Still later, a similar figure, this time in the guise of a gypsy woman or vagabond mother, appears in L’Aumône d’un mendiant à Ornans (Alms from a Beggar at Ornans), an 1868 work that certainly goes back for its conception to 1854–55, when Courbet was concerned with the figure of the beggar woman and the theme of misery embodied in it. In the later picture, she makes her appearance as a ragged gypsy, crouched on the road with her baby, watching her equally ragged little son receiving a coin from a gaunt, disheveled beggar man in the foreground. The little boy seems to shield his nose from the beggar’s rank odor. Although this work may indeed be, as Ségolѐne Le Men claims, part of Courbet’s series of the open road, it seems to me equally well to constitute a link in the chain of Courbet’s images engaging, in a variety of guises, with the dominating issue of misery and the indigent and marginalized human beings that bodied it forth, a theme that played an increasingly important role in the visual production of the later nineteenth century, although you would hardly know it from reading the texts of mainstream art history.
Courbet represented the theme of poverty—or, more accurately, the condition indicated by the French term misѐre—several times during the course of his career. One of his earliest works, 1849’s Les Casseurs de pierres (The Stonebreakers), is a powerful and self-conscious embodiment of the theme of misery and an indictment of the heartless social system that brings it about. Courbet himself was explicit about the nature of his subject, writing to his friend Francis Wey about his experience on November 26, 1849: “I had taken our carriage to go to the Chateau of St. Denis to do a landscape; near Maiziѐres, I stopped to look at two men breaking stones on the road. It is rare to encounter such a complete expression of misery, so then and there the idea for a painting came to me.” He continues with the same sense of concrete engagement with his subject and the pressing social issue of which it is a manifestation:
On one side is an old man of seventy, bent over his work, his sledgehammer raised; his skin is burned by the sun, his face is shaded by a straw hat. His pants, of a coarse material, are patched everywhere, and inside his cracked clogs his heels show through socks that were once blue. On the other side is a young man, with dusty hair and a swarthy complexion. His filth and tattered shirt reveals his sides and arms. A leather suspender holds up what is left of his trousers, and his muddy leather shoes show gaping holes on every side. The old man is kneeling; the young man is standing behind him energetically carrying a basket of broken stones. Alas, in that [social] class that is how one begins and that is how one ends up.
Courbet’s generalizations about the failures of the social order come at the end of, and are the result of, his experience of concrete human bodies, their clothes, their complexions. And Courbet goes on to generalize further about art and style, taking as his target one Louis Peisse, a critic, curator, and outspoken enemy of the artist, declaring: “Yes M. Peisse, we must drag art down from its pedestal. For too long you have been making art that is pomaded and ‘in good taste.’ For too long painters, even my contemporaries, have based their art on ideas and stereotypes.”
The importance of both the theme of The Stonebreakers and Courbet’s realistic and detailed approach to it is underscored by a similar passage in a long and important 1850 letter to Champfleury, in which he carefully describes The Stonebreakers in even more exaggerated and colorful terms, emphasizing their poverty and misery. The picture, he declares, is composed “of two very pitiable figures: one is an old man, an old machine grown stiff with service and age.” He then goes on to point out such abject details as “his drugget pants, which could stand by themselves,” with a large patch, and his “worn blue socks” through which “one sees his heels in his cracked wooden clogs.” The young man behind him is now specified as being about fifteen years of age, “suffering from scurvy.” And, he adds: “Some dirty linen tatters are his shirt. . . . His pants are held up by a leather suspender and on his feet he has his father’s old shoes, which have long since developed gaping holes on all sides.” After describing the tools of their work and the landscape setting, he finishes, once more, with a testament to the veracity of his image—“I made up none of it, dear friend. I saw these people every day on my walk”—and ends up with the same generalization he made in his letter to the Weys: “In that station one ends up the same way as one begins.”
Interestingly enough, at the same time he was working on The Stonebreakers, and using what would appear to be a related model, Courbet created the little-known Le Vagabond (The Vagabond, 1843–49), also known as Le Chemineau (The Tramp), recently published in a monograph on the artist by Ségolѐne Le Men. This ragged figure, roughly dressed and awkwardly posed, is seated, dozing, his head in his hand, by the side of the road, his ill-shod feet splayed out before him; his wanderer’s stick and bundle lie on the rocky soil by his side. One might say that there is a curious affinity of both mood and posture between this resting vagabond and the seated Irish beggar woman of the Studio. The isolation, the marginality, and the sheer lack of minimal self-support or dignity are similar in both: both embody the condition of misѐre in their very being.