Gustave Courbet c. 1860s (portrait by Étienne Carjat)
|Birth name||Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet|
10 June 1819|
Ornans, Doubs, France
|Died||31 December 1877
La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland
|Works||A Burial At Ornans (1849-1850)
L'Origine du monde (1866)
|Awards||Gold-Medal winner - 1848 Salon; Nominated to receive the French Legion of Honor in 1870, - Refused.|
Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (French: [ɡystav kuʁbɛ]; 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 statements through his work.
I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.' 
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 living art is the artist's own experience. His work, along with that 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). Being 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 often returned home to Ornans 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 inspired 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 Allied 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."
A Burial at Ornans
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 would previously have been reserved for a religious or royal subject.
According to the 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.
In 1850, he wrote to a friend:
...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 1850s, Courbet painted numerous figurative works using common folk and friends as his subjects, such as Village Damsels (1852), the Wrestlers (1853), Bathers (1853), The Sleeping Spinner (1853) and The Wheat Sifters (1854).
The Artist's Studio
In 1855, Courbet submitted fourteen paintings for exhibition at the Exposition Universelle. Three were rejected for lack of space, including A Burial at Ornans and his other monumental canvas The Artist's Studio. Refusing to be denied, Courbet took matters into his own hands. He displayed forty of his paintings, including The Artist's Studio, in his own gallery called The Pavilion of Realism which was a temporary structure that he erected next door to the official Salon-like Exposition Universelle.
Although artists like Eugène Delacroix were ardent champions of his effort, the public went to the show mostly out of curiosity and to deride him. Attendance and sales were disappointing, but Courbet's status as a hero to the French avant-garde became assured. He was admired by the American James McNeill Whistler, and he became an inspiration to the younger generation of French artists including Édouard Manet and the Impressionist painters. The Artist's Studio was recognized as a masterpiece by Delacroix, Baudelaire, and Champfleury, if not by the public.
The work is an allegory of Courbet's life as a painter, seen as an heroic venture, in which he is flanked by friends and admirers on the right, and challenges and opposition to the left. Friends on the right include the art critics Champfleury, and Charles Baudelaire, and art collector Alfred Bruyas. On the left are figures (priest, prostitute, grave digger, merchant and others) who represent what Courbet described in a letter to Champfleury as "the other world of trivial life, the people, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, the people who live off death."
In the foreground of the left-hand side is a man with dogs, who was not mentioned in Courbet's letter to Champfleury. X-rays show he was painted in later, but his role in the painting is important: he is an allegory of the then current French Emperor, Napoleon III, identified by his famous hunting dogs and iconic twirled moustache. By placing him on the left, Courbet publicly shows his disdain for the emperor and depicts him as a criminal, suggesting that his "ownership" of France is an illegal one.
In the Salon of 1857 Courbet showed six paintings. These included the scandalous Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), depicting two prostitutes under a tree, as well as the first of many hunting scenes Courbet was to paint during the remainder of his life: Hind at Bay in the Snow and The Quarry. By exhibiting sensational works alongside hunting scenes, of the sort that had brought popular success to the English painter Edwin Landseer, Courbet guaranteed himself "both notoriety and sales". During the 1860s, Courbet painted a series of increasingly erotic works such as Femme nue couchée. This culminated in The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) (1866), which depicts female genitalia and was not publicly exhibited until 1988, and Sleep (1866), featuring two women in bed. The latter painting became the subject of a police report when it was exhibited by a picture dealer in 1872.
By the 1870s, Courbet had become well established as one of the leading artists in France. On 14 April 1870, Courbet established a "Federation of Artists" (Fédération des artistes) for the free and uncensored expansion of art. The group's members included André Gill, Honoré Daumier, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Pottier, Jules Dalou, and Édouard Manet.
