Gustave Courbet

February 27–May 18, 2008

Painting and Politics

Courbet's realist imagery—from the laborers of the The Stonebreakers of 1849–50 (now lost) to the rural bourgeoisie of Ornans—was almost immediately politicized by his contemporaries. Although Courbet himself, in an 1852 letter, denied "practicing politics in painting," his engagement with politics was evident. He called himself a "republican by birth" but, adhering to his pacifist beliefs, did not take up arms during the Revolution of 1848. In 1870 he flouted the authority of the government—not for the first time—by publicly refusing the award of the Legion of Honor, declaring his independence "from any regime except the regime of freedom."

He decisively entered the political arena on the eve of the Commune of 1871 and played an active role in the short-lived socialist government of Paris. For a time, politics displaced painting. With the demise of the Commune, Courbet was arrested and sentenced to six months' imprisonment for his involvement in the destruction of Paris's Vendôme Column, a symbol of Napoleonic authority.

During his incarceration, Courbet resumed painting in his cell, producing mostly still lifes. These self-styled "captivity paintings" directly invoked his experience in the Commune: many bore the inscription "Sainte-Pélagie," a reference to his prison. Similarly, his paintings of trout, whose inscriptions also allude to his imprisonment, have been read as metaphors of his suffering. Following his release in 1872, he attempted unsuccessfully to reinstate himself in official art circles; the Salon jury rejected the submissions of this "Columnard," as contemporary caricatures mockingly referred to him.

In 1873, fearing persecution from the newly installed right-wing government, Courbet voluntarily went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877.