Sunday, March 19, 2017

Representing Misery: Courbet’s Beggar Woman

Gustave Courbet, L'Aumône d'un mendiant à Ornans (1868), oil on canvas, 221 × 175.3 cm. Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Within the complex allegorical structure of Gustave Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre (Painter’s Studio, 1854–55)the Irish beggar woman constitutes not merely a dark note of negativity calling into question the painting’s utopian promise but, rather, a negation of that promise as a whole. The poor woman—dark, indrawn, passive, a source of melancholy within the painting as well as a reference to it outside its boundaries—is both a sardonic memorial to Albrecht Dürer’s historical Melencolia I (1513–14) and the repressed that returns (one might think of William Hogarth’s drunken, degraded mother reaching for her snuffbox as her luckless infant slides off her lap in the British artist’s moralizing allegory of 1751, Gin Lane). She is a figure undermining both the would-be harmony of Courbet’s allegory and the image of art’s triumph that dominates the center.

By Linda Nochlin