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Artists Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

French Painter

Movement: Realism

Born: June 10, 1819 - Ornans, Doubs, France

Died: December 31, 1877 - La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland

Quotes

"I translate the customs, ideas, and appearance of my epoch as I see them."
Gustave Courbet
"I have obtained final permission to organize an exhibition with an admission charge. People will think I am a monster, but I will earn 100,000 francs by all estimates."
Gustave Courbet
"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 regime except the regime of liberty."
Gustave Courbet

"All I have tried to do is to derive, from a complete knowledge of tradition, a reasoned sense of my own independence and individuality."

Synopsis

Gustave Courbet was central to the emergence of Realism in the mid-nineteenth century. Rejecting the classical and theatrical styles of the French Academy, his art insisted on the physical reality of the objects he observed - even if that reality was plain and blemished. A committed Republican, he also saw his Realism as a means to champion the peasants and country folk from his home town. He has long been famous for his response to the political upheavals which gripped France in his lifetime, and he would die in exile in Switzerland when he was found responsible for the cost of rebuilding of Paris' Vendome Column. More recently, however, historians have also seen his work as an important prelude to other artists of early modernism such as Edouard Manet and Claude Monet.

Key Ideas

Courbet's Realism can be understood as part of the wider inquiry into the physical world that occupied science in the nineteenth century. But in his own realm of art, he was most inspired by his distaste for strictures of the French Academy. He rejected Classical or Romantic treatments and instead took humble scenes of country life - subjects usually considered the stuff of minor genre painting - and made them material for great history painting. For this he gained huge notoriety.
During the Paris Commune of 1871, Courbet briefly abandoned painting for a role in government. This was characteristic of his left-wing commitments. His art was not overtly political, but in the context of the time, he was not ignored as he expressed ideas of equality by heroicizing ordinary individuals, painting them at great scale and refusing to hide their imperfections.
In the process of clearing away the rhetoric of Academy painting, Courbet often settled on compositions that seemed collaged and crude to prevailing sensibilities. At times he also abandoned careful modeling in favor of applying paint thickly in broken flecks and slabs. Such stylistic innovations made him greatly admired by later modernists that promoted liberated compositions and amplified surface texture.
Instead of being completely reliant on the state-run Salon system, Courbet pioneered the solo retrospective as a private commercial venture, an approach that many later renegade artists followed.

Most Important Art

Burial at Ornans (1849)
This 22 foot long canvas situated in a main room at the Musee d'Orsay buries the viewer as if he or she were in a cave. In a decidedly non-classical composition, figures mill about in the darkness, unfocused on ceremony. As a prime example of Realism, the painting sticks to the facts of a real burial and avoids amplified spiritual connotations. Emphasizing the temporal nature of life, Courbet intentionally did not let the light in the painting express the eternal. While sunset could have expressed the great transition of the soul from the temporal to the eternal, Courbet covered the evening sky with clouds so the passage of day into night is just a simple echo of the coffin passing from light into the dark of the ground. Some critics saw the adherence to the strict facts of death as slighting religion and criticized it as a shabbily composed structure with worn-faced working folk raised up to life-size in a gigantic work as if they had some kind of noble importance. Other critics such as Proudhon loved the inference of equality and virtue of all people and recognized how such a painting could help turn the course of Western art and politics.
Oil on canvas - Musee d'Orsay, Paris
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Biography

Childhood

Born in the summer of 1819 in the small rural town of Ornans, near the French Alps, Courbet grew up in a picturesque environment with a supportive family. He enjoyed vigorous physical activities, like swimming with his sisters in the Loue River and playing in the family's pastures and vineyards. At school Courbet relished being the center of attention and entertaining his classmates with his wit and charm.

Though Courbet's general education was solid, his formal art training was mediocre. At fourteen he took lessons from a minor neo-classical painter, which likely gave him a foundation to react against. Through the prodding of his father he studied pre-law at a local college, but he was miserable until a drawing professor at the college invited him to take painting lessons in a home studio. This gave him further confidence in his artistic potential and convinced him to pursue his passion.

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Early Years

Gustave Courbet Biography

At 21, Courbet moved to Paris. He avoided study in the studios of any of the period's many academic celebrities, nor did he enroll in the top tier academic system for the arts in Paris, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Instead he took a few lessons from lesser-known teachers, but mostly taught himself by copying paintings by Caravaggio, Rubens and others in the Louvre. On a visit to Holland he was also able to copy the paintings of Rembrandt and Velazquez. While Academy students waited up to a year to pick up a brush (as drawing classes came first), Courbet made his own rigorous schedule and jumped headlong into painting. He often replicated a classical painting again and again to uncover its secrets. He rounded out his independent study by painting from nature and paid models. When visiting home at Ornans, he painted friends and family.

