Gustave Courbet (1819-77) obsessively painted himself throughout his career and explored many psychological moods. The desperate Man, his painting he was especially proud of, brought it with him into political exile in Switzerland in 1873. It was painted while the artist was still in his twenties, during a stay in Paris in 1845, and is one of the most famous self-portraits of the 19th century.
In The Desperate Man the young Courbet stares manically out at us with his mouth open and his fingers tangled in his disheveled hair. It is a thoroughly Romantic picture of extreme emotion beyond all classical norms. The artist depicted – indicated by his rough and artisanal clothing – is here the Romantic social outsider breaching the modes of social decorum. If he confronts a mirror here we have several things to consider.
First is the portrayal of an intense and perhaps disturbing self-exploration by the artist (both artist in the picture and artist painting the picture). Secondly is perhaps the agony of the loss of the creative impulse or, alternatively, of the bringing forth of an artistic vision – the birth and completion of an artwork. If Courbet in the picture confronts us, the viewers, there is unsettling proximity between us, especially given his heightened emotional state.
It is as if his desperation is in danger of bleeding out of the picture and infecting the consciousness of the viewer. This is a new departure in the rendering of extreme emotion in Romanticism, which is supported by every aspect of the picture from the strained positions of the arms and the wide-eyed and appalled expression of the face, and the harsh lighting effects. The disorientation of the viewer is emphasized by the strain on the division between the picture and the artwork.
Gustave Courbet’s The Desperate Man is in a private collection.