Until about 1861, Napoléon's regime had exhibited authoritarian characteristics, using press censorship to prevent the spread of opposition, manipulating elections, and depriving Parliament the right to free debate or any real power. In the 1860s, however, Napoléon III made more concessions to placate his liberal opponents. This change began by allowing free debates in Parliament and public reports of parliamentary debates. Press censorship, too, was relaxed and culminated in the appointment of the Liberal Émile Ollivier, previously a leader of the opposition to Napoléon's regime, as the de facto Prime Minister in 1870. As a sign of appeasement to the Liberals who admired Courbet, Napoleon III nominated him to the Legion of Honour in 1870. His refusal of the cross of the Legion of Honour offered to him by Napoleon III angered those in power but made him immensely popular with those who opposed the prevailing regime. In 1871, under the revolutionary Paris Commune, he was placed in charge of all the Paris art museums and saved them from looting mobs. Nevertheless, when the power shifted back to the old guard Courbet found himself in an untenable political position.
Exile and death
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. In the following 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 such as Auguste Baud-Bovy and Ferdinand Hodler.
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 instalments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years, until his 91st birthday. On 31 December 1877, a day before the first instalment was due, Courbet died, aged 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking.
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.
Courbet and Cubism
Two 19th-century artists prepared the way for the emergence of Cubism in the 20th century: Courbet and Cézanne.Cézanne’s contributions are well-known.Courbet’s importance was announced by Guillaume Apollinaire, poet-spokesperson for the Cubists. Writing in Les Peintres Cubistes (1913) he declared, “Courbet is the father of the new painters.”
Both artists sought to transcend the conventional methods of rendering nature; Cézanne through a dialectical method revealing the process of seeing, Courbet by his materialism. The Cubists would combine these two approaches in developing a revolution in art.
On a formal level, Courbet wished to convey the physical characteristics of what he was painting: its density, weight and texture. This emphasis on material reality endowed his subjects with dignity. Art critic John Berger observed that the Cubist painters "were at great pains to establish the physical presence of what they were representing. And in this they are the heirs of Courbet."
|“||No painter before Courbet was ever able to emphasize so uncompromisingly the density and weight of what he was painting.||”|
— English poet, painter and art critic John Berger 
An exhibition of his works was held in 1882 at the École des Beaux-Arts.
A major exhibition of Courbet's work, "The Born Rebel Artist", opened in 2007 at the Grand Palais, and traveled to the Musée Fabre (Montpellier, France) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) during 2008.
Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!': The Bruyas Collection from the Musée Fabre, was a 2004 exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Courbet's works from the collection Alfred Bruyas donated to the Musée Fabre.
Self-portrait with black dog, 1842
Bather Sleeping by a Brook, 1845, oil on canvas, The Detroit Institute of Arts
The man with a pipe Self-portrait, 1848-49
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, 1848-1849
The Stone Breakers, 1849
Portrait of Alfred Bruyas, 1854
The Pont Ambroix Languedoc, 1857
Les Bas Blancs, (Woman with White Stockings), ca 1861 (Barnes Foundation)
Femme nue couchée, 1862
The Bather, 1868, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Paul Verlaine, c. 1871
Stream in the Jura Mountains (The Torrent), 1872-3, Honolulu Museum of Art
Entrée d'un gave (Source of a Mountain Stream), 1876, held at the Birmingham Museum of Art
Landscape, 1876, National Gallery for Foreign Art
Notes and references
- Courbet, Gustave: Letters of Gustave Courbet, 1992, University of Chicago Press, Translated by Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, ISBN 0-226-11653-0. (Google Books)
- Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 7.
- Avis Berman, "Larger than Life", Smithsonian Magazine, April 2008.
- Faunce, Sarah and Linda Nochlin, 1988, p. 83.
- Masanès, Fabrice 2006, pp. 31–32.
- Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 30.
- Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 55.
- Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 31.
- Pbs.org. Gustave Courbet's A Burial at Ornans
- Political turmoil delayed the opening of the Salon of 1850 until 30 December 1850. Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 2.
- Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 79.
- Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 4.
