Young Communards in Prison (Les Fédérés à la Conciergerie)

Artist: Gustave Courbet (French, Ornans 1819–1877 La Tour-de-Peilz)

Date: 1871

Medium: Black chalk (rubbed) on wove paper

Dimensions: Overall: 10 3/16 x 6 1/2 in. (25.9 x 16.6 cm)

Classification: Drawings

Credit Line: Gift of Guy Wildenstein, 1999

Accession Number: 1999.251


The intensity of Courbet's political views landed him in prison in 1871. As a leading dissident of the liberal Paris Commune, he was held responsible for the destruction of the Vendôme Column and was locked up in the stables of Versailles. Later, he was sentenced to six months at the prison of Sainte-Pélagie in Paris. To judge from an attached inscription, Courbet must have been at Versailles when he made this drawing of fellow jailed Communards; he sent it to the magazine L'Autographe, where it was published. The artist evidently wished to emphasize that among those held under dreadful, terrifying conditions were juveniles, some scarcely more than infants. Courbet's gritty illustration shows a graffiti-marked prison cell in which a boy, slumped on the stone floor, and a child crying on a bed direct their hopes toward the barred window.
With so few drawings to his name, Courbet remains an elusive draftsman. Although the Museum owns twenty-six of his paintings, this drawing is one of only two in the collection. Very different in function and appearance from the other drawing, an academic study of a nude male (1975.1.589), this work gives vent to the artist's anger and misery when he was only months away from exile in Switzerland.