Gustave Courbet

February 27–May 18, 2008

Ornans: The Emergence of Realism

Courbet's identity as an artist is inextricably linked with his roots in Ornans, a village in eastern France surrounded by the Jura Mountains. As a young artist in Paris during the 1840s, Courbet cultivated his status as a provincial outsider whose discernible accent signaled his origins in the Franche-Comté. It was Ornans that provided Courbet with his imagery—from portraits of his family members and childhood friends to views of the valley of his birthplace, with its distinctive limestone cliffs. From Paris, he returned regularly to Ornans to visit his family and to immerse himself in the landscape that inspired so many of his canvases, which he often painted from memory in his Paris studio.

At the Salon of 1849 Courbet received a gold medal for After Dinner at Ornans (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille), a work that launched an unprecedented series of paintings depicting life in Ornans. These works, which included The Stonebreakers (1849–50; now lost), an unsparing depiction of rural labor; A Burial at Ornans (1849–50; Musée d'Orsay, Paris); and The Young Ladies of the Village (1851–52), shocked his contemporaries, who were unaccustomed to the emphatic realism and crude brushwork of Courbet's style, rendered on a scale previously reserved for history painting.

His paintings of Ornans brought Courbet the fame that he had predicted for himself in 1845: "I want all or nothing . . . within five years I must have a reputation in Paris." He aggressively courted the notoriety associated with his art: "When I am no longer controversial, I will no longer be important."