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McMullen Traces Career of Pioneering Realist

“Château de Chillon,” one of the works by Gustave Courbet currently on display at the McMullen Museum of Art.

By Rosanne Pellegrini | Chronicle Staff

Published: Sept. 5, 2013

The travels of one of France’s most prolific, innovative painters — and his influence on foreign artists — are explored in an exclusive exhibition about realist movement leader Gustave Courbet, now on display at the McMullen Museum of Art.

“Courbet: Mapping Realism,” which runs through Dec. 8, showcases the works of this pioneer of modernism and one of the most unconventional painters of his time, who rejected both academic art and romantic idealism in favor of realist depictions of society and fresh, natural landscapes.

The McMullen display expands upon the just-completed exhibition “Gustave Courbet and Belgium” at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, which examined Belgium’s role in Courbet’s development and the positive response by Belgian artists and collectors to the bold social commentary in his work. Comprised of 49 works, “Courbet: Mapping Realism” includes additional paintings by Courbet in American collections to tell the story of his reception here. Exceptional works by Courbet’s American contemporaries, including Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, William Morris Hunt, Eastman Johnson and John La Farge, reveal the role he played in shaping American painting.

“The McMullen Museum is pleased to be collaborating again with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to bring a groundbreaking exhibition that ‘maps’ the reception and influence in both Belgium and America of one of France’s most prolific and innovative artists of the 19th century,” said McMullen Museum Director and Professor of Art History Nancy Netzer. “The exhibition provides an opportunity to see many outstanding paintings never before on public display this side of the Atlantic.”

Organized by the McMullen Museum and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, “Courbet: Mapping Realism” is curated by Professor of Art History Jeffery Howe and Dominique Marechal, curator of 19th-century art at the Royal Museums. The exhibition is underwritten by Boston College, the Patrons of the McMullen Museum, and the Newton College classes of 1968 and 1973.

Born in the city of Ornans, Courbet (1819-77) was known as a free spirit and frequent traveler, and found particular success in Belgium, where he played a pivotal role in the Belgian realist movement.

“This exhibit provides a unique opportunity to see Courbet’s art in the context of both Belgian realism and art from New England of the same era,” said Howe. “Using the metaphor of a map, we can trace the impact of Courbet’s pivotal transformation of European art and parallels in American art. The rich collections of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium confirm Courbet’s importance in European art, and the generous loans from museums and outstanding private collections in New England and New York offer new insights into the development of realism in America.”

 “The [Belgian] exhibition not only sheds new light on the six paintings by Courbet conserved in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, but also on the role played by this major figure of modernity in the development of Belgium’s realist movement from the 1850s to 1870s,” noted Marechal.

A volume of essays by American and Belgian scholars accompanies the exhibition. Along with Howe — who edited the volume — and Marechal, contributors include Fine Arts Professor Claude Cernuschi and Adjunct Associate Professor Katherine Nahum and Jean-Philippe Huys, a researcher at the Centre international pour l’Étude du XIXe siècle in Brussels.

In addition, two free public lectures in November at the McMullen Museum will complement the Courbet exhibition: by Dr. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, a world authority on Courbet who has translated his correspondence and written numerous books on him (Nov. 7); and by Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who will speak on the collection and legacy of her great-grandmother, Louisine Havemeyer, an early and prolific Courbet collector (Nov. 14). Both events run from 5-7 p.m.

For more information on the exhibition, docent tours, and the McMullen Museum, see