Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)

The self-proclaimed “proudest and most arrogant man in France,” Gustave Courbet created a sensation at the Paris Salon of 1850–51 when he exhibited a group of paintings set in his native Ornans, a village in the Franche-Comté in eastern France. These works, including The Stonebreakers (1849–50; now lost) and A Burial at Ornans (1849–50; Musèe d’Orsay, Paris) challenged convention by rendering scenes from daily life on the large scale previously reserved for history painting and in an emphatically realistic style. Confronted with the unvarnished realism of Courbet’s imagery, critics derided the ugliness of his figures and dismissed them as “peasants in their Sunday best.”

Courbet’s career was punctuated by scandal, often deliberately courted by the artist himself. Young Women from the Village (40.175), set in the outskirts of Ornans, generated further controversy at the Salon of 1852. Critics were nearly unanimous in reproaching Courbet for the “ugliness” of the three young women, for whom the artist’s sisters modeled, and for the disproportionately small scale of the cattle. Moreover, Courbet’s suggestive use of the term demoiselles (young ladies) to denote this trio of young village women further provoked his critics, who took issue with the blurring of class boundaries that the term implied. In the aftermath of the democratic uprisings in the countryside in 1848, Courbet’s depictions of a rural middle class in his Ornans subjects unsettled his Parisian audience at the Salons.

In 1855, Courbet’s monumental canvas, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic Life (Musée d’Orsay), was rejected by the jury of the Exposition Universelle. Courbet retaliated by mounting his own exhibition in his Pavilion of Realism, built within sight of the official venue, where he displayed, among more than forty other works, The Painter’s Studio. The meaning of Courbet’s unfinished painting remains enigmatic: the figures on the left suggest the various social types that appear in his canvases, while on the right he portrays his friends and supporters. The artist painted himself at the center of this universe, paradoxically painting a landscape within the confines of his studio. The accompanying exhibition catalogue included Courbet’s seminal “Realist Manifesto,” in which he proclaimed his fidelity to subjects drawn from modern life.

During the 1850s, Courbet’s embrace of modernity led him beyond the Ornans subjects that had established his reputation. He captured the café culture of bohemian Paris, painting portraits of its denizens and works inspired by popular café chansons (songs). An avid hunter, Courbet also enjoyed critical and popular success with his hunting scenes (29.100.61; 33.77), the first of which he exhibited at the Salon of 1857 alongside his portrait of the actor Louis Gueymard (19.84). Summering at the fashionable seaside resort of Trouville in 1865, he produced society portraits on commission as well as the more intimate Jo, La Belle Irlandaise (29.100.63), which fuses portraiture and genre painting. The following year, Courbet submitted Woman with a Parrot (29.100.57) to the Salon, having vowed to paint a nude that its conservative jury would accept. Like Manet‘s Olympia of 1863 (Musée d’Orsay), Courbet’s nude was unmistakably modern as opposed to the idealized nude “Venuses” and “Eves” by academic artists that proliferated at the Salons. His supporters lauded him for painting “the real, living French woman.”

Landscape played a central role in Courbet’s imagery. From the beginning of his career, he identified himself with the topography of his native Ornans (1995.537). The distinctive limestone cliffs of the surrounding Jura Mountains provide the backdrop for one of his early self-portraits and recur in Young Ladies of the Village (40.175). He developed a repertoire of landscape motifs rooted in his native Franche-Comté, including the Puits-Noir, or Black Well, which inspired a series of paintings that span more than a decade, and the source of the Loue River, a geological curiosity and popular tourist site. In the summer of 1864, he painted at least four variations, on canvases of the same size, of the Loue River as it surges forth from the mouth of the cave in which it originates (29.100.122). He used both palette knife and brush to render the rock formations and foaming surface of the rushing water. Visiting the south of France in 1854, Courbet produced a group of luminous, seemingly infinite views of the Mediterranean. He did not immerse himself fully in painting “landscapes of the sea,” as he preferred to call his seascapes, until subsequent trips to the Normandy coast, undertaken between 1859 and 1869, where he encountered Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler in 1865 (29.100.566). In 1870, Courbet exhibited only seascapes at the Salon—a calculated assertion of his command of the genre.

That same year, Courbet flouted the authority of the state—not for the first time—by publicly refusing the award of the Legion of Honor, declaring his independence from any form of government. Since the time of its creation, Courbet’s realist imagery—from the downtrodden laborers of The Stonebreakers (1849–50) to the rural bourgeoisie of Ornans—had prompted political associations, but the artist’s actual engagement with politics was complex. He called himself a “republican by birth” but did not take up arms during the 1848 Revolution, adhering to his pacifist beliefs. He entered the political arena on the eve of the Paris Commune of 1871 and played an active role in the political and artistic life of this short-lived socialist government. With the demise of the Commune, Courbet was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment for his involvement in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, a symbol of Napoleonic authority (1999.251). In 1873, fearing persecution by the newly installed government, Courbet voluntarily went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877. Through his powerful realism, Courbet became a pioneering figure in the history of modernism.