Les Lutteurs (the Wrestlers)
( Originally Published 1913 )
IT will be remembered that in 1841 Courbet painted a "Classical Walpurgis Night." When the jury was so far rejuvenated as to allow the artist to exhibit the picture in 1848 it provoked this prophetic saying of Champfleury: "I say it now and bid you bear it in mind! This man, this unknown man who has painted the ' Nuit ' will be a great painter."
We shall have plenty of opportunity for remarking on Courbet's sturdy confidence in his talent and he himself has authorized us to do so (in an unutterable conversation with M. de Nieuwerkerque), " the proudest man in France!" We must therefore observe in this instance that, in spite of Champfleury's eulogy, the very first, apparently, to appear in print, the artist set so little store by the picture that he painted it out one day in order to use the same canvas for another.
This picture was "Les Lutteurs " (in the Léon Hirsch collection at Chenonceaux). It was exhibited just above the "Baigneuses" in the Menu- Plaisir gallery, where the Salon was opened in May, 1853 (having previously been held in the Louvre and in the Palais Royal).
This strange picture is interesting and valuable inasmuch as it tells us how uncertain was the realist doctrine at that time. The top of the Arc de 1'Etoile, just seen above the fence of the Hippodrome, tells us that the picture is intended to be modern. But against his open air setting, painted in recklessly with " insolent crudity " and relegated to the background, on a conventional piece of turf which seems to give very little support to the two wrestlers, the painter has built up two extremely academic figures, under the purely factitious light of the studio. The shadows, according to "L'Artiste," are of a tone to delight the dealers in yellow cameos.
However the hand of a master is shown in the magnificent handling of the paint, the supple drawing, the bold foreshortening. But these qualities were not enough to redeem the picture. Delacroix, who did not care for "Les Baigneuses," found in "Les Lutteurs " the same lack of harmony between the central figures and the back-ground, which " kills them, and ought to be cut away all round fully three feet." "Why look out for the ignoble ? " cried Boyeldieu d'Auvigny. "A repulsive picture," said Horsin-Déon " the presence of which in the Salon is inexplicable! "