In this innovative self-portrait, Gustave Courbet has dramatically envisioned himself at the edge of a cliff in a mountain landscape, apparently on the verge of falling down into an abyss. His countenance is one of despair, and his troubled state of mind is emphasized by his left hand touching his head in an anguished gesture. His right hand reaches out toward us, out into the void, as though he wants to brace himself but is unable to find anything to grab hold of. Are we witnessing a scene fraught with peril? Or is it all just a nightmare?
The painting can be interpreted biographically, as a self-representation painted during a difficult time for the artist. Courbet’s youth was plagued with doubt and a lack of self-confidence, even as he described himself as extremely ambitious in several letters to family and friends. We know that throughout his entire life, but especially early on in his career, he was ambivalent to his outer selfsatisfaction and inner uncertainty. With this in mind, the painting can be seen as allegorizing Courbet’s mental state at the time.
This personal aspect should not, however, overshadow the general references that the painting also opens up for. French and German romanticism in particular tended to link artistic genius with madness. The painting can thus also be understood as visualizing the idea of the artist as a lonely genius, towering above the common crowd, and as someone who is elevated to the rank of something incomprehensibly sublime – a state that arouses fear, ambivalence, and desperation, but that also provides more profound insight.
Text: Vibeke Waallann Hansen
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0