Courbet also threw himself into his personal vision of Realism which rejected any classical treatment or rhetoric. Although this was quite radical at the time, he still focused on being selected for the official French Salons. But, during his first seven years in Paris only three of his 25 submissions were accepted.

Mature Period

Courbet painted consistently in a Realist mode during his time in Paris. For example, he was quick to decline a request to paint angels for a church - remarking, "Show me an angel and I will paint one." Instead he painted regular folk in all their glorious ordinariness, and it was not a surprise when, in 1848, Courbet's growing group of influential friends appointed him leader of the Realist movement in Paris. The poet Charles Baudelaire, and the outspoken anarchist Pierre Proudhon, were both part of this group of intellectuals that pushed each other to challenge the norms of the day.

Also in 1848, under a newly formed Republic, the Paris Salon became jury-free for one year. This allowed Courbet's submission of ten paintings to win automatic acceptance, where they made a great impression, and helped the painter win a gold medal the following year. Under Academy rules, the gold medal gave Courbet immunity against future selection committees, a bypass that he enjoyed until 1857, when this rule was changed. Without this protection, Burial at Ornans (1849), amongst other important paintings, probably would have been rejected. This huge confrontational painting was Courbet's most audacious display of rural realism. The grand scale at which he depicted the ordinary people attracted a firestorm of rebuke, with many conservative critics uncomfortable with the picture's implicit support for democratic politics.

Gustave Courbet Photo

Ironically, shortly after the debut of Burial at Ornans, the French government reverted to an authoritarian Empire under Napoleon III. Courbet remained staunchly opposed to his rule, and in time the Emperor would also have cause to express distaste at Courbet's nudes. In 1853, Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie made the most memorable gestures of disapproval: The story goes that while perusing the Paris Salon, Eugenie made a remark of appreciation of Rosa Bonheur's painting, The Horse Fair, which exhibited enormous workhorses from a rear view. Shortly thereafter, standing in front of Courbet's painting of The Bathers (1853), that features two robust farm women bathing in a stream, she remarked that Courbet's models bore a resemblance to the bulky Bonheur horses - then, supposedly, the Emperor struck the canvas with the nude with his riding crop.

Two years later, when three of the most important of the fourteen canvases Courbet submitted to the Paris 1855 World Exposition jury were rejected, the artist invented a way of doing business that became just as shocking and innovative as his paintings. He defiantly made his own pavilion outside the grounds under the banner "Realism", and displayed forty paintings from his 15-year working period.

Late Period

During the 1860s Courbet focused on erotic nudes, hunting scenes, landscapes, and seascapes. In this work he further subverted Academic Classicism in ways that promoted his new vision and inspired other modernists. For instance, his late series of seascapes pointed the way for the Impressionists. Courbet's water is raw and tangible where thick paint on a surface speaks almost as forcefully as the illusion of water itself.

Courbet's nudes from this decade challenged the norms of his day and in some cases remain confrontational even to the present day. The most notorious, Origin of the World (1866), displays a woman's lower torso and open thighs. The classical artifice is stripped away and the viewer is forced to focus on the most intimate view of female anatomy; Courbet directs the viewer exactly where to look and implies that looking at such pictorial reality should be acceptable. This frank treatment of the nude foreshadowed the raw eroticism of some early twentieth century painters such as Egon Schiele.

Final Years and Death

When the French Empire was finally crushed in the Franco-Prussian war, Courbet was elected chairman of the Republican Arts Commission under the short-lived Paris Commune. Under his watch the Place Vendôme Column, which Napoleon I had created from the bronze of enemy canons, was destroyed. Courbet's precise role in the column's destruction is uncertain, and it is possible that he intended only to move it. Nevertheless, the column's undoing led to his own. When the new Commune quickly failed, Courbet was sent to prison in 1871 for six months, spending the later part of the sentence in a clinic when he became sick. This tragedy segued into another when in 1873 he was ordered to personally pay 300,000 francs for the erection of a new Vendôme Column. Facing this impossible bill, he went into a self-imposed exile in Switzerland. He did continue to paint, but never returned to France. He died of heavy drinking and liver disease in La Tour-de-Pails, Switzerland in 1877, at age 58. His remains are now in the Cemetery of Ornans.