- Courbet, Gustave: artchive.com citing Perl, Jed: Gallery Going: Four Seasons in the Art World, 1991, Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-15-134260-0.
- Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 52.
- Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 84.
- Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 48.
- Helene Toussaint, Arts Council of Great Britain. [An exhibition organ. by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. Organ. committee: Alan Bowness...] (1978). Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877 : [exhibition] at the Royal Academy of Arts, 19 January-19 March 1978 : [catalog]. [London]: Arts Council of Great Britain. p. 265. ISBN 0-7287-0152-9.
- Schwabsky, Barry 2008, p. 30.
- Schwabsky, Barry 2008, p. 34.
- Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 176.
- "Attendu que la colonne Vendôme est un monument dénué de toute valeur artistique, tendant à perpétuer par son expression les idées de guerre et de conquête qui étaient dans la dynastie impériale, mais que réprouve le sentiment d’une nation républicaine, [le citoyen Courbet] émet le vœu que le gouvernement de la Défense nationale veuille bien l’autoriser à déboulonner cette colonne. ,
- Fischer, Matthias 2009, pp. 57–80.
- Danto, Arthur C. "Courbet", The Nation, January 23, 1989, p. 100.
- Noël, Bernard 1978
- Forster-Hahn, Françoise, et al. 2001, p. 155.
- Wells, Walter, Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper, London/New York: Phaidon, 2007.
- Berger, 1965, p. 52: "You can see it in the way [Courbet] painted an apple or a wave, or in the way he painted the heavy languor and creased dresses of two girls lying by the Seine."
- Berger, 1965, p. 53: "What perspective towards the horizon had once meant to Nicholas Poussin, the force of gravity meant to Courbet." (italic in original)
- Berger, 1965, p. 51: “The preparations for the revolution of Cubism were begun in the nineteenth century by two artists: Courbet and Cézanne.” and p. 55: “the revolutionary inheritance that the nineteenth century bequeathed to the twentieth century: the materialism of Courbet and the dialectic of Cézanne.”
- Berger, 1965, p. 51: “The importance of Cézanne for the Cubists has been stressed so often that it has become a commonplace.”
- Berger, 1965, p. 51-52: “Both Courbet and Cézanne change the emphasis of the painters approach to nature: Courbet by his materialism, Cézanne in his dialectical view of the process of looking at nature.”
- Berger, 1965, p.55-56: “The task was to combine the two. Followed up separately, each would lead to a cul-de-sac: Courbet’s materialism would become mechanical; the force of gravity, which gave such dignity to his subjects, would become oppressive and literal. Cézanne’s dialectic would become more and more disembodied and its harmony would be obtained at the price of physical indifference. Today, both examples are followed up separately. (italics in original)
- Berger, 1965, p. 52-53: “Courbet, whilst still using paint on canvas, wanted to go beyond [pictorial] conventions and find the equivalent of the physical sensation of the material objects portrayed: their weight, their temperature, their texture. What perspective towards the horizon meant to Poussin, the force of gravity meant to Courbet.” (italics in original)
- Berger, 1965, p. 58
- Berger, 1965, p. 52
- Golding, John, "The Born Rebel Artist", The New York Review of Books, v.55, n.2 (Feb. 14, 2008) (reviewing the exhibition catalog).
- Smith, Roberta, "Art Review: Gustave Courbet -- Seductive Rebel Who Kept It Real", New York Times, Feb. 29, 2008.
- Berger, John (1965). The Success and Failure of Picasso. Penguin Books, Ltd. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-679-73725-4.
- Champfleury, Les Grandes Figures d’hier et d’aujourd’hui (Paris, 1861)
- Chu, Petra ten Doesschate. Courbet in Perspective. (Prentice Hall, 1977) ASIN B000OIFL3E
- Chu, Petra ten Doesschate and Gustave Courbet. Letters of Gustave Courbet. (Chicago: Univ Chicago Press, 1992) ISBN 0-226-11653-0
- Chu, Petra ten Doesschate. The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007) ISBN 0-691-12679-8
- Clark, Timothy J., Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); (Originally published 1973. Based on his doctoral dissertation along with The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-1851), 208pp. ISBN 978-0-520-21745-4. (Considered the definitive treatment of Courbet's politics and painting in 1848, and a foundational text of Marxist art history).
