatedly submitted paintings for the Salon exhibitions, he did not want to have his artistic freedom curtailed and took the position that the state should not interfere in artistic matters. Courbet did not feel bound by academic constraints and later developed into the main representative of realism; his later self-portraits also bear witness to a more unsparing, unembellished view of himself.


Gustave Courbet - The Desperate Man

Oil on canvas, 1844-45, 45 x 55 cm, private collection

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