Legacy

Gustave Courbet's democratic eye revolutionized Western Art. His new form of Realism paved the way for other Modern movements, such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Manet, Monet, Renoir, and others had direct contact with Courbet and were profoundly affected by the man and his paintings. Courbet's visceral paint application also opened a path for figure and landscape painters of the twentieth century such as Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, Lucian Freud, the Bay Area Figurative Painters, and others.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Gustave Courbet
Interactive chart with Gustave Courbet's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Caravaggio
Peter Paul Rubens
Rembrandt
Diego Velazquez
Francisco de Zurbaran

Friends

Charles Baudelaire
Pierre Proudhon

Movements

Dutch Baroque Painting
French Romanticism
Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet
Years Worked: 1839 - 1877

Artists

Edouard Manet
Claude Monet
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Paul Cézanne
James Whistler

Friends

Champfleury
Max Buchon

Movements

Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Expressionism

Original content written by Stephen Knudsen

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Gustave Courbet

Special Features
Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
artist features
Gustave Courbet Achievement Overview

Themes explained via The Art Story Image Comparison Tool

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Gustave Courbet

By Sylvain Amic, Kathryn Calley Galitz, Laurence des Cars, Gustave Courbet

Courbet (Art and Ideas)

By James Henry Rubin

Courbet's Realism

By Michael Fried

Courbet

By Linda Nochlin
This is the gold standard of Courbet scholarship as Linda Nochlin made Courbet research and analysis one of her primary endeavors for decades starting with her doctorial dissertation on Courbet in the 1960s. In her work, the tracing of Courbet's influences is exquisite.

Seductive Rebel Who Kept It Real

Review of Courbet retrospective at Metropolitan Museum (2008)
By Smith, Roberta
The New York Times
February 29, 2008

The Born Rebel Artist

By Golding, John
The New York Review of Books
February 14, 2008

Inner States: Paul Galvez on Gustave Courbet

By Galvez, Paul
ArtForum
May 2008

Courbet and the Modern Landscape

Exhibition of Courbet and the Modern Landscape at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Gustave Courbet

