Important Art by Gustave Courbet
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.
This is one of the best examples of Courbet's non-classical treatment of nudes. In this eight foot tall painting two women are partially naked without any mythological justification or rhetoric, rendered naturally and not idealized. The painting was poorly received, with Delacroix seeing no excuse for these "naked and fat bourgeoisie.. buttocks, and meaningless gestures." But rather than being negative, the attention was good publicity, and Courbet sold the work in spite of the criticisms.
In this large work Courbet painted himself meeting Alfred Bruyas, a key patron and supporter. The painting expresses the collector's appreciation of the genius of Courbet. As an extension of Bruyas, the servant is caught in the greatest gesture of respect, but the key point is this moment of mutual appreciation between artist and patron. As expressions of great intellect and importance, Courbet's head is tilted back slightly and he is the one standing directly in unfiltered light.
At the same time, Courbet's self-importance shines through on this canvas. His beard points at the patron as if in judgement. The artist also carries a stick that is double the size of the one that his patron supports himself on - another allusion to the strength of the artist.