Representing Misery: Courbet’s Beggar Woman 

Gustave Courbet, L’Atelier du peintre (1855), oil on canvas, 361 × 598 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Within the complex allegorical structure of Gustave Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre (Painter’s Studio, 1854–55), the Irish beggar woman constitutes not merely a dark note of negativity calling into question the painting’s utopian promise but, rather, a negation of that promise as a whole. The poor woman—dark, indrawn, passive, a source of melancholy within the painting as well as a reference to it outside its boundaries—is both a sardonic memorial to Albrecht Dürer’s historical Melencolia I (1513–14) and the repressed that returns (one might think of William Hogarth’s drunken, degraded mother reaching for her snuffbox as her luckless infant slides off her lap in the British artist’s moralizing allegory of 1751, Gin Lane). She is a figure undermining both the would-be harmony of Courbet’s allegory and the image of art’s triumph that dominates the center.

Because of the material specificity of Courbet’s visual language, we are made aware, in the most substantial way possible, of allegory’s alternate potential: to emphasize the signifier at the expense of the signified. Embodying in a single figure the convergence of gender and class oppressions, the Irish beggar woman becomes, for me, the central figure—the annihilation of Courbet’s project in the Painter’s Studio, not merely a warning about its difficulty. Figuring all that is inexplicable and irrational—female, poor, mother, passive, unproductive yet reproductive—she denies and negates all the male-dominated productive energy of the central portion and thus functions as the interrupter of the whole sententious message of progress, peace, and reconciliation of the allegory as a whole. Bathed in ineluctable darkness, the Irishwoman resists the light of productive reason and constructive representation, that luminous and seductive aura surrounding the artist and his work.

Take her legs, for instance: bare, flabby, pale, unhealthy, yet not without a certain unexpected pearly sexual allure. The left one folds back in on itself, exposing its vulnerable fleshiness to the gaze of the viewer yet suggestively leading to more exciting, darker passages, areas doubly forbidden because this is a mother as well as an object of charity. The revealing of naked legs is, in the codes of nineteenth-century decorum, a signifier of degradation in a woman, an abandonment of self-respect. The implication of self-abasement is reiterated by the place where she sits: directly on the ground, so that the bare legs also figure in a secular, nontranscendent updating of the Madonna of Humility. But the legs of the Irishwoman signify powerfully within the text of the painting itself, as the antithesis of another pair: those of Courbet himself. Shapely, perky, aggressively thrust both forward toward the spectator and back into the pictorial space, the artist’s legs are clad in elegant black-and-green-striped trousers. Picasso had a similar pair made for himself, symbolically assuming Courbet’s role as the leader of artistic and social rebellion, as well as overtly stepping into the pants of an overtly phallic master painter.

The difference between the legs of misery and lack and the legs of mastery and possession establishes the gender terms underpinning the meanings generated by the painting as a whole, within which the beggar woman evokes a dream of justice by personifying—or, more accurately, embodying—the manifest injustice of the existing social order represented by Courbet. That the figure had important implications for the artist is indicated by the fact that he referred to it several times, first in the form of what appears to be a sketch from life on a page from one of the Louvre Sketchbooks. In a letter to his friend and supporter, Champfleury, from Ornans, probably of November–December 1854, he identifies the seated woman with her baby as “an Irishwoman nursing a child,” and adds: “The Irishwoman is another product from England. I encountered that woman in a London street. Her only clothing were [sic] a black straw hat, a green veil with holes, and a frayed black shawl beneath which she carried a naked child under her arm.”1

Gustave Courbet, L’Atelier du peintre, detail of Irish beggar woman

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,2 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 misѐre3—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.4

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.”5

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.”6

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.7 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.

Gustave Courbet, L’Aumône d’un mendiant à Ornans (1868), oil on canvas, 221 × 175.3 cm. Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Although it is a major work in what we might call Courbet’s “misѐre series,” and one on which the artist expended considerable verbal as well as visual energy, The Stonebreakers, like The Vagabond and the Studio’s beggar woman, are far from being the only examples of this theme that Courbet engaged. The monumental Les Demoiselles de village (Young Ladies of the Village), exhibited in the Salon of 1852, purchased by the Comte de Morny, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, certainly deals with the theme of poverty, and its amelioration. It represents Courbet’s three sisters—Zoé, Juliette, and Zélie—as well as the object of their benevolence, a ragged, barefooted little guardian of cattle, in a peaceful pasture at the foot of the Roche de dix heures near Ornans. Although Courbet, during this period immediately following Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état, was doubtless deeply upset by the ruler’s perfidy and the persecution and subsequent exile of his old friend Max Buchon, his avowed intentions in Young Ladies of the Village were far from inflammatory. Nevertheless, the letter in which he describes the project to Champfleury has an undertone of sarcasm that belies his conciliatory phrases: “It is hard for me to tell you what I have done this year for the Exhibition. I am afraid of expressing myself badly. You will be a better judge than I when you see my painting. For one thing, I have misled my judges, I have put them on to new terrain: I have made something graceful [charming]. All they have been able to say until now will be useless.”8

