Hats and hierarchy in Gustave Courbet's The Meeting.

Author:Chang, Ting

This essay proposes a new reading of Gustave Courbet's The Meeting, better known as Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, through a sustained focus on elements normally considered to be minor details--the hats, beards, canes, and gestures in the painting (Fig. 1). In a composition of such striking economy, each component takes on heightened, perhaps even iconographic, significance. Before proceeding any further, I should state at once that the latter term is used advisedly. Iconography as an art historical practice, particularly in the study of premodern and early modern art, has long been under critical reassessment. (1) One aim of this essay is to address the issue of interpretations of nineteenth-century art by considering the limits of certain interpretative methods associated with iconography and iconology.

By focusing on The Meeting, I argue for expanded possibilities of signification associated with the hats, beards, and canes in Courbet's painting. Clustered around these apparently anodyne objects were diverse connotations of class, submission, and sovereignty that circulated through language in nineteenth-century France. My scrutiny here is not on the history of dress but on the intersections between a certain linguistic inheritance and visual representation. (2) I suggest that The Meeting engaged with a multiplicity of expressions, proverbs, puns, and jokes in a way that registered Courbet's claim of autonomy. At the same time, the allusions to language inflected his message with ambiguity. Although it remains arguable whether the correspondence between representation and locution was purely fortuitous or actually intended by the artist, the numerous seams merged nonetheless into a compelling network of connotations.

Reference to hats in The Meeting immediately conjures up one of the ur-texts of art historical methodology, Studies in Iconology, which Erwin Panofsky opened by recounting that on seeing him on the street, an acquaintance had lifted his hat. (3) The vignette allowed Panofsky to introduce his distinctions between the perceptible element (a man removes his hat), the iconographic meaning (a greeting), and the iconological significance (the "intrinsic meanings," or the system of salutations and values from which this particular ritual derived its import). Fundamental to Panofsky's enterprise was the assumption that the lifting of the hat contained a single, univocal signification underpinned, in turn, by a dominant and univocal code. For Panofsky, the key to deciphering artistic expression and the master code that informed it resided in the identification of certain literary sources. The texts helped to elucidate the global tendencies of a culture and thus the specific work of art.

Yet what if the hat and the act of its removal were to contain not one but several layers of signification that clashed with one another? What if, in place of a clear conclusion, the sources led to more contradictions? It has been observed often enough that references became increasingly obscure and hermetic in the nineteenth century, giving way to polymorphous primitivism and nonreferentiality. If artistic expression was no longer recognizable as the direct and unequivocal symptom of a larger, consistent order, a part that unproblematically expressed the whole, then the pursuit of literary sources and documentary evidence would cause the interpreter to circle around the work without ever arriving at an understanding. In the event that iconographic-type interpretation no longer guaranteed results, by what methods and with what aids could one make sense of the work of art? Or, more to the point, how did pictures convey meaning in the nineteenth century?

For practitioners of the social history of art, an analysis of the attendant conditions and ideologies and the reception of a work of art was vital to the understanding of signification. Courbet's oeuvre has been valued in this respect for its availability to historical inquiry and iconographic-type explanations. Any condensed bibliography would necessarily include Meyer Schapiro's early essay on Courbet and popular culture; Linda Nochlin's discovery of the precise sources for The Meeting; T.J. Clark's book on the conflicts that animated the artist's work; James Rubin's study of the anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in relation to Courbet; and Klaus Herding's essays on the artist's persona and synthetic interpretations of his work. (4)

Michael Fried uniquely departed from the problematic of meaning in the ordinary sense. Extending his ideas on beholding and absorption in eighteenth-century French painting to the end of the nineteenth century, Fried investigated what he termed the ontological condition of painting and Courbet's physical fusion with the canvas as painter and beholder. (5) This inimitable project aside, the search for visual rather than textual material has been dominant in Courbet studies, supplanting the logocentric premise of iconography. The long-accepted idea, dating to the nineteenth century, that Realism quarried vernacular imagery and popular culture for unmediated transfer on canvas stimulated the scholarly hunt for quotidian, often ephemeral, illustrations. The study of the political, cultural, and socioeconomic conditions that shaped artistic production as well as the examination of visual sources have been highly rewarding in Courbet studies, but these methods have nonetheless reached a point of diminishing returns. Attention at this juncture to untried approaches may yield new possibilities of interpretation.

