Set Dressing: Courbet’s “L’Atelier du Peintre” and the Power of Fashion

“Studio Dressing: Courbet’s ‘L’Atelier du Peintre’ and the Power of Fashion”


Gustave Courbet : “L’Atelier du Peintre. Allégorie Réelle Déterminant une Phase de Sept Années de ma Vie Artistique (The Artist’s Studio. A Real Allegory of A Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life)” (1855), Collection Musée D’Orsay, Paris.

“I have studied, outside any system and without prejudice, the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns. I no more wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial foal of art for art’s sake. No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality”.

Gustave Courbet, Realist Manifesto, (1855)


Gustav Courbet was a French painter from the 19th Century who took the philosophical ideas that were being pioneered at the time, used them in his art and started a movement that he called Realism. Courbet depicted ordinary subjects and painted them in the heroic proportions which had previously been reserved by academic painters for great military scenes, monarchs, and religious subjects. His most ambitious project in this exploration was his 1855 painting: “L’Atelier du Peintre. Allégorie Réelle Déterminant une Phase de Sept Années de ma Vie Artistique (The Artist’s Studio. A Real Allegory of A Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life). Measuring approximately twelve by twenty feet long, it was of an ambitious scale, and had an accompanying written manifesto as well as a solo exhibition (mounted by Courbet himself to protest the exclusion of the painting from the Paris World Fair of 1855). Courbet used his subjects and their portrayal to convey a narrative, but unlike allegorical works from the past this was a personal narrative. His “Studio” is a didactic exercise, as well as an expressive one: the painting was one artist’s opinion, commenting on contemporary events and people, himself included. Employing a symmetrical composition with the figures on the left side representing the ideas of the past and outmoded thinking, contrasted by the figures on the right who are intended to be progressive; Baudelaire and Champfleury (who were also friends of Courbet) as well as patrons are meant to indicate the way forward. It is a significant illustration of the power of the visual connotations of dress that nearly all of the allegorical figures in the paintings are identified solely by what they are wearing. Fashion, uniform, and the condition of the garments themselves all provide clues and communicate the intended philosophical messages embodied by their wearers. For example, a 90-year-old veteran wears the costume of 1789, a figure from the Irish famine is indicated by her tattered garb, and there is even a fabric merchant included who is showing his wares to a group clustered around him. This figure can be identified as Victor Fialin de Persigny (1808-1872), French Minister of the Interior under Napoleon III, and the wares he is selling are in fact the ideas of social reform and revolution to his clients from: Italy, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, China, and Greece, all identified through regional costume. Even the emperor Napoleon III is included in the painting, portrayed in the garb of a braconnier, (huntsman and trainer of hunting dogs). The depiction is political as a braconnier can also connote a poacher, which alludes to the emperor portraying of himself as a reformer prior to the election of 1848, followed by his subsequent coup d’etat in 1851. Even the image of the female muse which harkens back to the historical depiction of women as objectified icons, is brought back into contempronaeity by her voluminous gown that lies beside her on the floor, underscoring the fact that she is a naked women in a room full of people, and not a mythical muse or a goddess. Before Courbet, no artist had so blatantly attempted to articulate a personal philosophy that was also meant to be applied to society as a whole. The painting is significant both for its introduction of realism which was to inspire future generations of French artists, and also notable for establishing allegorical significance, as well as the clarity of identification of the subjects portrayed, through the clothes they are wearing, and how they are wearing them.

(Full paper on request)

@2014 Mark O’Connell “Set Dressing: Courbet’s ‘L’Atelier du Peintre’ and the Power of Fashion”. All rights reserved, no unauthorized reproduction


Darracott, Joseph. Letters from Artists in the Nineteenth Century. London, UK. Deirdre McDonald Books,1997.

Eisenman, Stephen. Nineteenth Century Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Herding, Klaus. Gustave Courbet: (Grove Art Essentials). Oxford University Press, 2016.

Mack, Gerstle. Gustave Courbet. New York, NY: Knopf, 1951.

Nicholson, Benedict. Courbet the Studio of the Painter. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1973.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. Harmondsworth: Penguin,1975.

Rubin, James. Courbet. London, UK: Phaidon, 1997.

Toussaint, Helene. Courbet. London, UK: Arts Council of Great Britain,1978.

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