Biographical film about the artist

Realism
Realism
Realism
Realism is an approach to art that stresses the naturalistic representation of things, the look of objects and figures in ordinary life. It emerged as a distinct movement in the mid-nineteenth century, in opposition to the idealistic, sometimes mythical subjects that were then popular, but it can be traced back to sixteenth-century Dutch art and forward into twentieth-century styles such as Social Realism.
ArtStory: Realism
The Academy of Art
The Academy of Art
The Academy of Art
An academy is an institution where artists receive training and where they can exhibit their work. Academies flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as places to foster national schools of art, and traditionally their brightest stars received state patronage. However, they declined in the late nineteenth century, when artists rejected their out-moded standards as "academic."
ArtStory: The Academy of Art
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet was a French painter and a prominent figure in the mid-nineteenth-century Realist movement of French art. Manet's paintings are considered among the first works of art in the modern era, due to his rough painting style and absence of idealism in his figures. Manet was a close friend of and major influence on younger artists who founded Impressionism such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
ArtStory: Edouard Manet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet was a French artist who helped pioneer the painterly effects and emphasis on light, atmosphere, and plein air technique that became hallmarks of Impressionism. He is especially known for his series of haystacks and cathedrals at different times of day, and for his late Waterlilies.
ArtStory: Claude Monet
Caravaggio
Caravaggio
Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian Renaissance painter. Considered a master of chiaroscuro, his art was highly emotional in nature and content. Caravaggio was an influential figure within the Realism, Mannerism and Naturalism movements of the Renaissance. His work later informed the Baroque period of painting, as well as neo-realist artists like Rembrandt and Goya.
Caravaggio
Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens was a seventeenth-century Baroque artist who painted richly-toned allegories, history cycles, and religious scenes. His works are often populated by fleshy female nudes and figures in dramatic, twisting postures.
Peter Paul Rubens
Rembrandt
Rembrandt
Rembrandt
Known throughout history simply as Rembrandt, the seventeenth-century Dutch artist is among the premier master painters in Western civilization. Working during the time historians have dubbed the Dutch Golden Age (or the Dutch Baroque period), Rembrandt's art was characterized by his sweeping Biblical narratives, stunning attention to detail, and masterful use of chiaroscuro, the painterly application of light and shadow. In this respect, he remains one of the most influential painters of all time.
Rembrandt
Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez was a Spanish artist, court painter for King Philip IV, and one of the leading figures in the Baroque period. Known as a master of detail and light, Velazquez's work has been a significant influence on generations of artists and movements, from Realism to Surrealism.
Diego Velazquez
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Pierre Baudelaire was a French poet and art critic during the mid-nineteenth century. His poetry depicted the harsh realities of urban poverty in nineteenth-century Paris, and often focused on the flanuer (one who wanders the city to experience it). The Baudelarian idea of the flaneur is a lasting legacy of the modern era.
Charles Baudelaire
Pierre Proudhon
Pierre Proudhon
Pierre Proudhon
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a nineteenth-century French philosopher, socialist politician and self-proclaimed anarchist. As one of the original organizers and theorists of anarchism, Proudhon's unconventional writings on the rights of government and private property as a means of theft attracted the critiques of Karl Marx. As a result, anarchism and Marxism enjoyed a consequential but brief relationship, ultimately splitting into divergent philosophies.
Pierre Proudhon
Impressionism
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
ArtStory: Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
ArtStory: Post-Impressionism
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was one of the leading figures of French Impressionism during the late-nineteenth century. Renoir tended to favor outdoor scenes, gardens bathed in sunlight, and large gatherings of people. Known as a master of light, shadow and color, Renoir was also highly esteemed for his depiction of natural movement on the canvas. In terms of the French Impressionists' lasting popularity and fame, Renoir is perhaps second only to Monet.
ArtStory: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter was a twentieth-century American realist painter and noted art critic. Although friends with and staunch admirer of many abstractionists from The New York School, Porter was something of a black sheep, opting to paint figurative forms and landscapes, which are only now gaining significant recognition.
ArtStory: Fairfield Porter
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud is a German-British painter, and the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Freud's career began in 1940s England, after escaping Nazi Germany, with muted surrealist paintings. In later years Freud devoted himself almost entirely to portraiture, applying richer colors and impasto brushstrokes. In 2000 he was commissioned to paint England's Queen Elizabeth II.
Lucian Freud
Bay Area Painters
Bay Area Painters
Bay Area Painters
The Bay Area Painters emerged in the 1950s and 60s around the San Francisco Bay. Heavily influenced by the color fields and painterly brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, they later moved away from abstraction in a more figurative direction.
Bay Area Painters
Francisco de Zurbaran
Francisco de Zurbaran
Francisco de Zurbaran
Francisco de Zurbaran was a seventeenthth-century Spanish painter of religious figures, including monks, saints, martyrs, and Christ and the Virgin Mary. Greatly influenced by Caravaggio's realistic use of chiaroscuro, Zurbaran painted directly from nature, but often using more muted color schemes. Case in point, Zurbaran was considered a master of painting white draperies.
Francisco de Zurbaran
Dutch Baroque Painting
Dutch Baroque Painting
Dutch Baroque Painting
The Dutch Baroque style of art is more commonly referred to as the Dutch Golden Age of painting, occurring during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) for Dutch independence from the Spanish Empire. Characterized by realist depictions of nature, commoners and social outcasts, religious narratives, and the practice of chiaroscuro, the Dutch Baroque period was one of the more prolific eras for painters in Western art history. Some of the period's more well known artists include Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt.
Dutch Baroque Painting
French Romanticism
French Romanticism
French Romanticism
French Romanticism differed from respective European Romantic movements (most notably in Germany and Spain) in that it greatly emphasized a sense of nationalism. Inspired by the pre-French Revolution writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and ideas of self-determination, artists such as Delacroix and Gericault painted, among other things, metaphorical scenes depicting battles and the triumphant victories of their countrymen.
French Romanticism
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
ArtStory: Paul Cézanne
James Whistler
James Whistler
James Whistler
James Whistler was a nineteenth-century American expatriate artist. Educated in France and later based in London, Whistler was a famous proponent of art-for-art's-sake, and an esteemed practictioner of tonal harmony in his canvases, often characterized by his masterful use of blacks and greys, as seen in his most famous work, Whistler's Mother (1871). Whistler was also known as an American Impressionist, and in 1874 he famously turned down an invitation from Degas to exhibit his work with the French Impressionists.
James Whistler
Champfleury
Champfleury
Champfleury
Champfleury was the pen name of nineteenth-century French art critic and novelist Jules Francois Felix Fleury-Husson. An outspoken champion of the French Realist painters, and a friend to poet Charles Baudelaire, Champfleury was among the first critics to promote the work of Gustave Courbet.
Champfleury
Max Buchon
Max Buchon
Max Buchon
Max Buchon was a nineteenth-century French writer and life-long friend of Gustave Courbet. Along with Champfleury, Buchon was a significant proponent of French Realist painting (particularly that of Courbet), and of the importance of preserving the culture and artistic beauty of the French countryside.
Max Buchon
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany and beyond, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
ArtStory: Expressionism