Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet


Gustave Courbet, a self-declared Realist, rejected the inherent sentimentality of the earlier Romantics. Courbet’s interest in portraying things as they really appear, together with his non-academic orientation, place him in the front rank of the quest for realism that was the premise for much of the artistic activity during the second half of the nineteenth century. Abandoning the study of law for art, Courbet arrived in Paris from his native Ornans in 1840. Essentially self-taught, he learned the rudiments of his profession from studying the works of Caravaggio in the Louvre. In 1847 Courbet made a trip to Holland, which strengthened his belief that painters should work from the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals, and the other Dutch masters had done.

Courbet, like his contemporary Jean-Fran├žois Millet, was affected by the events of 1848. Courbet himself later asserted that from 1848 on, he concentrated on “realistic” subjects. His efforts were more consciously designed to arouse controversy than Millet’s had been. He coined the term realism to define his interest in the actual circumstances of his day. Despite his realism, however, Courbet controlled his images, underscoring the dramatic and symbolic nature of his subjects so that his paintings had an intellectual as well as a visual component.

Exhibiting The Stonebreakers in the Salon of 1850-51, together with a portrayal of a family funeral at Ornans and a scene of peasants returning from a fair, Courbet achieved the notoriety he so desired. He openly declared his socialist ideals but also affirmed that his subject matter had as much to do with his interest in “real and existing things” as with politics.


Criticized for deliberately adopting a cult of ugliness and for attacking the established social standards, he was also praised by such social reformers as his friend the social theorist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who saw in The Stonebreakers a visual condemnation of capitalism and its potential for greed. When Courbet’s work was rejected for the Paris International Exhibition in 1855, he took the novel approach of opening his own pavilion.

Still at the center of political activity in the 1870s, he was arrested and imprisoned in 1871 when the Commune he supported fell. The following year he was released, and he moved to Switzerland, spending the remainder of his life in exile and painting the rough Swiss terrain in new, experimental ways.

Political and social radicalism

Courbet’s early attempts at recognition were none too successful. Between 1841 and 1847, only three of the 25 works he submitted were passed by the selection committee. And for the first 10 years he sold almost nothing, remaining almost entirely dependent on his family sending him money. During this period he also met Virginia Binet, about whom little is known except that she became his mistress and bore him a son in 1847.

One of the works Courbet exhibited at the Salon caught the eye of a Dutch dealer, who invited him to Holland and commissioned a portrait. In addition, he had the support of the new friends he had made in Paris. In January 1848 he wrote enthusiastically to his parents that he was very close to making a breakthrough. Influential people, he assured them, were impressed by his work and were forming a new school, with him at the head.


The friends in question came from the circle which gathered at the Brasserie Andler (or the “Temple of Realism” as it was soon to be nicknamed). Among them were the poet Charles Baudelaire, anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jules Champfleury, the Realist author and critic; and his cousin and childhood friend Max Buchon.

It was at the Brasserie that the term “Realism” was first coined to describe not only a style of art and literature which presented life as it was, but also a philosophy committed to contemporary social issues. The Brasserie Andler was just down the road from Courbet’s studio, and he was often to be seen in the crowed cafe. His larger-than-life personality soon made him the center of the animated discussions which went on there nightly. He preserved his provincial Jura accent and smoked old-fashioned pipes; he was a great eater, a great drinker and above all a great talker. But he had adopted his role of semi-literate peasant for a reason – both to distance himself from the bourgeois world of Paris and to gain acceptance in avant-garde society. It also concealed an inner loneliness. He later wrote: “Behind this laughing mask of mine which you know, I conceal grief and bitterness, and a sadness which clings to my heart like a vampire. In the society in which we live, it doesn’t take much to reach the void”.

In February 1848 that society was violently shaken, when rioting broke out on the streets of Paris. Louis Philippe abdicated and a provisional Republican government took control. Courbet sided with the popular insurrection, although he took little part in the fighting. In the uneasy political atmosphere, the Salon still opened, but this time without a selection committee. Courbet, who had suffered so many rejections in the past, now had ten works displayed.

Although the Second Republic survived for less than four years until Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat, Courbet’s name was made. His Salon entries of 1848 were greeted enthusiastically by the critics and the following year his large painting After Dinner at Ornans won a gold medal and was purchased by the government. The medal was particularly important, since it exempted Courbet from the selection procedure at future Salons.

