Still Life with Apples, Pear, and Pomegranates


Gustave Courbet ( French, 1819 - 1877 )

1871 or 1872
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General Description

Gustave Courbet was arrested in June 1871 and transferred to the national prison at Sainte-Pélagie in September 1872 for his role in the toppling of the Vendôme Column during the Commune the year before. He occupied cell four at Sainte-Pélagie, where he had visited his friend the political philosopher, Proudhon, twenty years earlier. As always, the artist was proud and defiant and, perhaps as a result, was treated as a common, rather than political, prisoner. His stay in prison was cut short by ill health, and on 6 January 1872 he was transferred to a private clinic in Neuilly as a ward of the state. He stayed there throughout the remainder of his sentence. Courbet was not the first famous French artist who had been in prison, and when he painted the small group of still lifes inscribed with the name of the prison, he worked in a tradition of political artists who defy the state. Needless to say, his work done in prison could not be in any way overtly political; he was forbidden models and was thus forced to work from the fruits and flowers his sister managed to bring into Sainte-Pélagie. Yet, the mere fact that he painted was an act of independence and personal authority. "I can still paint," he tells us through these works. "The state cannot suppress my painting." The Reves "Still Life with Apples, Pear, and Pomegranates" is one of fifteen surviving paintings bearing the inscription "Ste Pélagie." The others are scattered in museums and private collections in England, the United States, Scotland, France, Germany, Holland, Swtizerland, and Denmark. These might well have encircled the great self-portrait at Sainte-Pélagie (1871, Musée Courbet, Ornans). When grouped in his cell, they would have conveyed a character of peasant earthiness in the repressive gloom of the prison. Evidence suggests that many of the inscriptions were added at a later date, perhaps to communicate to the viewer a clear idea of Courbet's political views and his willingness to suffer for them. Few still lifes in the history of French art convey the voluptuousness and physicality of fruit as well as Courbet's do. Perhaps only Chardin's plums come close. But the most fascinating parallels with Courbet's fruits can be found in French still-life photography of the 1850s and 1860s, particularly in the dusky still lifes of Henri le Secq. There are also affinities between the Sainte-Pélagie still lifes of Courbet and the still lifes of the early 1870s that Paul Cézanne made while he was living and working in the environs of Paris. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to find any direct link between the painters at that time. Because of his controversial political views, Courbet's paintings were not publicly exhibited in the early 1870s, and only one of the Sainte-Pélagie still lifes has an early provenance that can be linked with the impressionists. This work, "Potatoes and Scallops" (1871, private collection, Tokyo), was owned by Henri Rouart, who collected impressionist works but was not in the same circle as Cézanne. Pissarro's 1874 portrait of Cézanne (private collection, London) includes a caricature of Courbet in the background, and many writers have linked their careers. However, there is simply no evidence that they ever met. Fortunately, Emery Reves recognized the connection and bought a small still life by each artist, both made in the 1870s. The Reves "Still Life" is catalogued by Fernier but is erroneously placed in the collection of the Norton Gallery and School of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida (Fernier 1977, no 761). Paul Rosenberg, from whom Emery Reves bought the painting in 1967, indicated that he had acquired it from a dealer in Zurich, who said that it originated in a Parisian private collection. Nor more precise information about the early history of this fascinating painting has been found. "Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," pages 48-49