A Burial At Ornans (1849) by Courbet
Interpretation of French Realist Genre Painting

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A Burial At Ornans (1849) by Gustave Courbet

One of the greatest modern paintings of the 19th century.


Analysis of A Burial At Ornans
Explanation of Other 19th-Century Paintings


Name: A Burial At Ornans (Un enterrement a Ornans) (1849)
Artist: Gustave Courbet (1819-77)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
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).



In France, the year 1848 witnessed the overthrow of King Louis Philippe and the June Days Uprising. Little had changed since the French Revolution of 1789, and workers took to the streets in protest. Against this backdrop, Gustave Courbet was developing a radical new style of modern art that venerated the working man and his environment. Known as Realism, this new style of French painting challenged the conventions of academic art - the traditional style of painting taught by the Ecole des Beaux Arts and promoted by the French Academy - by placing the lives of ordinary working men and women on a par with highbrow subjects such as classical mythology, heroic historical events, formal portraiture and picturesque or dramatic scenery. Instead of these supposedly sophisticated subjects, Courbet painted unidealized workers and peasants in mundane scenes of everyday urban or rural life, often on the sort of grand scale normally reserved for paintings of religious or historical subjects. Against a background of social unrest, many art critics were outraged by Courbet's radically new aesthetics and the left-wing philosophy behind them. Unlike the placid certainties of Victorian art, and the nostalgia of the German Biedermeier Style (1810-60), French art was marked by a number of conflicting movements - including Classicism (Ingres), Romanticism (Delacroix), Orientalism (Jean–Leon Gerome), Realism (Courbet) and Naturalism (Theodore Rousseau) - out of which would emerge French Impressionism and other major styles of modern art. For more background, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900). For more about Courbet's art, see his later masterpiece: The Artist's Studio - A Real Allegory (1855, Musee d'Orsay, Paris).

NOTE: The rural counterpart of Courbet was the Barbizon realist painter Millet, whose most celebrated paintings of peasant life included The Gleaners (1857), The Angelus (1859) and the brutish Man with a Hoe (1862).

Analysis of A Burial At Ornans by Courbet

A Burial at Ornans - now seen as one of the greatest genre paintings - depicts the funeral of Courbet's great-uncle which took place in September 1848, in the family's birthplace of Ornans, a small town near Besancon in north-eastern France. Rather than use professional models, which was normal practice, Courbet chose to paint the same townspeople who had been present at the burial, thus emphasizing the 'truthful' character of Realism.



The painting was first shown at the Salon of 1850, along with two more of the artist's works: The Stone Breakers and the Peasants of Flagey. In keeping with Courbet's radical idea of treating the common people with a new sense of grandeur, the picture was executed on a massive canvas, measuring 10 by 22 feet (3.1 by 6.6 meters) - a format traditionally reserved for prestigious religious paintings (eg. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci) or classical tableaux (eg. Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese). This alone drew a torrent of criticism. In addition, the defiantly mundane character of the burial is reinforced by the painting's title in which there is no mention of the name of the deceased, merely the location of the ceremony. (Moreover, the title of the picture says "A" burial not "The" burial, thus diminishing its significance even further.) Lastly, Courbet's life-sized mourners do not indulge in any dramatic gestures of grief, or other emotion which suggests any nobility of character - indeed, several mourners appear more like caricatures, as if the artist was making a virtue out of ugliness.

Despite its modernity, A Burial At Ornans includes a number of traditional compositional features. First, the picture plane is made deliberately narrow and crowded in order to accentuate the monumentality and solidarity of the occasion. (Compare The Portrait of Monsieur Bertin by J.A.D. Ingres.) Second, the silhoutte of the mourners follows the line of the horizon, and nothing is allowed to project into the evening sky, except for the crucifix. This not only indicates the fundamentally earthbound character of life, it emphasizes that everyone is equal before God. Lastly, through the use of muted colours (set off by the white bonnets, handkerchiefs, and clerical vestments) as well as the evening gloom, and the sober restraint shown by mourners and priests alike, the artist underlines the importance and dignity of an ordinary life and death.

NOTE: Although painted by a self-confessed anarchist and radical artist, A Burial at Ornans is actually one of the best-composed religious paintings of the 19th century.

The exhibition of the work at the 1850 Salon met with a hostile reaction from several critics and artists, who thought it scandalous for such a prosaic event to be represented in such a grand manner. On the plus side, the painting (and its two sisters) established Courbet overnight as the leading representative of the new Realism movement. Furthermore, as the public gradually grew to appreciate the new Realist idiom, they lost their taste for conventional Neoclassical painting as well as Romanticism. One could say therefore, that A Burial at Ornans heralded the demise of Romanticism, and also - in view of the grandiose treatment it gives to an everyday genre scene - the demise of the official hierarchy of genres which had haunted French art for so long.

Courbet's Realism, as exemplified by A Burial at Ornans and The Stone Breakers, was taken up and developed by painters in Western Europe (notably France and Holland), Russia and America, spawning sub-movements such as the Ashcan School (1908-1913), Social Realism (1920s/1930s), Socialist Realism (1925-present), American Scene Painting (1925-45), Photorealism (1960s-present), Chinese Cynical Realism and many more.

Explanation of Other 19th-Century Paintings

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

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

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.

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