Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
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The controversial French painter Gustave Courbet was one of the first major exponents of Realism - a style of 19th century French painting characterized by its portrayal of contemporary life devoid of any idealization, sentimentality and nobility of subject matter. It made him one of the best genre painters of his day, and one of the most influential modern artists in France. Realist artists like Courbet rejected both the soft-focus of Romanticism and the heroicism of neoclassical painting, in favour of objective truth, however ugly or unpalatable. Indeed for Courbet, art was not just about painting pretty pictures, but rather about depicting the irregularities of nature in all its beauty and harshness. By depicting such everyday naturalism, he rejected the conventions set by the French Academy and the Paris Salon, but raised the art of genre painting to the level it had previously occupied during the era of Dutch Realism during the 17th century. His oeuvre includes portraiture, female nudes, still lifes, landscapes, and animal pictures. Closely associated with other realists such as Honore Daumier (1808-79) and Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75), Courbet is best known for masterpieces like A Burial at Ornans (1849, Musee d'Orsay, Paris), The Stone Breakers (1849, now lost) and The Artist's Studio (1855, Musee d'Orsay). Courbet's independent behaviour and scornful attitude to academic art had a huge impact on the artists of Paris, including both the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. NOTE: To see how Courbet's realist painting led to Impressionism, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).
Courbet was born into a wealthy farming family in Ornans, Franche-Comte, where his artistic talent became evident very early. After rudimentary training at the school of drawing in Besancon, he left for Paris in 1840, initially to study law at the behest of his family, but soon he decided to take up painting instead. Initially he worked at the studio of artist Charles de Steuben, but driven by a desire for self-discovery he left to develop his own style. He painted from life at the Academie Suisse, and copied the Old Masters at the Louvre, paying particular attention to artists like the Venetian colourist Paolo Veronese, as well as the Spaniards Velazquez and Zurbaran, who attracted him by the brightness of their colours or the richness of their pictorial matter. His favourites, however, were the Dutch Realist artists Frans Hals and Rembrandt, and the school of Dutch Realist genre painting - a preference that was later to be strengthened by a visit to the Low Countries in 1847.
His first works were based on illustrations from literary works, which he soon abandoned, for studies of real life. From his early days, he worked in a variety of genres: landscape painting based on his native region; religious art like Lot and his Daughters (c.1841, private collection); history painting like Walpurgis Night (c.1841) shown at the Salon of 1848, and destroyed shortly afterwards. But it is his portrait art that best illustrates the early years. He painted those nearest to him, as well as the self-portraits that launched him on his career. His breakthrough came when Self Portrait with a Black Dog (1842, Paris, Petit Palais), was accepted by the Academy and exhibited at the Salon of 1844. It was followed by The Wounded Man (1844, Louvre), The Happy Lovers (1844, Petit Palais, Paris) accepted by the Salon in 1845, and Man with a Pipe (1846, Montpellier Museum). Like several of the female figures in these works, his self-portraits reveal a youthful streak of Romanticism. (In his later self-portrait The Desperate Man, he tears at his hair, wild and wide-eyed, showing strong echoes of Caravaggio).
The year 1847 marked a turning point in Courbet's career. His visit to Holland opened up to him the world of Rembrandt and, in so doing, determined his future. The Night Watch and The Anatomy Lesson revealed to him the means of reaching his ideal of realism. When he returned, he produced for the 1849 Salon, After Dinner in Ornans (1848) - a genre painting on a scale which up to then had been reserved only for historical or mythological works - which was bought by the state and today hangs in Lille Museum. In this painting one can feel, in spite of its debt to Dutch Baroque painting, the living reality that animates the two masterpieces which were completed in the same year: the The Stone-Breakers (1849) (destroyed in Dresden during World War II), and A Burial at Ornans (1849, Louvre) which scandalized the Salon in 1850 and began a series of disputes involving itself and Courbet. Even his admirers, such as Delacroix (1798-1863), regretted that he put his powerful talent at the service of such parochial vulgarity.
Courbet's picture A Burial at Ornans depicted the funeral of his uncle in his hometown of Ornans. Up to this point, actors were used to pose in historical paintings, but Courbet painted "the very people who had been present at the burial, all the townspeople". Art critics and the public were uncertain about his work: they thought he was doing his best to make pictures unnecessarily ugly; and the subject matter, a large funeral, was normally only reserved for Kings and Popes. In fact, the painting marked an end to the fantasy of Romanticism and opened the doors to Realism. Courbet himself said "The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism".
In A Burial at Ornans, Courbet lifts everyday ugliness to a level of universality, investing the figures (each of whom he knew personally) and a familiar village scene with a monumental grandeur and nobility. The same feeling marks the The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair (1850, Besancon Museum) and The Winnowers (1853, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes). His family furnished the models for both these paintings, which, capturing as they do the essence of an actual event, go beyond genre painting. The Fire (1851, Petit Palais, Paris), a huge unfinished painting, and Courbet's only urban scene, is another masterly work and a sort of modern counterpart to Rembrandt's Night Watch.
The parochial banality of Courbet's subjects, however, alienated the public, which was further affronted by what it saw as the indecency of his realistic nudes. At the Salon of 1853, the Emperor Napoleon III flogged the all-too-credible buttocks of his Bathers (1852, Montpellier Museum) with his riding-whip. Courbet's landscapes, with their concern for truth, are among the best examples of modern French painting in a century which produced so many masterpieces. He was a faithful portrayer of nature, and as such a notable interpreter of the special clarity of the light in Franche-Comte (The Village Maidens, 1852, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and of the dry light of the south, which he had first come to know at Montpellier in 1854 during his first stay with his rich patron, the collector Alfred Bruyas.
