Gustave Courbet, (born June 10, 1819, Ornans, France—died December 31, 1877, La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland), French painter and leader of the Realist movement. Courbet rebelled against the Romantic painting of his day, turning to everyday events for his subject matter. His huge shadowed canvases with their solid groups of figures, such as The Artist’s Studio (1854–55), drew sharp criticism from the establishment. From the 1860s a more sensuous and colourful manner prevailed in his work.
Early life and work
Courbet was born in eastern France, the son of Eléonor-Régis, a prosperous farmer, and Sylvie Courbet. After attending both the Collège Royal and the college of fine arts at Besançon, he went to Paris in 1841, ostensibly to study law. He devoted himself more seriously, however, to studying the paintings of the masters in the Louvre. Father and son had great mutual respect, and, when Courbet told his father he intended to become a painter rather than a provincial lawyer, his father consented, saying, “If anyone gives up, it will be you, not me,” adding that, if necessary, he would sell his land and vineyards and even his houses to help his son.
Freed from all financial worry, young Courbet was able to devote himself entirely to his art. He gained technical proficiency by copying the pictures of Diego Velázquez, José de Ribera, and other 17th-century Spanish painters. In 1844, when he was 25, after several unsuccessful attempts, his self-portrait Courbet with a Black Dog, painted in 1842–44, was accepted by the Salon—the only annual public exhibition of art in France, sponsored by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. When in the following years the jury for the Salon thrice rejected his work because of its unconventional style and bold subject matter, he remained undaunted and continued to submit it.
The development of Realism
The Revolution of 1848 ushered in the Second Republic and a new liberal spirit that, for a brief while, greatly affected the arts. The Salon held its exhibition not in the Louvre itself but in the adjoining galleries of the Tuileries. Courbet exhibited there in 1849, and his early work was greeted with considerable critical and public acclaim.
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In 1849 he visited his family at Ornans to recover from his hectic lifestyle in Paris and, inspired again by his native countryside, produced two of his greatest paintings: The Stonebreakers and Burial at Ornans. Painted in 1849, The Stonebreakers is a realistic rendering of two figures doing physical labour in a barren rural setting. The Burial at Ornans, from the following year, is a huge representation of a peasant funeral, containing more than 40 life-size figures. Both works depart radically from the more controlled, idealized pictures of either the Neoclassical or the Romantic school; they portray the life and emotions not of aristocrats but of humble peasants, and they do so with a realistic urgency. The fact that Courbet did not glorify his peasants but presented them boldly and starkly assaulted the prevailing conventions of the art world.
Leader of the new school of Realism
Courbet, an intimate of many writers and philosophers of his day, including the poet Charles Baudelaire and the social philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, became the leader of the new school of Realism, which in time prevailed over other contemporary movements. One of the decisive elements in his development of Realism was his lifelong attachment to the traditions and customs of his native province, the Franche-Comté, and of his birthplace, Ornans, one of the most beautiful towns in the province. After a brief visit to Switzerland, he returned to Ornans, and in late 1854 he began an immense canvas, which he completed in six weeks: The Artist’s Studio, an allegory of all the influences on Courbet’s artistic life, which are portrayed as human figures from all levels of society. Courbet himself presides over all the figures with ingenuous conceit, working on a landscape and turning his back to a nude model, a symbolic representation of academic tradition. When the painting was refused by the jury for the 1855 Universal Exposition, Courbet, with the financial support of a friend, opened his own pavilion of Realism to exhibit his works in a site close to the official exposition. The enterprise failed; the painter Eugène Delacroix alone, in his journal, praised the audacity and talent of Courbet.
In 1856 Courbet visited Germany, where he was warmly welcomed by his fellow artists. Three years later, at the age of 40 and still working in defiance of severe criticism in his own country, he was the undisputed model for a new generation of painters who had turned away from the traditional schools of painting, which they considered only barriers to artistic inspiration. Courbet worked in all genres. A lover of women, he glorified the female nude in paintings of stunning warmth and sensuality. He executed admirable portraits, but above all he celebrated the Franche-Comté, the forests, springs, rocks, and cliffs of which were immortalized by his vision. In 1865 he set up his easel before the cliffs of Étretat, Deauville, Trouville, and other resorts fashionable during the Second Empire. Carefully observing air currents and storm skies, he successfully depicted the architecture of a tempest in a series of seascapes. These pictures were an extraordinary achievement that amazed the world of art and opened the way for Impressionism, which was to achieve an even greater sensuousness by reproducing the colour and light reflected by an object rather than its strict linear shape.