Exhibition Review: Courbet at Boston College

Posted on October 31, 2013


Gustave Courbet. "Woman With Mirror." 1860.

Gustave Courbet. “Woman With Mirror.” 1860.

Influence is tricky to pin down. In the visual arts it’s safe to say that artists of every time and place develop languages that respond to and expand upon others they encounter. Forrest Bess lived alone on an island in the Texas gulf, yet he corresponded regularly with Meyer Schapiro about the formal issues of the day; Joseph Beuys attributed his use of felt and animal fat to the experience of his wartime rescue by Tartar tribesmen; contemporary rug makers in Oaxaca will weave Navajo designs into their rugs to attract the attention that the less-geometric designs of their own cultural lineage do not. De Kooning, who was in thrall to Picasso in his formative years, was influenced later by a ride in a car, or on his bicycle, and the experience of “moving through things.”

To take a painter as great as Gustave Courbet and try to track the influence he held over his contemporaries is a difficult task, and it is when the exhibition Courbet: Mapping Realism, at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art, takes its subject too literally that this show lags. Traveling from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, where it focused on Courbet’s influence on his Belgian contemporaries, to Boston College, where it takes on the parallel task of tracking the Frenchman’s influence on the likes of John La Farge, William Morris Hunt, Eastman Johnson and Martin Johnson Heade, the exhibition seeks to juxtapose the often chilly French response to Courbet’s painting (illustrated in the show by wonderful caricatures from contemporary Parisian newspapers by Daumier and others) with the warmer embrace of the painter in Belgium and America.

read the full review in the Nov/Dec issue of Art New England