Gustave Courbet as a character and artist towers over the nineteenth century and he still continues to challenge art historians and viewers alike. His œuvre marks a key shift in ideas of art and the artist and his achievements are constantly being reassessed, [End Page 352] and among such reassessments is The Most Arrogant Man in France, by Petra Chu, whose knowledge of the artist and his milieu is intimate. The bibliography to her latest book on the artist lists an impressive range of publications on the artist and identifies her as the editor of his correspondence (in both English and French editions). Chu's title comes from Courbet's self description in 1853 and her book opens up an intriguing challenge to present this often discussed painter in a critical new light, to situate him within the development of a new system and understanding of art. There is no doubt that Courbet was an ambitious artist who used his art to provoke a response but more importantly Chu underlines how he made canny use of the developing media culture to shape his image and how this image and media in the end played a role in his destruction.
Dealing with the artist's life and production in a largely chronological fashion we follow his rise, explore various thematic approaches he developed during his career and read of his sad alcoholic end - a treatment that underlines the relatively short productive phase, some thirty years, of his career. Throughout we are constantly reminded of Courbet's very modernity as Chu explores his expertise in marketing, his mastery of 'spin' and the ways he used his art and the art market. His many self portraits are ample evidence of his continual reshaping and experimentation with his image as a young artist but Chu also draws attention to the ways in which he placed ideas amongst his friends working in the press, even in some cases providing copy that was reprinted in full in a fashion more familiar to the current abuse of media releases. In fact the book is littered with language more frequently associated with the world of marketing than art history and for that it is an honest account of the links between art and commerce. Courbet's career coincided with a new awareness of the diversity that made up ideas of the public. Chu suggests that in this new world Courbet became expert at seducing the desires of the different consumers and was skilful in identifying and producing works for distinct sectors of the market. In many respects he comes across as a character not all that far removed from those made famous in so many of Balzac's novels - a character who moves from rural France to the capital and quickly sets out to conquer it on his own terms.
Her consideration of the relationships between high and low culture has allowed Chu to situate Courbet into the much wider context of visual and literary production. She presents ample evidence for the developing power of the press over ideas of artistic taste and the ways in which Courbet's associations with writers, critics and others allowed him to promote a finely honed image that was largely of his own making. Closely considering various genres and visual examples Chu presents a convincing argument that links together the wide number of subjects he experimented with to suggest that his experimentation was equivalent to the diversity of genres that had to be mastered by contemporary authors who wrote for a living in the new press. Discussing Courbet's changes in subject matter and style she argues that in many cases, the series of female nudes or his interest in particular sorts of landscape imagery were in response to his identification of desires in the art market. The discussion of the landscape imagery draws on contemporary shifts in the view of landscape as a subject of art, but also breaks down his works into different market segments. So Courbet's paintings emphasising the geological aspect of the landscape (like The Gour de Conche, which was painted in 1864 for the Salins industrialist Alfred Bouvet) appealed to a market [End Page 353] interested in traditional ideas of nature and culture and the developing interest in specific geological formations. The violent scenes of animal hunts (Spring Rut [Battle of Stags], 1861) were likewise conceived to appeal to another group of buyers. Quotes from Courbet's correspondence demonstrate that he was acutely aware not only of what the art market in France wanted but differences in the market within Europe and as such we are continually reminded that he was actively engaged with the world around him.
Chu's argument by no means lessens the work of Courbet to a simply commercial concern. Although she rarely makes mention of the particular physicality of his use of paint, or other aspects usually discussed in art history, she does offer new interpretations of paintings that have long been debated, and situates them in a model that relates to contemporary press and ideas about art. Placing his work amongst the development of a print culture she also offers some tantalizing ideas about the differentiation between the male and female gaze, aspects of spectatorhood that are overlooked in more traditional studies of the period due to the lack of records of female critics and female responses to art. This is the focus of a fascinating chapter entitled "Bisextuality" that draws on the work of Naomi Schor, where by considering how contemporary authors set out to appeal to the growing segment of female readers Chu suggests that Courbet similarly looked for ways to slip between distinct ideas of masculinity and femininity in his Salon art. As such throughout the Most Arrogant man in France we are presented with a complicated artist who proved adept at marketing his own self-image and producing an œuvre to suit modern times.