The timing of this privilege was most fortuitous, as the storm of protest against the Realist movement was about to break. Probably on the advice of Champfleury, Courbet had been steadily abandoning his early Romantic subject-matter in favor of scenes of his beloved Ornans – which he visited regularly – containing portraits of his family, friends and neighbors. The most striking example of this was Burial at Ornans which went on show at the 1850-1851 Salon. Courbet had embarked on this huge painting in the summer of 1849, with virtually everyone in the district clamoring to be included. The result was a vast, frieze-like composition, designed to catch the eye. The critics hated it. It was too big; the figures were too ugly; the beadles looked drunk; it was too individual. From now on every picture Courbet exhibited provoked a furor.

Not all the hostility which Courbet aroused can be attributed to purely artistic factors, however. In the aftermath of the Revolution, pictures of unidealized and uncompromising peasants, portrayed on a heroic scale, must have seemed deeply threatening to the new regime and its supporters. These fears were increased by friends such as Proudhon, who interpreted the works as political statements in a way that the artist had probably never intended.

Courbet did not bother to deny such claims. He was rarely averse to provoking those in authority and took great pleasure in the vicarious radicalism of his reputation. So in 1853, when the government offered him an olive branch, Courbet was swift to rebuff it. This attempt at appeasement came when the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, the Director of Fine Arts, proposed to Courbet that he should produce a major painting for the forthcoming World Exhibition, provided only that he submit a sketch in advance. Courbet rejected the overture indignantly, as a breach of his intellectual liberty. Needless to say, three of his most significant contributions to the exhibition were eventually rejected. The artist was disappointed, but not disheartened. And in 1855, in an unprecedented show of artistic independence, he staged his own one-man exhibition alongside the official displays.

The show was advertised under the banner of REALISM and contained a representative selection of Courbet’s work dating back to the early 1840’s. The centerpiece was his most original and ambitious canvas, The Painter’s Studio – a monumental depiction of the artist’s studio, peopled with a mixture of close friends and symbolic figures.

This private exhibition marked a watershed in Courbet’s life, separating him from many of his most formative influences. Proudhon had been jailed and Buchon exiled for their activities during the Revolution, while Champfleury gradually dissociated himself from his friend’s socialist leanings. There were upheavals in Courbet’s personal life, too. His longstanding mistress, Virginia Binet, left him in the early 1850s, taking their young son with her. Courbet was surprisingly philosophical about this, writing to a friend that his art was keeping him busy and that in any case a married man was a reactionary.

Increasing recognition outside Paris made Courbet less reliant on success at the Salon and he traveled extensively after 1855. In Frankfurt, he was treated as a celebrity, with the local Academy placing a studio at his disposal. In Trouville, on the Normandy coast, he met up with James Whistler and plied a profitable trade in seascapes and portraits of the local beauties; in Etretat he painted with the youthful Monet. He exhibited in Germany, Holland, Belgium and England, and decorations were showered on him, culminating in a gold medal from Leopold II of Belgium and the Order of St. Michael from Ludwig II of Bavaria, both awarded in 1869.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason that Courbet traveled so widely during the late 1850s and 1860s was to enjoy such accolades, but it was also partly to distance himself from a government that he still believed was hostile to him. When he was finally offered the Legion of Honor in 1870, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, it was already too late. Courbet declined the decoration grandly, as an example of state interference in art.

Courbet caricature

The gesture was remembered when the government fell, and Courbet was elected chairman of the republican Arts Commission. The following year, he narrowly missed election to the National Assembly, but was accepted as a counselor, which in turn made him a member of the Commune. Tenure of these posts implicated Courbet in the destruction of the column in the Place Vendome, a monument to Napoleon’s victories, and when the Commune failed, he was arrested and condemned to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 500 francs.

Courbet began his sentence at Sainte-Pelagie prison in September 1871. But illness cut short his stay, and he soon was removed to a clinic at Neuilly. Misfortune dogged him: his son died in 1872, and throughout the following winter Courbet was plagued with rheumatism and liver problems. Worse was to follow. In May 1873, the new government ordered him to pay for the reconstruction of the Vendome Column. The cost of this – later confirmed at over 300,000 francs – was prohibitive, and Courbet was obliged to flee from France. He chose Switzerland, where he felt at home among the French-speaking community and the familiar Jura mountains. The exiled artist settled at La Tour de Peilz, where he remained in touch with French dissidents and – despite heavy drinking – was able to continue painting. He never gave up hope of returning to France, but the chance of a reprieve never came. Courbet contracted dropsy and died on the last day of 1877. He was buried locally but it was not until 1919, that his remains were finally transferred to the cemetery at Ornans.

Compiled by Romano Krauth
Published by which went offline in 2006


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