In a warm and dark room, Courbet’s rich, ripe apples seem to glow as if in firelight. The heavy earthenware bowl lined with pale blue slip seems almost too small for the weight of the fruit piled into it. Among them is a single pomegranate, squeezed in at the base of the heap.
In 1871 Courbet was jailed for his involvement in the Paris Commune, the radical government that ruled Paris for a few months that year. Allowed to paint but forbidden to have models pose for him, his sister Zoé brought him flowers and fruit, and he was able to explore still-life painting, a genre almost new to him.
Courbet knew the still-life paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch artists in which rotting fruit and dying flowers were symbols of the fleeting nature of life. But Courbet’s apples are things of beauty, rather than a warning of death. They are his affirmation of life – each one singular, sweet-smelling and tactile.
In a warm and dark room Courbet’s rich, ripe apples seem to glow as if in firelight. Among them is a single pomegranate, squeezed in at the base of the heap. The heavy earthenware bowl lined with pale blue slip seems almost too small for the weight of the fruit piled into it. On the brown oak table, two apples sit in front of a pewter coffee pot that glints in the light. Close by is a tall, straight glass of red wine. The painting quickens all the senses. It is as if Courbet is saying that this simple scene holds all that is needed for fulfilment and contentment.
In 1871 Courbet was arrested for his part in the toppling of the Vendóme Column, erected in 1820 by Napoleon I to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz, during the Paris Commune, the radical government that ruled Paris from March to the end of May that year. Always opposed to imperial rule, in 1870 Courbet had refused the Légion d’honneur and became a founding member of the Arts Commission of the Commune. When the Commune fell, Courbet was taken to Sainte Pélagie, a jail in Paris, because of his fierce, rebellious stance.
In Sainte Pélagie he was treated not as a political prisoner but as a commoner, and was denied painting materials. Although he was eventually given permission to paint, he was confined to his cell and forbidden to have models to pose for him. His sister Zoé brought him flowers and fruit, and he was able to explore still-life painting, a genre almost new to him. After an illness he was transferred to a clinic in Neuilly for the rest of his sentence, as a ward of the state.
Courbet was now painting prolifically. In the tradition of jailed artists of the past, and as a matter of pride that he had been imprisoned for his political beliefs, Courbet inscribed his paintings with the name of the prison. But while this picture is inscribed ‘Sainte Pélagie’, it’s not clear whether he was in the jail or the clinic when he painted it. He was denied an exhibition, but collectors greeted his prison pictures with enthusiasm. Still-life pictures were increasingly appreciated at the time and he wrote that ‘my paintings are selling marvellously, and I am obliged to take advantage of it in order to make up for my disasters’.
The apples aren’t perfect. The shapes are uneven and knobbly, and the skins thick. A sharp knife would be needed to pare them, but the juice would run sweet from the red ones and sharp or bitter from the green. Several carry the brown marks of bruising or the beginnings of decay. Courbet had studied the still-life paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch artists in which rotting fruit, dying flowers, short lived insects or the embers of a fire were symbols of the fleeting nature of life. While flawed, Courbet’s apples are things of beauty. Rather than a warning of death, they are his affirmation of life – each one singular, sweet-smelling and tactile.
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