A Study in Positivism and Physiology: Readings of Gustave Courbet
This thesis explores ways in which the mid-nineteenth-century current of positivist thought impacted upon the work of the French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Guided by certain methodological imperatives set out in the theories of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra – in particular LaCapra’s identification of the need for historical practice to avoid reductive interpretation of data and to recognise the formulation of concepts through intersecting domains of knowledge and the specificity of their articulation in different primary sources – this thesis focuses upon interpretations of Courbet’s work formulated between 1848 and 1878, examines ideas developed within the intersecting domains of positivism and medical science, and highlights the deployment of these ideas for political leverage across the entire political spectrum. The thesis discovers ways in which positivist interpreters of Courbet’s work, including the artist himself, sought to criticise and resolve the social and political problems of the time by drawing upon theories designed to achieve social harmony through scientific understanding of human nature and its evolution. The thesis demonstrates that numerous social commentators referred to the images of people and social conditions in Courbet’s paintings to express positivist views about social decay, the enduring human potential to reform such decay, and an inevitable achievement of social harmony. I show that positivists interpreted the artist’s work with recourse to disciplines such as biology, physiology and physiognomy, as well as concepts such as ‘the physical and the moral,’ according to which the various physical, mental, emotional and moral dimensions of the human constitution were closely interconnected, evident in physical appearance, and crucially influenced by the changing environmental conditions impacting upon them, including society. I also show that, according to such prescriptions, the physical appearance of ordinary contemporary people represented in Courbet’s paintings indicated their physical and moral state and by extension the social conditions forming this state. Such physiognomical principles were often associated with caricature and portraiture to advance the critical and affective nature of Courbet’s paintings, which were seen as aesthetic stimulants in an evolutionary process of social reform. As the project shows, positivists thought that Courbet’s paintings expressed certain ideal notions of equality and materiality that served the political, ideological and often anti-religious interests of the writers concerned; in these views, all humans fostered the same inherent physiological desire for altruistic existence and shared equal status with animals and organisms as physiological beings conceived and sustained within biological nature.