Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (10 June 1819 – 31 December 1877) was a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting. The Realist movement bridged the Romantic movement (characterized by the paintings of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix) with the Barbizon School and the Impressionists. Courbet occupies an important place in 19th century French painting as an innovator and as an artist willing to make bold social commentary in his work.
Movements: Realism, Social Realism
Courbet painted figurative compositions, landscapes, seascapes, and still-lifes. He courted controversy by addressing social issues in his work, and by painting subjects that were considered vulgar, such as the rural bourgeoisie, peasants, and working conditions of the poor. His work belonged neither to the predominant Romantic nor Neoclassical schools. History painting, which the Paris Salon esteemed as a painter’s highest calling, did not interest Courbet, who stated that “the artists of one century [are] basically incapable of reproducing the aspect of a past or future century …” Instead, he believed that the only possible source for a living art is the artist’s own experience.
His work, along with the work of Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet, became known as Realism. For Courbet realism dealt not with the perfection of line and form, but entailed spontaneous and rough handling of paint, suggesting direct observation by the artist while portraying the irregularities in nature. He depicted the harshness in life, and in so doing challenged contemporary academic ideas of art.
Courbet was born in 1819 to Régis and Sylvie Oudot Courbet in Ornans (department of Doubs). Though a prosperous farming family, anti-monarchical feelings prevailed in the household. (His maternal grandfather fought in the French Revolution.) Courbet’s sisters, Zoé, Zélie and Juliette, were his first models for drawing and painting. After moving to Paris he returned home to Ornans often to hunt, fish and find inspiration. He went to Paris in 1839 and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse. An independent spirit, he soon left, preferring to develop his own style by studying the paintings of Spanish, Flemish and French masters in the Louvre, and painting copies of their work.
His first works were an Odalisque suggested by the writing of Victor Hugo and a Lélia illustrating George Sand, but he soon abandoned literary influences, choosing instead to base his paintings on observed reality. Among his paintings of the early 1840s are several self-portraits, Romantic in conception, in which the artist portrayed himself in various roles. These include Self-Portrait with Black Dog (c. 1842–1844, accepted for exhibition at the 1844 Paris Salon), the theatrical Self-Portrait which is also known as Desperate Man (c. 1843–45), Lovers in the Countryside (1844, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), The Sculptor (1845), The Wounded Man (1844–1854, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), The Cellist, Self-Portrait (1847, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, shown at the 1848 Salon), and The Man with a Pipe (c. 1848–1849, Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
Trips to the Netherlands and Belgium in 1846–1847 strengthened Courbet’s belief that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals and other Dutch masters had. By 1848, he had gained supporters among the younger critics, the Neo-romantics and Realists, notably Champfleury.
Courbet achieved greater recognition after the success of his painting After Dinner at Ornans at the Salon of 1849. The work, reminiscent of Chardin and Le Nain, earned Courbet a gold medal and was purchased by the state. The gold medal meant that his works would no longer require jury approval for exhibition at the Salon —an exemption Courbet enjoyed until 1857 when the rule changed).
In 1849 Courbet painted Stone-Breakers (destroyed in the British Bombing of Dresden in 1945), which Proudhon admired as an icon of peasant life; it has been called “the first of his great works”. The painting was inspired by a scene Courbet witnessed on the roadside. He later explained to Champfleury and the writer Francis Wey, “It is not often that one encounters so complete an expression of poverty and so, right then and there I got the idea for a painting. I told them to come to my studio the next morning.”
The Salon of 1850–1851 found him triumphant with The Stone Breakers, the Peasants of Flagey and A Burial at Ornans. The Burial, one of Courbet’s most important works, records the funeral of his grand uncle which he attended in September 1848. People who attended the funeral were the models for the painting. Previously, models had been used as actors in historical narratives, but in Burial Courbet said he “painted the very people who had been present at the interment, all the townspeople”. The result is a realistic presentation of them, and of life in Ornans.
The vast painting—it measures 10 by 22 feet (3.1 by 6.6 meters)—drew both praise and fierce denunciations from critics and the public, in part because it upset convention by depicting a prosaic ritual on a scale which previously would have been reserved for a religious or royal subject.
According to art historian Sarah Faunce, “In Paris the Burial was judged as a work that had thrust itself into the grand tradition of history painting, like an upstart in dirty boots crashing a genteel party, and in terms of that tradition it was of course found wanting.”
The painting lacks the sentimental rhetoric that was expected in a genre work: Courbet’s mourners make no theatrical gestures of grief, and their faces seemed more caricatured than ennobled. The critics accused Courbet of a deliberate pursuit of ugliness.
Eventually, the public grew more interested in the new Realist approach, and the lavish, decadent fantasy of Romanticism lost popularity. The artist well understood the importance of the painting. Courbet said of it, “The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism.”
Courbet became a celebrity, and was spoken of as a genius, a “terrible socialist” and a “savage”. He actively encouraged the public’s perception of him as an unschooled peasant, while his ambition, his bold pronouncements to journalists, and his insistence on depicting his own life in his art gave him a reputation for unbridled vanity.
Courbet associated his ideas of realism in art with political anarchism, and, having gained an audience, he promoted democratic and socialist ideas by writing politically motivated essays and dissertations. His familiar visage was the object of frequent caricature in the popular French press.
To a friend in 1850 he wrote:
…in our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.
During the Paris Commune in 1871, Courbet proposed that the Vendôme Column be disassembled and re-erected in the Hôtel des Invalides. Courbet argued that:
In as much as the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorise him to disassemble this column.”
This project was not adopted, but on 12 April 1871 the dismantling of the imperial symbol was voted, and the column taken down on 16 May, with no intentions of rebuilding it. The bronze plates were preserved.
For his insistence in executing the Communal decree for the destruction of the Vendôme Column, he was designated as responsible for the act and accordingly sentenced on 2 September 1871 by a Versailles court martial to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs. During his incarceration, Courbet painted several still-life compositions.
In 1872 he depicted his imprisonment in the Self-Portrait at Ste.-Pélagie. After the assault on the Paris Commune by Adolphe Thiers, head of the new provisional national government, the decision was taken to rebuild the column with its statue of Napoléon. In 1873, the newly elected president Mac-Mahon wanted to resurrect the Column. On his own previous proposition, Gustave Courbet was singled out and condemned to pay the expenses. Unable to pay, Courbet went into a self-imposed exile in Switzerland to avoid bankruptcy. The next years he participated quite actively in some regional and national exhibitions. Observed by the intelligence service, he enjoyed in the small Swiss art world the dubious reputation as head of the “realist school” and inspired younger artists like Auguste Baud-Bovy and Ferdinand Hodler.
From this period date several paintings of trout, “hooked and bleeding from the gills”, that have been interpreted as allegorical self-portraits of the exiled artist.
On 4 May 1877, the estimate of the cost of rebuiling the Vendome Column was finally established: 323,091 francs and 68 centimes. Courbet was “allowed” to pay the fine in yearly installments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years, until his 91st birthday. On 31 December 1877, a day before the payment of the first installment was due, Courbet died, age 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking.
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Courbet was admired by many younger artists. Claude Monet included a portrait of Courbet in his own version of Le dejeuner sur l’herbe from 1865–1866. Courbet’s particular kind of realism influenced many artists to follow, notably among them the German painters of the Leibl circle, James McNeill Whistler, and Paul Cézanne.
Courbet’s influence can also be seen in the work of Edward Hopper, whose Bridge in Paris (1906) and Approaching a City (1946) have been described as Freudian echoes of Courbet’s The Source of the Loue and The Origin of the World.
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