Courbet’s Portrait of a Young Boy

Courbet's drawing of a young boy shows how even a minor sketch by a poetic painter must still identify the subject as the master himself. Here Courbet does it with his initials, G C, in much the same way as he did in his The Wheatsifters. There Michael Fried has suggested that the two figures mimic the shape of Courbet's signed initials.1 He is right, of course. See if you can find out how Courbet did likewise here before clicking on the next thumbnail.

Captions for image(s) above:

Courbet, Portrait of a Young Boy (n.d.) Pencil on paper. Private Collection.

Click image to enlarge.

The shading around the boy's eyes approximately matches the shape of how Courbet wrote his own initials in the lower right-hand corner of the same sheet. He did not, though, include the initials wherever was convenient but around the eyes, the eyes of a great master. The boy, moreover, wears the hat that Courbet himself seems to wear in a number of earlier self-portraits.2 

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Diagram of Portrait of a Young Boy

Click image to enlarge.

Now compare the diagram to the original. There are two ways of tracing the curlicue of the G around the shading of the boy's right eye but, either way, there is a resemblance to his own initial. (Gauguin formed a similar G in his Vision after the Sermon.) The C-shape around the other eye is more obvious and less open to dispute.

Keep your eye open for letters like that elsewhere in Courbet's art and in the work of other painters too, even sculptors. It seems to be more common than anyone but an artist has imagined.

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Courbet, Portrait of a Young Boy (n.d.)

Right: Diagram of Portrait of a Young Boy

Click image to enlarge.


1. Fried, Courbet’s Realism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) 1990, p. 155

2. Among the paintings with a similar hat are Self-Portrait with a Black Dog, The Homecoming and Bonjour M. Courbet.

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