Jacques Ranciere has asserted that art demonstrates the existence of meaning in what appeared to be meaningless, pointing out enigmas in what seems self-evident. (6) In Ranciere's conception, representation comprised two essential elements, the visible and the utterable, in a hierarchical relationship: "la parole fait voir." (7) The spoken word helped one to see. In short, Ranciere emphasized the irreducible coexistence of the verbal and the visual in the work of art.

I will argue that the force of The Meeting resides in the strain between the verbal and the nonverbal. Put differently, the signification of the painting exists in the tensions between the visible, the utterable, and the unutterable. It was the bind between what was visible on the canvas and what Courbet could not pronounce aloud that formed the crux of the painting, namely, the negotiations between the artist and his patron, Alfred Bruyas, at the center of the triple portrait. The visible, the spoken, the unspoken, and the unspeakable conveyed Courbet's project, telling a story that at times contradicted the official version on the canvas. While it has been argued that the pictorial structure of The Meeting renders its message transparent, I propose that a subterranean intermingling of words, signs, expressions, and images complicated its signification. The words came from the straightforward language of daily life as well as the more allusive and metaphoric articulation of proverbs. I argue that the popular and literary references represented a landscape of associations for viewers in the nineteenth century, a store of meanings that permeated all levels of symbolic expression and inflected Courbet's painting. (8)


The visible, we know: the artist is being welcomed to Montpellier by his host, the latter accompanied by his servant, Calas. The form was not only visible but also absolutely familiar to nineteenth-century viewers. Courbet's source, long identified as the late medieval legend of the Wandering Jew, was among the most frequently recurring vernacular images in Europe. In the classic formula, the fabled wanderer, condemned to travel the earth for mocking Christ on the road to Calvary, met two village burghers to whom he recounted his endless journey. Over the centuries the motif became so entrenched in almanacs that an untrained viewer with little or no literacy would have recognized it with ease. (9)

Nochlin was the first art historian to identify the specific prints on which Courbet based his composition, a discovery that was published in the Art Bulletin in 1967. (10) Keeping in mind Ranciere's demand that the spoken word complete the act of seeing, one can reconsider to advantage the art historian's prior discovery. Courbet's choice of an illustration whose key point was a conversation between three men is significant. In the print produced in Le Mans, Le vrai portrait du juif erranl, the schematic faces were rendered with sufficient detail to show the act of speaking (Fig. 2). The bourgeois in the middle, extending his three-cornered hat in the direction of the traveler, has twisted his head and shoulders toward his companion. His open mouth and engaged expression unmistakably indicate speech. Most likely he is signaling to his colleague the journeyman's arrival.

Although the print bears the inscription "Les bourgeois de la ville parlant au Juif errant," the representation unambiguously shows the two burghers talking to each other instead of addressing the traveler. The only acknowledgment of the outcast is the hat belonging to the bourgeois, placed next to the traveler's long walking stick and near the center of the image. Courbet significantly did not render speech in his version; instead, the three men greet each other through silent gestures. They do not rely on words, and their lips are sealed. In contrast to the compositional source, Bruyas, the man in the middle extending his hat, has turned away from his servant in order to greet Courbet. Unlike the analogous figure in the print, the body of Bruyas is not twisted in the painting: his face, arm, and torso are all oriented in the same direction, toward the artist. The focus of The Meeting is on the divergent ways in which Bruyas and his servant greet Courbet. The two local men do not talk to each other, the very possibility of speech being denied by the patron's...

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