- Danto, Arthur (January 23, 1989). "Courbet". The Nation: 97–100.
- Faunce, Sarah, and Linda Nochlin. Courbet reconsidered. Issued on the occasion of an exhibition to open at the Brooklyn Museum Nov. 4, 1988 - Jan. 16, 1989, the Minneapolis Inst. of Arts Febr. 18 - April 30, 1989. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum, 1988. ISBN 0-300-04298-1
- Fischer, Matthias, Der junge Hodler. Eine Künstlerkarriere 1872-1897, Wädenswil: Nimbus, 2009. ISBN 978-3-907142-30-1
- Forster-Hahn, Françoise, et al., Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth-Century Paintings From the Nationalgalerie, Berlin (London: National Gallery Company, 2001) ISBN 1-85709-981-8
- Hutchinson, Mark, "The history of 'The Origin of the World'", Times Literary Supplement, Aug. 8, 2007.
- Lindsay, Jack. Gustave Courbet his life and art. Publ. Jupiter Books (London) Limited 1977.
- Lemonnier, C, Les Peintres de la Vie (Paris, 1888).
- Mantz, "G. Courbet," Gaz. des beaux-arts (Paris, 1878)
- Masanès, Fabrice, Gustave Courbet (Cologne: Taschen, 2006) ISBN 3-8228-5683-5
- Nochlin, Linda, Courbet, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007) ISBN 978-0-500-28676-0
- Nochlin, Linda, Realism: Style and Civilization (New York: Penguin, 1972).
- Noël, Bernard, Dictionnaire de la Commune (Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1978)
- Schwabsky, Barry (March 24, 2008). "Daring Intransigence". The Nation: 28–34.
- Zola, Émile, Mes Haines (Paris, 1879)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
Monographs on the art and life of Courbet have been written by Estignard (Paris, 1874), D'Ideville, (Paris, 1878), Silvestre in Les artistes français, (Paris, 1878), Isham in Van Dyke's Modern French Masters (New York, 1896), Meier-Graefe, Corot and Courbet, (Leipzig, 1905), Cazier (Paris, 1906), Riat, (Paris, 1906), Muther, (Berlin, 1906), Robin, (Paris, 1909), Benedite, (Paris, 1911) and Lazár Béla (Paris, 1911). Consult also Muther History of Modern Painting, volume ii (London, 1896, 1907); Patoux, "Courbet" in Les artistes célèbres and La vérité sur Courbet (Paris, 1879); Le Men, Courbet (New York, 2008).
- Savatier, Thierry, El origen del mundo. Historia de un cuadro de Gustave Courbet. Ediciones TREA (Gijón, 2009) ISBN 978-84-9704-471-4
- Bond, Anthony, "Embodying the Real", Body. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (1997).
- Faunce, Sara, "Feminist In spite of Himself", Body. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (1997).
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Gustave Courbet|
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- Gallery of paintings by Gustave Courbet
- Berman, Avis "Larger than Life" Smithsonian magazine, April 2008
- Courbet images and biography at CGFA
- Humanities Web on Courbet
- Art Renewal Center; biography and images
- Union List of Artist Names, Getty Vocabularies. ULAN Full Record Display for Gustave Courbet. Getty Vocabulary Program, Getty Research Institute. Los Angeles, California.
- Articles and essays
- The art of Gustave Courbet in his epoch and in ours by Clare Hurley in The World Socialist Web Site
- Courbet’s Low Tide at Trouville in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
- E-zine article on Gustave Courbet
- 1867 Caricature of Gustave Courbet by André Gill