Courbet’s The Wounded Man (1844-54)

Courbet's early self-portrait as a wounded man is a portrait of the dying artist wounded (thus, painted) by his own sword (brush). Not only will death "illustrate" the completion of this painting but swords often symbolize a brush and blood, paint. An expert has made these links before while others have noted how Courbet adopts the iconography of St. Sebastian, the supreme symbol of the self-referential artist.1 In addition, the sword's handle spells C for Courbet in mirror-form which in turn suggests that the surface of this mirror (the image) is the surface of the artist's mind.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Courbet, The Wounded Man (1844-54) Oil on canvas. Musée D'Orsay, Paris

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The composition we see today was painted over an earlier work by Courbet with his lover in his arms. A charcoal sketch gives us a good idea of what the couple once looked like, Courbet in a near-identical pose.3 Courbet's hand gesture is based on Sebastian's in Delacroix's 1836 canvas, analyzed yesterday in its own entry. What only one expert has noticed is that the open hand with separated thumb is a symbol for the palette-hand because an artist's thumb is typically inserted through  a palette's hole.4 The hand and its pose held the same meaning for Delacroix.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Courbet, Country Siesta (c.1844) Charcoal, crayon and stump on cardboard.  Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon

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In the Wounded Man's final version the only visible hand holds onto his cloak, the thumb still separated from the fingers by fabric. It is a pose Courbet used more obviously with greater exaggeration, and with the same meaning, in Man with the Leather Belt (c.1845-6).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Courbet, The Wounded Man (1844-54) Oil on canvas. Musée D'Orsay, Paris

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In a much later pen sketch of the Wounded Man Courbet lets the shape of the whole sword rhyme with the initial G for Gustave in the lower left corner, also in mirror-fashion, while the hilt continues to resemble a C

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Captions for image(s) above:

Courbet, Wounded Man (c.1867)

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Other important shapes include two subtle eye-forms above and on either side of Courbet's hand. On the near side an opening in his cloak allows us to see his white shirt as though it is a partly-opened eye crowned by an eye-lash, the waving hem. On the far side, curved folds suggest a closed eyelid. The artist's torso thus emerges from above two "eyes": one open to material reality, the other closed for insight. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Courbet, The Wounded Man (1844-54) 

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This, then, is how I perceive the scene. We are inside the artist's mind, as demonstrated both by the "letters" in mirror-reversal and the opening to the sky in the upper right distance formed as though it is the corner of a third eye. Inside the artist lies wounded, having painted himself with his own paintbrush, the sword. His other hand clutches his cloak to suggest a palette-hand. Thus the dying Courbet is both artist and painting, his head and torso merging with a great tree-trunk. The artist's image of himself inside his mind emerges from the combination of the two eye-forms in his cloak, representing the two forms of an artist's visual perception: insight and out-sight.

Notes:

1. Fried describing Courbet's Wounded Man recognizes the sword as a paintbrush, the hand as symbol for the palette and the blood as paint. Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (University of Chicago Press) 1990, p. 193; For Courbet's reference to Delacroix's St. Sebastian, see Linda Nochlin, "Gustave Courbet's Meeting: A Portrait of the Artist as a Wandering Jew", Art Bulletin 49, September 1967, p. 219 and Laurence des Cars in Gustave Courbet (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 2008, p.113. For more examples of swords as brushes, blood as paint, and strained thumbs indicating plaette-hands, see themes here titled Swords/Weapons as Brushes and Brush and Palette. For examples of St. Sebastian as the self-referential artist, see entries here on St. Sebastians by Mantegna, Dürer, MichelangeloHans Baldung Grien, Hans MemlingCarlo Crivelli, Antonio Campi, Lorenzo Lotto, GiordanoDelacroix and Egon Schiele.

2. For other examples see the theme Letters in Art.

3. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) (Paris: Éditions des musées nationaux) 1977, pp. 122-3

4. Michael Fried, as above in n.1

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