But is this really an image totally lacking in a political agenda, a harmless genre scene in a sunny landscape? Certainly, it was not received as  “charming.” Could the theme of charity—detached from religion, attached, specifically, to Courbet’s sisters and his home territory—itself raise hackles, a specter of insubordination or even revolutionary socialism at this moment in French history? Diane Lesko, in her excellent article on the Young Ladies of the Village, points out that the painting may have been meant as a not-so-subtle reminder to Louis Napoleon that he had once been the author of a radical text on the subject of abject poverty, “The Extinction of Pauperism.” Written in exile and first published in 1844, the future Emperor called for the alleviation of pauperism by means of “a communal system of sharing through the acquisition and rejuvenation of barren land, tilled by the poor and unemployed, who would move from the cities back to the country” with “instruction … [to] come from qualified bourgeois landholders.”9

Although far from being a simple piece of political propaganda, the allegorical potential of the Young Ladies of the Village cannot be thrust aside as irrelevant to the painter’s intentions and achievement. In an angry letter to the editor of the Méssager de l’Assemblée of 1851, in which he mentions that he is working on the Young Ladies of the Village, Courbet declares his allegiance to the cause of social radicalism: “M. Garcin calls me ‘the socialist painter.’ I accept that title with pleasure. I am not only a socialist, but a democrat and a Republican as well—in a word, a partisan of all the revolution and above all a Realist. But this no longer concerns M. Garcin, as I wish to establish here, for ‘Realist’ means a sincere lover of the honest truth.”10 In emphasizing his “Realist” affiliation along with his political ones, Courbet is referring both to the style, in the broadest sense, as well as the subject of his work. The Young Ladies of the Village bodies forth poverty and charity—the giving of bread to the needy, without either pathos or picturesque trappings—as an unsentimental everyday affair, concretely and materially represented in a setting that is the artist’s own countryside, rough, rocky, unmanicured. It is a small-scale act of justice, a benevolent gesture bridging the chasm separating the comfortable from the needy, that has much larger implications.

Gustave Courbet, Les Demoiselles de village (1851–52), oil on canvas, 194.9 × 261 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Courbet returned to the theme of misère in the 1860s, with his La Pouvresse du village (Poor Woman of the Village) of 1866, and, even more forcefully, in Alms from a Beggar at Ornans, exhibited in the Salon of 1868. The Poor Woman features a pathetic trio of the down and out in a bleak but ravishingly painted winter setting. The protagonist of the piece bears an enormous stack of faggots on her back and leads a recalcitrant goat on a string; before her trudges a little girl, ill clad and bare handed, clutching a large loaf of country bread to her chest. The child seems to be the younger sister of the little girl in les demoiselles de village, inadequately garbed for the freezing atmosphere. Courbet is, in effect, demonstrating the shocking lack of resources of this little family: the woman forced to gather firewood—her only source of warmth; the goat her only possession and source of nourishment, along with the bread, perhaps, a charitable gift from the commune or an individual. Where are they trudging, as the shadows lengthen and storm clouds threaten? Do they have a goal—a hut however humble to go to—or are they homeless as well as resourceless? In isolating their dark silhouettes against a background of icy landscape and snow-covered cottages, Courbet suggests this possibility, an extreme, and local, case of destitution.

Gustave Courbet, La Pouvresse du village (1866), oil on canvas, 86 × 126 cm. Private Collection

