The sitter of the portrait, like Courbet, spent much of his life in Ornans and was featured ubiquitously in Courbet's early oeuvre, such as the pensive listener in Une après-dinée à Ornans (see fig. 2). Courbet painted a smaller version of Cuenot in 1847, which served as the prototype for the larger and more detailed present work. Despite the inscription on the name plate and the painting's title upon its accession to the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1912, there is no evidence that Cuenot was the mayor of Ornans. However, he was the director of the Choral Society in Ornans, where he impressed Courbet with his musical proficiency.
Courbet submitted his Portrait d'Urbain Cuenot to the Salon of 1847, where it was refused. In a letter to his family he wrote: "My friends were delighted with Urbain's portrait... Nevertheless, I doubt very much that it will be received at the exhibition for that particular painting is entirely beyond the jurors' ideas" (Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, op. cit., letter 47-1). The Salon jury finally did accept the portrait in 1848; however, Courbet painted out Cuenot's hat before the exhibition. One may speculate that Courbet made this change at the insistence of Cuenot, a well-traveled dilettante, who may have found the hat made him appear too provincial. However, an obvious alternate explanation is that Courbet altered the painting hoping this change would result in jury acceptance upon its second submission. When the portrait was cleaned at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1943, the hat was revealed.
Mary Cassatt was a great connoisseur of Courbet's paintings and greatly admired his work. During trips to Paris, she encouraged the New York collector, Louisine Havemeyer to attend exhibitions of Courbet's works. With the Havemeyer bequest in 1929, The Metropolitan Museum of Art became the recipient of one of the most extensive collections of Courbets in the world. Nearly two decades earlier, the Pennsylvania Academy became the beneficiary of an important gift when Mary Cassatt gave them the present work in 1912.
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