Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

The post-1848 generation looked with contempt on what it considered the excesses and the bad taste of the preceding Romantic era. A new interest in science and a new vogue of realism in literature and the arts prevailed during the Second Empire; it was best embodied in the novels of Gustave Flaubert and the paintings of Gustave Courbet.

From partial clarifications made by Courbet, one can get a broad meaning inherent to Realism as the Realists and their friendly opponents understood it.

    "To be able to translate the customs, ideas and appearances of my time as I see them--in a word, to create a living art--this has been my aim...The art of painting can consist only in the representation of objects visibleand tangible to the painter (who must apply) his personal faculties to the ideas and the things of the period in which he lives...I hold also that painting is an essentially concrete art, and can consist only of the representation of things both real and existing...An abstract object, invisible or nonexistent, does not belong to the domain of painting...Show me an angel, and I'll paint one.

Gustave Courbet has long been considered the patriarch of the Realist movement in nineteenth-century art; certainly he used the term realism in exhibiting his own works, even though he shunned such labels. "The title Realist," he insisted, "was thrust upon me, just as the title Romantic was imposed upon the men of 1830. Titles have never given a true idea of things." Misunderstandings as to what Realism is has been widespread since Courbet's time. Champfleury wrote in 1857 (a friendly critic who recognized and appreciated Courbet's work) saying: I will not define Realism...I do not know where it comes from, where it goes, what it is ... The name horrifies me by its pedantic ending...there is enough confusion already about that famous word." Disagreement and tumult about Realism still exists among historians of the nineteenth- and for that matter, twentieth century art. Yet Courbet expressed wish explained that he wanted to be only [of his time and to paint only what it made visible to him.

Born into a wealthy family in the mostly rural area of Franche-Comté, Gustave became an anticlerical painter who empathically believed working class people should be treated with dignity. He trained at the Academy and was rejected because of his fierce championship of the Realist cause. He constantly defied both public taste and the art juries who considered his work too coarsely materialistic (so much so as to be plainly socialistic) and too large. Ordinary people as the ones he chose to depict were considered by the public to be unsuitable for artistic representation and were associated in the middle class mind with the dangerous, newly defined working class, which was finding outspoken champions in the likes of Marx, Engels, Proudhon, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Dickens. Rejected by the jury of exhibitions, Courbet developed his own Salon des Refusés (called the Scandal of Salon of 1850) where only those who had been rejected could show. The Academy was still under Neo-Classicism and it's pluralistic style.

Most of his art bore a truthful representation of every day life--nonglamorous representative work, confrontational to the Academy he used impasto with muddy colors, that were almost photographic.

Courbet's pavilion and his declarations amounted to the manifestoes of the new movement. Although he disclaimed the idea that he initiated this new movement he did accept the term "realism" as descriptive of his art. With the unplanned collaboration of Millet, Daumier and other artists, Courbet challenged the whole iconographic stock of the Tradition and called attention to what Baudelaire coined as the "heroism of modern life," which Courbet felt should replace all the heroism of traditional subject matter. For the public is was a competition between the painters of the 'ugly' (Courbet) and the painters of the 'beautiful' (those who oppose Courbet), as the public understood those qualities.

Representative of Courbet's work is the Burial at Ornans which portrays a funeral in a bleak, provincial landscape, attended by obscure persons "of no importance," the type of people presented by Balzac and Flaubert in their novels.

Beyond his novel subject matter, Courbet's intentions were straightforward and simple vehicles of expression in composition and technique and to his contemporaries deemed crude, as well as primitive. Using a traditional bold and somber palette of colors he often employed the palette knife, with which he could rapidly place and unify large daubs of paint, with a roughly wrought surface as the end product. His example inspired the young men of who worked with him (and later Impressionists like Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir), however the critics wrote of his 'brutalities" and the public accused him of "carelessness".

Although often at odds with his critics in his later years Courbet painted with greater intentions of pleasing the public and had been accepted officially by the late 1850's. Indeed painting in more traditional styles of dark underpainting and heavy chiaroscuro, subjects easily familiar to the popular Salon. His latent conservatism disappointed the younger artist who had admired Courbet’s courageous individualism and his vigor of techniques and style. Most of the Impressionists had associated and exhibited with him in their early years, but Courbet failed to catch the spirit of their new artistic endeavors. Regardless, history nor the Impressionists can deny the catalyst Courbet's art had given the movement toward a modernism based on observations of the modern environment.

Politically a socialist, Courbet took part in some revolutionary activities for which he was imprisoned for six months in 1871. He was also fined more than he could pay, so he fled to Switzerland, where he died in the town of La Tour-de-Peilz on Dec. 31, 1877.

Sources :

Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson, Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


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