The climactic painting of the misѐre series of the 1860s, however, is the monumental Alms from a Beggar at Ornans of 1868, now in the Burrell Collection of the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum. In this work, “his last large protest canvas against the injustices of the world,” according to Benedict Nicolson,11 Courbet reverts to specific motifs related to his paintings of the mid-1850s: the ragged gypsy woman with her baby seated in front of the dilapidated caravan in the background seems to be derived from the same drawing in Courbet’s Louvre Sketchbook that provided the source for the beggar woman and her child in the Painter’s Studio; the little “gypsy” boy who receives the coin in the Glasgow painting bears a striking resemblance to the admiring youth who stands to the left of Courbet in the earlier work. Yet the central incident of the old mendicant presenting alms to a ragged urchin probably owes its inception to a theme that had inspired one of Courbet’s major paintings, La Rencontre (The Meeting), of 1854—the theme of the Wandering Jew.12 This version of the legend, in one of its later and more socially critical metamorphoses, was published by Wentzel in Wissembourg in 1860 and is discussed by Champfleury at considerable length in his essay on the subject. According to Champfleury, the basic essence of the legend of the Wandering Jew, its “allegory of charity,” had finally been revealed in the Wissembourg broadside, where, in a cartouche interrupting the ornamental order at the base, the Jew is represented dropping a coin into the hat held out to him by a poor man. “For the first time,” concludes Champfleury, “the print has shown the Wandering Jew as human. His role is finished. He is saved. Punished for his lack of charity, he is uplifted by charity.”13

Gustave Courbet, La Rencontre (1854), oil on canvas, 129 × 149 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

It must be noted that the theme of the poor dispensing charity to those who are even poorer is not restricted to the circle of Courbet or even to France itself. A year earlier, the Scottish genre painter and “poverty specialist” Thomas Faed (later admired by Vincent van Gogh), had exhibited a much more sentimental and appealing version of the theme, The Poor, the Poor Man’s Friend, in which a poor but respectable fisherman’s family is depicted giving alms to a ragged beggar and his child, who stand hesitantly at the left margin of the painting.14 In this case, it is the much-debated question of the two classes of the poor—the working poor versus mendicant pauperdom—that is at stake.15 Courbet’s painting embodies a much grimmer, less appealing vision of the situation. Both donor and receiver of charity are gritty, graceless, and unlovely. The physical texture of the painting is rough and grimy. The physical decay of the beggar’s body is called into allegorical play; the little receiver of charity puts up his hand to guard himself from the stench of the old man’s unwashed body as the coin is dropped into his upraised hand; the beggar’s foot is wrapped in a filthy bandage and he supports himself on a crutch; his face is lined, his stovepipe hat (remnant of more prosperous times?) battered. If we consider this in some ways to be an older brother of the Wandering Jew figure represented earlier in The Meeting, we should note that every aspect of that earlier, more optimistic painting has been transformed in the later version: even the friendly, well-bred, and welcoming hound of the earlier picture has been replaced by the snarling, mangy cur to the left of the beggar; the radically ungroomed gypsy woman stares up sullenly at the charitable deed taking place before her very eyes. The roadway in the foreground is bare and rocky. In its caricatural grotesqueness, Alms from a Beggar at Ornans makes little attempt to capture the viewer’s sympathy or compassion. On the contrary, like a political cartoon, it makes its point about poverty and marginality through hyperrealistic caricature. It does not demand sympathy as much as it calls for action.

Thomas Faed, The Poor, the Poor Man’s Friend (1867), oil on canvas, 40.6 × 61 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

If the figure of the beggar woman in the Painter’s Studio with which I began this essay may be understood in some way as a dream of justice shrouded in occluding darkness, then Alms from a Beggar at Ornans is a call for justice in broad daylight, both unequivocal and unappealing, stressing the most unlovely aspects of misery as a universal social condition afflicting men and women, old and young, dogs as well as humans. Indeed, the theme of misѐre became increasingly popular as the nineteenth century progressed, with both advanced artists and conservative ones (and some who are harder to classify), turning to it in paintings, prints, and above all, political caricatures. Most prominent among those devoting themselves to the theme is the recently “rediscovered” Fernand Pelez (1848–1913), whose chilling and almost hypnotically hypernaturalist maternal outcast, seated on the pavement surrounded by her children, baby at her breast, the antiheroine of Sans asile of 1883, seems, whether intentionally or not, to refer back to Courbet’s beggar woman. Pelez’s series of male paupers might be considered an urbanized reformulation of Courbet’s alms-giving beggar man and his Wandering Jew theme more generally.16

Fernand Pelez, Sans asile or Les Expulsés (1883), oil on canvas, 136 × 236 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais

New terms evolve with new forms of representation: proletariat or lumpenproletariat, at the extreme end of the poverty scale. Gustave Doré, in his powerful black-and-white illustrations for London (1872) creates a visual counterpart for Friedrich Engels’s Condition of the Working Classes in England (1845), in a series of graphic vignettes of the various aspects of urban poverty and degradation. Both Manet and Pissarro turn to the margins of society for their subjects: Manet’s Le Vieux musicien (Old Musician, 1862) displays the whole repertory of the theater of pauperdom—a little mother and child, ragged children, an old street violinist—and his Le Chiffonnier (Ragpickers, 1869), if indebted to Velázquez, shares Courbet’s propensity for representing the poorest of the poor, albeit in an urban setting. Pissarro, in his highly political drawing series, Les Turpitudes sociales (1889–90), intended for his English nieces, condemns, in no uncertain terms the entire capitalist system, mercilessly caricaturing bankers and brokers, sympathetically taking up the cause of the powerless and pauperized—especially the female victims of systemic poverty—with brutal graphism. His depictions of women sewing in sweatshops, a wife abused by her husband, a lost girl jumping off a bridge observed by blasé spectators, or a group of women gassed by a leaky stove vividly convey the injustices lying at the heart of the economic and social system he condemns.

