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.
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 (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 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).
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 exhibited authoritarian characteristics, using press censorship to prevent the spread of opposition, manipulating elections, and depriving the Parliament of the right to free debate or any real power. In the decade of 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, continued with the relaxation of press censorship, and culminated in the appointment of the Liberal Émile Ollivier, previously a leader of the opposition to Napoléon's regime, as (effectively) 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 current regime, and in 1871 under the revolutionary Paris Commune he was placed in charge of all the Paris art museums and saved them from looting mobs. However when the power shifted back to the old guard Courbet found himself in an untenable political position.
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 8 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.
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.
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.