of a banker: Portrait of Alfred Bruyas by Alexandre
Patrons and Power
Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection from the Musée Fabre,
and Francine Clark Art Institute through Sept. 6
There is nothing an artist wants more than a patron. But,
as in romance, such a relationship is fraught with risk, especially
the risk of getting into an unequal struggle for power. This
lesson, as well as many others, is there to be learned in
Bonjour Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection from the
Musée Fabre, Montpellier, currently on view at the Sterling
and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
Organized to travel under the auspices of the French Regional
American Museums Exchange (FRAME), the show has had a stop
in Richmond, Va., and will go on to Dallas and then San Francisco
before returning to its home museum in France. The creation
of FRAME is a story in itself: It was initiated in 1999 by
Elizabeth Rohatyn (whose husband, Felix, was U.S. ambassador
to France) and Françoise Cachin, former director of the Museums
of France, as a cultural exchange among museums in both countries
that were not on the beaten path of tourism—and the program
appears to have become a monumental success, with numerous
exhibitions having travelled among the member museums in places
such as Cleveland; Lyon; Portland, Ore.; Strasbourg; Minneapolis
and many others.
So, if you’ve never heard of Mont pellier—and you surely have
plenty of good company in that—it’s now on your radar as the
home of 19th-century heir and art patron Alfred Bruyas and
the museum upon which he bestowed his wonderful collection.
Bruyas was already building a collection when he encountered
the work of modernist painter Gustave Courbet at the Paris
Salon of 1853. After buying two of the three Courbets in the
Salon, both of which are in this show, Bruyas then commissioned
a portrait (also in the exhibition) and began a correspondence
with the artist.
Bruyas desired to be more than a patron or collector—he wanted
to be part of the artistic process—and he pursued his relationship
with Courbet to this end. Courbet must have felt he’d found
a kindred spirit, or at least a rich sucker, when he accepted
Bruyas’s invitation to visit the southern town of Montpellier
the following year. The primary result of Courbet’s five-month
stay was The Meeting, a major painting around which
this exhibition is built (and the derogatory nickname of which
has been taken as the show’s title).
In The Meeting, we see the figure of Courbet as the
rustic artist—hiking staff in hand, rucksack on his back—as
he encounters the well-heeled patron Bruyas for the first
time on a country road outside Montpellier. Bruyas, hat doffed
in greeting, stands stiffly in a fine coat; his manservant
stands behind him, studying the ground, while an eager-looking
hound pants happily at his side. Courbet regards Bruyas with
what looks like amusement or derision, his long, bristly black
beard pointed out at an arrogant angle toward the impassive
red-bearded banker’s son.
Courbet is clearly the more robust of the two (in fact, Bruyas
was sickly all his life) and apparently the more confident
as well. He may not have money, he appears to be thinking,
or fancy clothes, but he is obviously the better man here,
more worldly and better able to handle himself. He accepts
the patron on his own terms—as a submissive second in service
to the master and his art. Unfortunately, as it turned out,
Bruyas had other ideas, more along the lines of Courbet behaving
similarly to the hound—as a favored pet.
When The Meeting was exhibited, it drew harsh criticism.
The mock title, phrased as a greeting, sounds innocent enough—but
it places Courbet in the dominant role, with the patron calling
him “sir” instead of the other way around. Whereas Courbet
was likely pleased by the provocation the painting brought,
Bruyas was not, and he blamed Courbet, ultimately ending their
relationship in 1857. Perhaps the greatest shame Bruyas felt
was to recognize through this process that he was in fact
the vain, bourgeois collector-patron who couldn’t handle negative
publicity, and not the intellectual or moral equal of the
bold artist with whom he wished to be associated.
Bruyas cultivated relationships with other artists in his
lifetime, but none so significant as that with Courbet. The
exhibition examines these associations as well, in a room-by-room
format that is easy and enjoyable to navigate, and that sheds
light on the collector’s passion while providing the opportunity
simply to view a few truly wonderful paintings, along with
a good bit of lesser work. Notable in both groups are the
many portraits Bruyas commissioned.
One of the earlier commissioned portraits is also one of the
best, by Alexandre Cabanel. In it, the very accomplished young
painter (he was 23 when the painting was done in 1846) depicts
an equally accomplished young connoisseur, tortoiseshell spectacles
casually dangled from a hand, Renaissance-style background
provided by the gardens of the Villa Borghese in Rome.
Other Cabanel works are grouped nearby, including a related
trio (representing “work, religion and love” according to
the wall label) in which the third, titled Albaydé,
projects far more—and less—than love, being almost wholly
about lust and sexual abandon. Another strong piece is a self-portrait
of the artist at 29, said to have been inspired by paintings
Cabanel saw at the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence.
Room two is dedicated to the time and style of the Barbizon
school, and features a couple of large, masterful Théodore
Rousseau drawings and an impressive large 1869 landscape by
Jules Didier titled A Pine Forest at Castel Fugano.
There is also a very fetching portrait titled Woman Reclining
on a Divan by Joseph Désiré Court from 1829 which Bruyas
acquired in 1866—an example of numerous works included here
where the purchase was made not as a form of patronage but
to fill out the collection.
The third room in the exhibition is dominated by the Orientalism
of Eugène Delacroix and features an 1849 version of a famous
earlier Delacroix painting that hangs in the Louvre Museum,
depicting Women of Algiers in their Apartment. Another
Delacroix oil was purchased by a prescient Bruyas after the
artist’s death in 1863; it is a slightly sketchy 1824 portrait
of a boldly sensual young woman of Asian or North African
descent that the painter probably considered either too personal
or too rough to exhibit or sell. It is a fine addition to
The final room in the exhibition before that devoted to Courbet
represents romanticism, and includes the show’s only sculptures,
which are small bronze figures of animals and mythic figures
by Antoine-Louis Barye. The room however is overwhelmed by
another of Bruyas’s later purchases: a shockingly beautiful
grotesque by Théodore Géricault depicting severed human limbs.
The 1818-19 oil was a study for the great masterpiece The
Raft of the Medusa (though the subject did not make it
into the final painting, which hangs in the Louvre) and was
made by copying from cadaver parts salvaged from a hospital.
It took great courage on the part of the artist to paint,
and on the part of the collector to buy.
While Bruyas’s provincialism and preciousness come across
in the exhibition, so do his sincerity, vision and—for his
time—boldness. We owe a debt to him for assembling and donating
such a collection, as we do to Rohatyn for initiating the
exchange that brought it here. But, as Courbet in his confidence
was willing to show plainly in the title painting, it is always
the artist who is more important in the relationship. Because,
after all, an artist is always an artist, with or without
a patron—but a patron without an artist is nothing at all.
The Clark has arranged a spate of programming around the Bonjour
Monsieur Courbet! exhibition, including talks, tours and films.
The lecture series, featuring prominent art experts speaking
in the galleries, runs every Saturday at 2 PM. Call (413)
458-0524 or go to www.clarkart.edu for information.