At almost the same time, Van Gogh works on his series of “orphan men,” on the weavers and the potato eaters, treating these poor, unlovely, and marginalized people in a deliberately awkward, expressive style of graphic intensity. Yet there is a difference, a gap between Courbet’s relation to his paupers and powerless outcasts and those of the later vanguard, a palpable difference that speaks against any easy notion of continuity and “influence.” For Manet, these themes are formally distanced, almost set in quotation marks, as part of a larger project of flattened pictorial irony. Pissarro, despite his committed anarchist politics, never published his Les Turpitudes sociales; they were meant for private enlightenment and delectation. Van Gogh turned away from his early dark-toned, earth-tinged focus on poverty and human disarray to more colorful and aesthetically self-conscious evocations of peasant life in the south of France, albeit with dark overtones.

There seems to be, in short, a direct antithesis between vanguard formal priorities and the representation of human misery with political implications. In this sense, Courbet’s connection with his modernist “followers” must be examined more scrupulously and, indeed, called into question. The acceptance of “modernism” as the only viable way of confronting the contemporary world in all its diversity has been raised in recent years, and rightly so. There is more than one way of being of one’s times, of being modern. Courbet’s beggar woman and his whole series of representations of the misery of the modern world and a concomitant call for justice within it is one of the most important of these “deviant” visions.

Camille Pissarro, “Capital” from Les Turpitudes socials (1889–90), pen and brown ink over graphite drawing on paper pasted in an album; album: 31 × 24 cm. Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva

1 Letter to Champfleury, Ornans, November–December 1854, in Letters of Gustave Courbet, ed. and trans. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 54–55. The emendation is mine.

2 Ségolène Le Men, Courbet, trans. D. Dusinberre et al. (New York: Abbeville Press, 2008), pp. 156ff.

3 See the distinction between poverty and misѐre made by Saint Thomas Aquinas, for whom poverty represented the lack of superfluity, whereas misery signified the lack of the necessary. See the long discussion of misѐre in Encyclopédie de L’Agora: Misѐre,, pp. 1–3. For the English terminology of poverty in the broadest sense, see Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (New York: Random House, 1983).

4 Letter to M. and Mme. Francis Wey, Ornans, November 26, 1849, in Courbet raconté par lui-même et par ses amis, ed. Pierre Courthion, vol. 2 (Geneva: P. Cailler, 1948), pp. 75–76. Translation by the author.

5 Ibid., p. 88

6 Letter to Champfleury, Ornans, February–March 1850, in Letters, pp. 92–93.

7 See Le Men, Courbet, p. 92, fig. 74.

8 Letter to Champfleury, Ornans, January (?) 1852, in Letters, pp. 52–53 and 106.

9 See Diane Lesko, “From Genre to Allegory in Gustave Courbet’s Les Demoiselles de Village,” Art Journal 38 (1979), p. 176 and p. 177, n51.

10 Letter to the editor of Le Méssager de l’Assemblée, Ornans, November 19, 1851, in Letters, pp. 51–53 and 103.

11 Benedict Nicolson, “Courbet’s L’Aumône d’un Mendiant,” Burlington Magazine 104 (1962), p. 74. The entire article is extremely informative.

12 See Linda Nochlin, “Gustave Courbet’s Meeting: A Portrait of the Artist as a Wandering Jew” (1967), in Courbet (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), pp. 28–54.

13 Champfleury, Histoire de l’imagerie populaire (Paris, 1869), pp. 76–77 and 102.

14 For an illustration and discussion of this painting, see Julien Treuherz, Hard Times: Social Realism in Victorian Art (London: Lund Humphries, 1987), pp. 41–45.

15 For this issue, and many others concerning the understanding of poverty in the nineteenth century (although it deals specifically with England), see Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty.

16 See the excellent catalogue of an exhibition that took place in Paris in 2009–10, Fernand Pelez (18481913): La parade des humbles (Paris: Petit Palais, 2009).