Gabrielle, part one

5451_174058

n

One of my favorite paintings at the Art Institute is Rêverie (portrait de Gabrielle Borreau). (This painting is mentioned in an earlier post about asymmetric faces – see Putting your best face forward.) The painting is in gallery 222 in a corner, right next to a hydrothermograph. Unfortunately, most visitors spend more time watching the hydrothermograph’s hypnotic needle trace its path on the roll of paper than they do looking at poor Gabrielle. I have therefore decided to champion her cause. At the moment you can’t even buy a postcard of Rêverie at the museum shop. By the time I’m done maybe there’ll even be posters and mugs!

n

As I said in my previous post, Gabrielle is what one would call belle laide in French: her unusual features, bordering on ugly, are what constitute her beauty. However, most critics during Courbet’s time stopped at the “bordering on ugly” part of the last sentence. Take for instance this comment about the painting from the Fine Arts Quarterly Review written by Philip Gilbert Hamerton in 1863: “It is difficult to speak of Courbet without losing patience. Everything he touches becomes unpleasant. If he had to paint the most exquisite beauty, he would find something ugly about her.” Don’t get me wrong; not everyone today is as mesmerized by Gabrielle’s beauty as I am: one person I interviewed, seeing how much I loved the painting and not wanting to rain on my parade, said “I like how her head is oversized; it makes me want to know what she is thinking.” Translation: “Damn! What a big head! What was the artist thinking?”

n

Last week I was reading about the painting’s history: who owned it, where it had been exhibited, what had been written about it, and I noticed something strange: during its 145 years of existence the painting has had no less than three different names: in 1863 it was Rêverie, in 1922 it was Portrait de Mme. Boreau, and then in 1977 it suddenly became Rêverie (portrait de Gabrielle Borreau). Who added the extra “r”? Where did “Gabrielle” come from? I suddenly felt like a forty-something Nancy Drew with a history-mystery to solve! Vicki Schneider and the Case of the Borreau Painting. I thought of the name Borreau, how by adding a “u” to it it becomes “executioner” (bourreau) and a chill ran down my spine…

n

My investigation began by reading a biography of Courbet where I learned that he spent eleven months in Saintonge, a region in Poitou-Charentes, and had an affair with a woman named Laure Boreau. Bam! I was onto something. I spent the next day in the Ryerson Library at the Art Institute, a regal place where young people solemnly bring books to your table and you feel as if you should be dressed in organza or tulle instead of denim. Here’s what I found: Gabrielle was Laure’s daughter and “Borreau” is the correct spelling. Curators corrected the gaffe in 1966 during a Courbet exposition in Rome thanks to the painstaking research of Roger Bonniot who wrote a 405 page book on the eleven months Courbet spent in Saintonge – that’s approximately 36 pages per month! Bonniot combed through every document however innocuous, interviewed every living witness possible, and (thankfully) doesn’t spare us the trite, lurid, and comic tales of French provincial life in his book. My favorite anecdote: Courbet fell for Laure whose husband Jules (in slang this first name loosely translates as “loverboy”) owned a shop for ladies called La Fiancée. Well, La Fiancée was on the brink of bankruptcy and Courbet saw his opening: he saved Jule’s store and got Laure in return – he even lived with the Borreaus and set up his studio on their second floor. In short, Jules pimped his wife! Of course, Laure didn’t mind and already had quite a reputation in Saintes as a party girl. As for Gabrielle, Courbet developed a real fondness for her and nicknamed her “Briolette” (which sounds to me like a name for a mini-wheel of Brie). Briolette was also devoted to “uncle” Courbet and visited him years later at Sainte-Pélagie where he was imprisoned for political activities during the Commune.

n

If there aren’t posters of Gabrielle by the end of next year at least I can try to get her moved away from the distracting hydrothermograph. Of course, to be successful, I think I should go to France and do some research (perhaps track down the living relatives of Laure and Gabrielle?). I can just see myself having an apératif in the salon with Laure’s great-great-grand-daughter and later looking through old family albums and letters. I wonder if she’ll have a big head? Tomorrow I’ll finish Bionnet’s book in the Ryerson library and try to find some clues about the descendants’ whereabouts, but there are also pecuniary details to consider – getting to France is expensive these days. What I need is a big advance on my book or a Jules to pay for the trip. Maybe Oprah could help? John D. and Catherine C., where are you?

n

_________________________________________________________________________

n

Here are some questions for consideration when you see Rêverie. Let me know what you think (and give me the reading on the hydrothermograph).

n

For those of you who speak French, I want to share with you two quotes from Roger Bionnet’s book Gustave Courbet en Saintonge. First, the author’s comment on Courbet’s situation with the Borreaus:

n

“Tirons de ces faits cette conclusion insolite que si les mécènes des Beaux-Arts se recrutent souvent dans le haut négoce, il peut se faire par exception qu’un grand artiste devienne le bienfaiteur du petit commerce.” Assez précieux notre Bionnet, n’est-ce pas?

n

And this one out of a letter from Courbet to Laure Borreau upon learning that she is pregnant in 1873 (which would make her well into her fifties):

n

“…ce qui m’étonne, c’est que vous soyez encore en mal d’enfant. Enfin! Vous voulez à vous seule repeupler la terre de républicains!” Sacré Courbet!

n


Posted

in

, ,

by

Tags:

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *