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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Gustave Courbet Signature
"I translate the customs, ideas, and appearance of my epoch as I see them."
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Gustave Courbet Signature
"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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Gustave Courbet Signature
"Fine art is knowledge made visible."
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Gustave Courbet Signature
"The expression of beauty is in direct ratio to the power of conception the artist has acquired."
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Gustave Courbet Signature
"I hope to live all my life for my art, without abandoning my principles one iota."
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Gustave Courbet Signature
"Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of realism is its negation of the ideal."
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Gustave Courbet Signature
"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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Gustave Courbet Signature
"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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Gustave Courbet Signature
"Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things."
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Gustave Courbet Signature

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

Progression of Art
Burial at Ornans (1849)

Burial at Ornans

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 - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The Bathers (1853)

The Bathers

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.

Oil on canvas - Musée Fabre, Montpellier

The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854)

The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet

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.

Oil on canvas - Montpellier, Musée Fabre

The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life (1855)

The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life

This 19 foot long painting is an expression of Courbet's self-love and pride in his iron will, hard work and revolutionary genius. Just as he heroicized others in the Burial at Ornans, he does the same for himself in this work. With a good measure of egotism, Courbet expresses that things get done and attitudes change when people think for themselves and challenge the status quo. Courbet places himself full-size, brush in hand, working on a landscape picture. His friends on the right are emblematic of kindred spirits and innovation, while the admiring boy is an expression of Courbet's confidence that his legacy will transcend generations. The nude model standing behind the artist affirms his greatness and her role as muse. To the left stand the working poor, Courbet's recognition of their right to be included. His nemesis, Napoleon III, is presented as a poacher holding a firearm, accompanied by his dogs. Courbet's chin-up gaze trumps Napoleon's downward tipped head in an expression of the innovator dominating over the authoritarian.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Sleep (1866)


This work shows Courbet's interest in an erotic Realism that became prevalent in his later work. Raw eroticism is delivered without aid of cupids or mythological justification of any kind, making this work vulgar to those with the prevailing taste of the day. Such unsanctified nudes provoked much discussion about flaws in Courbet's character and art, but the artist reveled in the added attention and increased reputation as a confrontational artist.

Oil on canvas - Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

The Wave (1870)

The Wave

Many early Modernists were influenced by Japanese prints and it is argued that Courbet is one of the first to be affected by this Eastern aesthetic. Likely, taking a cue from the prints, he shows us a slice of water closed off from the view of vast space. The painting epitomizes Courbet's landscapes and seascapes that were always composed of broken patches of paint loaded in both the dark and light areas. Such painterly treatment was inspiration to the budding Impressionists.

Oil on canvas - The Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Germany

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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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