The modern artist strives to be independent of the public’s taste — and yet depends on the public for a living. Petra Chu argues that the French Realist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) understood this dilemma perhaps better than any painter before him. In The Most Arrogant Man in France, the first comprehensive reinterpretation of Courbet in a generation, Chu tells the fascinating story of how, in the initial age of mass media and popular high art, this important artist managed to achieve an unprecedented measure of artistic and financial independence by promoting his work and himself through the popular press.
The Courbet who emerges in Chu’s account is a sophisticated artist and entrepreneur who understood that the modern artist must sell — and not only make — his art. Responding to this reality, Courbet found new ways to “package,” exhibit, and publicize his work and himself. Chu shows that Courbet was one of the first artists to recognize and take advantage of the publicity potential of newspapers, using them to create acceptance of his work and to spread an image of himself as a radical outsider. Courbet introduced the independent show by displaying his art in popular venues outside the Salon, and he courted new audiences, including women.
And for a time Courbet succeeded, achieving a rare freedom for a nineteenth-century French artist. If his strategy eventually backfired and he was forced into exile, his pioneering vision of the artist’s career in the modern world nevertheless makes him an intriguing forerunner to all later media-savvy artists.
"Chu details the rise, the fall, and the tireless machinations of art's first recognizably modern careerist.... In Chu's telling, Courbet seems to have done nothing without an eye to the main chance. He took pains to advertise his prominence in republican literary and artistic circles—the distinguished as well as the delectably louche. He made much of knowing the celebrated anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon ('Property is theft!'), upon whose death, in 1865, he made a nostalgic portrait that was not only splendid but pantingly opportunistic.... Chu's most original analysis of Courbet's reputation in his day concerns its mixed effects on a newly 'bi-gendered' public."—Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker
"Will surely become essential for all future Courbet studies...The title of Chu's book is self-explanatory, but in the exploration of her theme, she inevitably casts light on the artist's character."—John Golding, New York Review of Books
"[Chu's] enjoyable account shows how little we know about Courbet's intentions and procedures....[Her] richly illustrated study suggests a mind whose curious complexities were expressed only in paint."—Graham Robb, Times Literary Supplement
"In this insightful book, Chu (who edited and translated Gustave Courbet's letters) examines how the painter (1819-1877) used the press to market his work. . . . Chu's brilliant study of Courbet's paintings and marketing strategies sheds much light on his work and the artistic milieu of the 19th century."—Publishers Weekly
"A study of how Courbet wisely perceived himself to be witnessing new technologies that could, if properly integrated and exploited, further rather than threaten his vision."—George Fetherling, Seven Oaks Magazine
"In The Most Arrogant Man in France Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu takes up Courbet's relationship with the growing number of newspapers and journals of 19th-century France, and he shows how this clever artist made use of a very willing media to make his name a household word in France and elsewhere in Europe, and to increase the sales of his paintings...The best part of Ms. Chu's amply illustrated book deals with Courbet's strongest work. In his series of self-portraits...she traces Courbet's shedding of the Romantic conventions of his youth and his development (in his own words) into 'a man confident in his principles, a free man.'"—Stephen Goode, Washington Times
"Petra Chu, a renowned expert on Courbet and editor of the Letters of Gustave Courbet (1992), presents a fascinating portrait of the media-conscious young artist....Chu's well-illustrated book offers readers not only a deeper understanding of this extraordinarily versatile activist-artist but also of the complex social and economic milieus in which he worked."—Peter Skinner, ForeWord
"With this book, Chu adds to her reputation as a leading scholar of Courbet and of 19th-century French art in general...Well illustrated and a pleasure to read, Chu's book is sure to inspire further research on the role of the popular press in the development of modern art."—D.E. Gliem, Choice
"[Chu] seeks to replace the long-standing image of the artist as a heroic artiste engagé with a more complicated picture of the man and his art . . . Chu's book holds out the promise of a fascinating rereading of the artist and his work. . . . What we are left with, by the end of Chu's book, is a picture of Courbet as a cynical operator, ready to exploit the press and the burgeoning audience for provocative, antiestablishment art, and who pursues fame for fame's sake."—Aruna D'Souza, Art Bulletin
"[W]ell-researched, perceptive, and beautifully illustrated text. . . . Chu's book is an important new contribution to the field of nineteenth-century art. It will undoubtedly become a key text for scholars grappling with the mysteries and ambiguities at the heart of Courbet's work."—Gretchen Sinnett, CAA Reviews
"This important book will instantly claim a place among the standard works on Courbet. Petra Chu has done an admirable job of tying together art, literature, and history to put Courbet in context in a way that has not been done before. She reveals a Courbet who is ambitious to succeed and who realizes that the new media of nineteenth-century France can be harnessed to his ambition. With this book, Chu brings to fruition a lifetime of studying Courbet and nineteenth-century French art."—Patricia Mainardi, City University of New York
"Petra Chu has worked on Courbet throughout her long and productive career and this book is a capstone of her work, the product of considerable thought, insight, perception, and interpretation. Covering all phases of his evolution, from his earliest self-portraits to his late landscapes, she contextualizes Courbet in new ways and ties him to celebrity and media culture so that we can see how he thought as well as why he reacted in his work as he did. This is no small achievement."—Gabriel P. Weisberg, University of Minnesota
"The Most Arrogant Man in France is an original study of Courbet's entrepreneurial methods, and as such distinguishes itself from the rest of the voluminous recent writing on the artist. Petra Chu carefully sifts through Courbet's contacts with the press, newly investigates his patronage, and speculates about his appeal to the wider public. The book will interest not just art historians but also general readers since it dissects the intelligence and entrepreneurial flair of a canonical artistic personality who anticipates artists such as Dalí and Warhol."—Albert Boime, UCLA