Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

French Painter

Born: June 10, 1819 - Ornans, Doubs, France
Died: December 31, 1877 - La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland
"All I have tried to do is to derive, from a complete knowledge of tradition, a reasoned sense of my own independence and individuality."
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"I translate the customs, ideas, and appearance of my epoch as I see them."
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"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."
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"Fine art is knowledge made visible."
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"The expression of beauty is in direct ratio to the power of conception the artist has acquired."
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"I hope to live all my life for my art, without abandoning my principles one iota."
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"Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of realism is its negation of the ideal."
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"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."
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"The beautiful is in nature, and it is encountered under the most diverse forms of reality. Once it is found it belongs to art, or rather to the artist who discovers it."
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"Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things."
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Summary of Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet was central to the emergence of Realism in the mid-19th 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 Édouard Manet and Claude Monet.


  • Courbet's Realism can be understood as part of the wider inquiry into the physical world that occupied science in the 19th 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.

Biography of Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet Photo

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.

Important Art by Gustave Courbet

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.

The Bathers (1853)

The Bathers (1853)

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.

The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854)

The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854)

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Gustave Courbet
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Stephen Knudsen

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Gustave Courbet Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Stephen Knudsen
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Feb 2010. Updated and modified regularly
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