Gustave Courbet
French, 1819–1877
Mère Grégoire
1855 and 1857/59

Oil on canvas
50 3/4 x 38 3/8 in. (129 x 97.5 cm)
Wilson L. Mead Fund, 1930.78

Mère Grégoire is a character from a popular song written in 1820 by French lyricist Pierre Jean Béranger. As described by Béranger, she was the portly proprietress of a Parisian brothel. In this painting Courbet represented the madame behind a counter, negotiating with an unseen client. With one hand, she offers a tri-colored flower, a symbol of love and possibly an allusion to French Republican politics. (The red, white, and blue of the flower match the colors of the French flag.) Her other hand, open and expectant of payment, rests on a ledger. The madame will sell the “flower” for money and then ring the small bell to call over a female companion for the client.

Courbet began painting Mère Grégoire in 1855. At the time, the painting was only a small portrait of a woman’s head. In the following years, Courbet gradually enlarged the composition to include the half-length figure and the interior setting. In choosing to depict Mère Grégoire, Courbet aligned himself with the revolutionary beliefs of the poet Béranger and others of his generation, for whom the character represented the rights to freedom in love and life that were forbidden under the repressive French government of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–1875). Courbet’s Mère Grégoire serves as an example of Realism because it depicts a common woman, a madame no less, as its subject, with no attempt to embellish or idealize her appearance or conceal her occupation. As the artist bluntly noted in his remarks on Realist philosophy, “The art of painting can consist only in the representation of objects visible and tangible to the painter.” Courbet’s image is uncompromising: the common subject is represented through somber tones and roughly applied pigment, often laid down by the artist with a palette knife.