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.
- Gustave Courbet
- Mère Grégoire
- Oil on canvas
- Inscribed, lower left, on counter: G. C.
- 129 × 97.5 cm (50 3/4 × 38 3/8 in.)
- Wilson L. Mead Fund