He immortalized this visit with his romantic-style (!) Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854, Musee Fabre, Montpellier). At the same he discovered the sea: The Edge of the Sea at Palavas (1954, Musee Fabre), La Mere Gregoire (1855, Art Institute of Chicago), which he was to find again after 1865 on the Channel coast, capturing its waves and currents with rough-looking brushstrokes: The Calm Sea (1869, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), The Wave (1870, Musee d'Orsay); The Sea (1872, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen). His seascapes with their changing cloud formations had a noticeable effect over the young Impressionist painters.
For the Paris Exposition of 1855 Courbet conceived the idea of painting his studio in the masterpiece: The Artist's Studio (A Real Allegory of a Seven-Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life (1855, Musee d'Orsay). With this masterly composition, he became a historical painter (and an exponent of Symbolism!) not just of an event but of a philosophy. With the help of real-looking people, he sought to symbolize his friendships and ideals, his dislikes and hatreds, combining his feelings as a man with his tastes as a painter. Portraits, still-life paintings, and landscapes, lit by the presence of one of the most beautiful female nudes in French painting, make up the whole. But the jury turned it down.
Courbet took up the challenge and erected a booth called 'The Pavilion of Realism' on the edge of the exhibition. There, he presented an Exhibition of Forty Paintings, publishing his 'Manifesto of Realism' in the catalogue. Receiving jeers as well as some encouragement, he became the unchallenged leader of the movement.
Each Salon thereafter, became an opportunity for conflict. The most notable were in 1856, when he submitted Girls on the Banks of the Seine (1856, Petit Palais, Paris); in 1861, when he submitted The Stag Drinking (1860-1, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles), which displayed a genius for depicting the tragic aspect of hunting scenes; in 1863 Courbet exhibited at the Salon des Refuses; in 1866, he submitted Stags by the Stream at Plaisir-Fontaine (1866, Musee d'Orsay); and in 1870, when he submitted The Cliff at Etretat after a Storm (1869, Musee d'Orsay), in which the great mass of rocks contrasts with the limpid and luminous atmosphere.
Courbet's life in Paris was punctuated by many trips. Apart from frequent visits to Ornans, he travelled elsewhere in France and abroad. He stayed again with Bruyas at Montpellier, went on a triumphant five-month tour of Germany in 1858 and, in 1862, brought back from a walking tour in Saintonge several beautiful examples of still-life painting of flowers and fruit. From 1865 he was a regular visitor to the coast of Normandy. There he painted Girl with Seagulls (1865, private collection), the striking English Girls at the Window (Copenhagen Art Museum), as well as the very modern-looking Podoscaphe (1865, private collection) and one that still had a classical feeling - The Bather (1868, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
It was at this same time, between 1864 and 1870, that he painted his finest nudes, in which the degree of direct sensuality excludes neither poetry nor feeling (Woman with a Parrot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Two of his works, The Origin of the World (1866, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) featuring a close-up view of a woman's genitalia, and Sleep (1866, Paris, Petit Palais) a painting depicting two women in bed - both of which were more or less contemporary with Turkish Bath by J.A.D. Ingres - were banned but this only increased Courbet's notoriety. Above all, they illustrate the fact that his works of modern art could easily be mistaken for those of a 20th century artist, and were undoubtedly years ahead of their time.
By the time of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 Courbet's fame was assured. However in 1871, in the aftermath of war, he became a member of the Paris Commune. After its defeat he was arrested and accused of being involved in the pulling down of the column in the Place Vendome. Following a vindictive trial, he was condemned to ruin and exile. His bragging, and the jealousy he had aroused, along with his stance as a left-wing rebel, made people forget the debt which France owed him. Using his influence with his friends in the Commune, Courbet did in fact help to save the Louvre from the fire at the Tuileries.
Incarcerated in Sainte-Pelagie, he painted a last Self-Portrait (1871, Ornans Museum) and some still-lifes. Then, forced to leave the country in 1873, he found a welcome in Switzerland. He had been deprived of his property and brought low by mental and physical suffering, and his genius quickly declined. He died 4 years later at the age of 58. A major retrospective of his works was held in 1882 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Courbet was a victim of his own liking for bravado. By his boldness and his contempt for convention he exaggerated the opinions more diplomatically expressed by his friends Baudelaire, Castagnary, Duranty, Valles, and above all Proudhon, who exercised so great an influence over him and whose memory he honoured in 1865 with the striking portrait Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his Children (1865, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Besancon).
His provocativeness made jealous people spiteful. The 'Realist Manifesto' was put about as a profession of faith, whereas his first aim was to fight Romanticism and academic ideas. Although he wanted a 'true' art for the proletarian masses, his proselytizing efforts should not be exagggerated. He was a painter before he was a propagandist, translating what his own private universe offered into a feeling for the people. He was carried away by the generous and revolutionnary aspects of socialism, but showed more ingenuousness than fanaticism in his commitment.
Courbet and his artist friends, Camille Corot (1796-1875), the Barbizon painters, Eugene Boudin (1824-98), and later Manet (1832-83), Jongkind (1819-91) and Whistler (1834-1903), often exchanged the enlightened ideas that prepared the way for Impressionism, but in France his influence was confined to a renewal of vision and of sources of inspiration. His energetic activity had no direct successors. Abroad, though, it was a different matter. Ilya Repin (1844-1930) in Russia, De Groux in Belgium, Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) in Switzerland, and above all Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900) in Germany, were deeply influenced by him.
Works by Gustave Courbet hang in the best art museums throughout the world.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF VISUAL ARTISTS