This week, we take a look at Gustave Courbet’s “The Desperate Man”… Courbet looks a little bit like Johnny Depp, or perhaps Johnny Depp looks a little bit like Courbet. The reason I chose this painting is that often times when you see an artist’s self portrait, the artist attempts to be posturing — attempting to present themselves as an idealized version of whom they are, or want to be.
In an earlier post, we featured a self portrait of Konstantin Vasilyev with a self portrait goes out of the way to portray himself as “the man.” What’s cool about Gustave Courbet’s self portrait is the hair-pulling frustration with a hint of terror as he stares out at us; literally a portrait of desperation. The fact that his eyes are staring right out at us — as if looking us in the eye seems to heighten the desperation, but also to add a hint of humor. Humor because the pose Courbet is striking whilst looking right at us is almost something we’d never encounter in real life, hence the image contains a touch of the ludicrous.
Yet, ludicrous though the painting may be, it also appears insightful — because though we may not often come across a person striking Courbet’s pose, nor strike it ourselves… it’s something all too human that almost everyone can relate to. So, as with great art as great with fiction, it is the artist’s concretization of a type that makes this image one that will last with us long after we’ve seen it.
A few points of technique that help heighten the dramatic effect of this image would likely be the hard lighting on Courbet’s forehead which has the effect of a spotlight.