Courbet’s characterization of himself as the “proudest and most arrogant man in France” seems distant from the horrified figure in The Desperate Man. A little-known self-portrait completed around the same time, entitled Man Mad with Fear (ca. 1843), shows the artist with an almost identically wretched expression, but in this scene, he crouches down at the edge of an abyss. Here, the Romantic prospect of the solitary genius is literalized to comical effect, the looming threat of failure exemplified by the ridiculous chasm.
The Desperate Man, therefore, focuses in on a moment of dichotomy in the artist’s life: Just as Courbet began to shed the Romantic tropes of his forebears to attend to a new, modern art, he experienced the now-cliched insecurity of the young artist who stares down his own unknown future. When taken alongside his other self-portraits—and with the fact that it largely remained in his studio during his lifetime—The Desperate Man seems intensely personal and, thus, deeply genuine. In many of his paintings, Courbet was committed to capturing the truth of modern life, or the unwashed masses. But in this picture, he takes off his mask, revealing a much more vulnerable truth about himself.