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Mère Grégoire

Dark portrait of older woman in black dress with lace collar, flowers.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • Dark portrait of older woman in black dress with lace collar, flowers.


1855 and 1857/59


Gustave Courbet
French, 1819-1877

About this artwork

As the undisputed leader of the Realist movement, Gustave Courbet played a crucial role in the development of modern French painting. But critics and the public did not easily accept his large, naturalistic, and unsentimental depictions of commonplace, often rural subjects; they called him the “apostle of ugliness.”

The ample, demurely dressed subject of Mère Grégoire was inspired by the heroine of a popular song written in the 1820s by French lyricist Pierre-Jean Béranger. Béranger often penned ribald lyrics; his “Madame Grégoire” was the proprietor of a house of prostitution. Courbet depicted the woman here in the midst of a transaction, with coins scattered on a marble-topped counter and a ledger beneath her right hand. Under her other hand is the small bell she uses to summon one of her female employees. She presumably offers an unseen customer a flower, a symbol of love.

The painting may also have had a political subtext. Béranger and Courbet were fierce opponents of the monarchy and the Second Empire, respectively. In the mid-1850s, when Courbet began his portrait of Mère Grégoire, the government harshly attacked the songs of the popular writer as part of an effort to restrict free expression. Courbet’s decision to portray Béranger’s Madame Grégoire, whose flower exhibits the blue, white, and red of the French flag, may represent a protest not only against government censorship but also against the Second Empire itself, making the subject of this painting into a heroine embodying the rights to freedom in life and love that were forbidden under a repressive regime.


On View, Gallery 222


Painting and Sculpture of Europe


Gustave Courbet


Mère Grégoire


France (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Oil on canvas


Inscribed, lower left, on counter: G. C.


129 × 97.5 cm (50 3/4 × 38 3/8 in.)

Credit Line

Wilson L. Mead Fund

Reference Number


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