The Artist's Studio (1855) by Courbet
Interpretation of French Realist Allegorical Painting

Pin it

The Artist's Studio (1855) by Gustave Courbet
"A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life"

One of the greatest modern paintings of the nineteenth century.


Analysis of The Artist's Studio
Explanation of Other 19th-Century Paintings


Name: The Artist's Studio (1855)
Artist: Gustave Courbet (1819-77)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting (allegory)
Movement: Realist painting
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).



Along with Honore Daumier and Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet was the founder of French Realism, a type of social art which honoured the working man and his environment. Being one of the most progressive figures in 19th century French painting, he was highly critical of the traditional academic teaching methods adopted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and learned instead at private academies and - like Degas and Manet - by copying the Old Masters in the Louvre. In doing so, he developed a particular admiration for the paintings of Caravaggio and Velazquez. Courbet exhibited at the Paris Salon for the first time in 1844, and in 1850 showed three of his great genre paintings: Peasants at Flagey (1850, Museum of Fine Arts, Besancon), The Stone Breakers (1849, New Masters Gallery, Dresden: burned in World War II), and A Burial at Ornans (1849, Musee d'Orsay). These works established him as one of the leading Realist artists in France. In 1855, he submitted thirteen pictures to the World Fair in Paris. Eleven were accepted but two were rejected, including The Artist's Studio. In response, Courbet set up his own "Pavilion of Realism" near the official exposition - a sort of prototype of the Salon des Refusés (1863) - where he showed both The Artist's Studio and A Burial at Ornans.

NOTE: The term "Realism" was first coined about 1846 by Courbet or a member of his circle during one of their meetings at the Brasserie Andler, which was only two doors down from Courbet's studio at 28 rue Hautefeuille, in Paris. Realism is concerned with depicting the life of ordinary working people - social scenes from the streets of Paris, for instance, or the working conditions of peasants. It should not be confused with 'Naturalism', which describes not the subject being depicted but how it is depicted. Naturalism usually describes a true-to-life way of painting the visible world. Realism was also popularized by the gritty novels of Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert and others. For more, see: Realism to Impressionism (c.1830-1900).

Analysis of The Artist's Studio by Courbet

This massive 20-foot wide (6 metres) canvas, created on a scale hitherto reserved for classicist history painting, is an unrepentantly didactic work. Its sub-title was: "A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life". (Note: First, by definition, there is no such thing as a 'real' allegory. It is a contradiction in terms. Second, an allegory is simply a story or picture with hidden meanings.) The picture's title is actually a subtle pun, since it is both an allegory of life as Courbet saw it, as well as an allegory of his personal philosophy of Realism. And by giving his personal manifesto the scale and status of the most prestigious history painting, he was also challenging the hierarchy of the genres and its conventions.



The Artist's Studio shows Courbet seated at his easel at work on a landscape painting, surrounded by an artist's model, a child and a white cat, all of whom occupy the centre of the tableau. The landscape is a view of the Loue River valley, near Ornans - defiantly chosen as a symbol of his 'provincial' origins. The female nude derives from a photo by the French photographer Julien Vallou de Villeneuve (1795-1866), and is thought to represent the traditionalism of the French Academy, or alternatively the artist's inspiration (naked because she symbolizes truth). The white cat - being the opposite colour to the conventional lucky black cat - may symbolize Courbet's anti-traditionalist position. The artist's central position may be a contemporary update of The Apotheosis of Homer (1827, Louvre), a painting by J.A.D. Ingres - the apostle of neoclassical painting - which depicts Homer accepting the homage of the great figures of his time.

One of the most interesting features of this section is the small boy who is looking up at the artist as he paints. Courbet seems to value his opinion more than any of the art collectors, intellectuals or artists in the picture.

Meantime, with one or two exceptions, all the other figures in the painting, divided into two groups (left and right), are allegorical representations of various influences on Courbet's life and/or art.

To the left, representing everyday life, is a group of ordinary people from all levels of French society: a Jew, a priest, a merchant, a republican veteran of 1793, a game-keeper, a textile pedlar, an undertaker, a woman suckling a child, an unemployed worker and a beggar girl, and so on. Courbet also demonstrates his familiarity with traditional painting. For example, the contorted male nude depicted in a crucifixion-like posture is believed to symbolize the death of academic art, the old-fashioned style of painting promoted by the French Academy and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Its demise is also alluded to by the skull resting on a copy of the "Journal des Debats". The skull is also a reference to Vanitas painting. The top-hatted gentleman sitting with his hands on his knees is a reference to Ingres' famous neoclassical Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832, Louvre). Also visible on the left are a dagger, a plumed hat, and a buckled shoe. These symbolize either the death of French Romanticism (caused by the increasing popularity of Realism), or the end of Romanticism in Courbet's paintings.

To the right, in semi-darkness, behind the artist, are a number of Courbet's friends, some of whom were important influences on his thought and work. The poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) is perched on a table, extreme right. The 'Realist' novelist Jules Champfleury (1820-89) is seated on a stool immediately behind Courbet. In the background the bearded profile of Courbet's main patron Alfred Bruyas (1821-76) is also visible. Bruyas also bought pictures by realist artists like Millet, Theodore Rousseau, and Corot, as well as works by the Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix, but above all he admired the work of Courbet. Behind him, facing us, is the radical political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) - forerunner of Karl Marx. The couple in the foreground to the left of Baudelaire represent art collectors, while the pair of lovers by the window, represent free love.

Note: As the picture was painted entirely at Ornans, most of the portraits of Courbet's friends - all of whom lived in Paris - were copied from photographs or from earlier portraits. Charles Baudelaire's portrait, for instance, was taken from Courbet's 1847 portrait of the writer. While the image of Proudon was bason on a photo obtained from Champfleury. See: Photographers of the 19th-Century.

Due to a shortage of time, Courbet had to modify some of his plans for the painting. For instance, on the back wall of the studio he planned to paint replicas of his earlier pictures. But because he ran out of time mid-way through, he simply covered them up with a reddish-brown base paint, leaving the partially-finished images still visible.

NOTE: If Courbet was the leading practitioner of urban realism, then Jean-Francois Millet was the best-known painter of the French peasantry. See, for instance, The Gleaners (1857), The Angelus (1859) and Man with a Hoe (1862).

Courbet's The Artist's Studio is rightly described as a work that stands at the threshold of modern art, not least because it exerted a profound impact on so many progressive painters. Even though created in the form of a classical tableau, it deals with wholly contemporary issues, such as: the changing relationship between town and country; the need for a new understanding between the artist and the working environment of ordinary men and women; the role and value of art within the broad field of contemporary political, social and cultural ideas. It is also a deeply personal work, and expresses a social philosophy to which Courbet remained faithful all his life.

Explanation of Other 19th-Century Paintings

The Colossus (1808-12) by Goya.
Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Valpincon Bather (1808) by J.A.D. Ingres.
Louvre, Paris.

The Third of May, 1808 (1814) by Goya.
Prado Museum, Madrid.

La Grand Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D. Ingres.
Louvre, Paris.

The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) by Delacroix.
Louvre, Paris; Philadephia Museum of Art.

Liberty Leading the People (1830) by Delacroix.
Louvre, Paris.


• For analysis of other Realist paintings, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.