Died: 31 December 1877 (La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland)
Most Prominent Works:
○ Man in despair (1841),
○ The Stone Breakers (1849),
○ A Burial at Ornans (1849-50),
○ The Artist’s Studio (1854-1855),
○ Young Ladies by the Seine (1857),
○ The Origin of the World (1866)
Considered as the father of modern art by Cubists, and the founder of Realism, Courbet exposed the realities of the working class. His personality often reflected on his works, both in his self-portraits and his erotic paintings. His rushed technique, applying paint in thicker layers also cleared the path for the Impressionists. To add is the fact that he set the foundations on how people see art today.
An ascending artist of 19th century Realism, Courbet was a pioneer and an extremely influential figure to his contemporaries and future generations of artists.The richness and complexity of his most famous works exalted, on one hand, the tasks of everyday life, as he praised the rural life over the extravagant Parisian lifestyle, and on the other, the artist explored the human sexuality, which came as a great shock at that time (although it continues to do so). Courbet’s objective was to paint real and regular people, whether it was through the portrayal of common tasks and rural poverty, or the erotically charged compositions. The fact is he wanted to give the same protagonism to his contemporary history, showcasing the toughness of Realism in the same manner as historical paintings, as his works projected real life, and in no way idealized it. His many works about rural life and landscape are also a clear indicative of Courbet’s attachment to nature. His way of perceiving art is a direct reflection of his political ideologies, which often crossed paths. Courbet is also very well known for his extravagant and strong personality which had him involved in many scandals and even arrests. One could say he lived as passionately and aggressively as he painted, and his works and ideas regarding art highly influenced the following artistic revolutions.
19th century France suffered a period of political instability and social crisis, following the French Revolution of the previous century. The Revolution of 1848, known as the February Revolution (which catapulted a revolutionary and liberal wave across Europe, known as Springtime of the Peoples; at the same time Karl Marx wrote the Comunist Manifesto), ended the French Monarchy of King Louis Philippe, and established the Second Republic under the rule of Napoléon III (1808-1873) until 1851. The temporary and unstable republic was marked by the representation of the bourgeois and the lack of parliamentary voice of the working class. After Napoleon seized power in 1851, and could not resume his role through the proper channels, he took power by force and established a monarchy once again, proclaiming himself as the emperor of the Second French Empire. During his rule, France saw an increase of industrialization and an evolution of the commercial world, which would lead to new standards of consumerism. His rule ended when he was captured during the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, when France regained independence from the Prussian monarchy.
It had its roots in the French Revolution (1789-1799), and is thought to have been coined by either Pierre Leroux (1798-1871) in 1834, by Marie Roch Louis Reybaud (1799-1879) in France, or by Robert Owen (1771-1858) in England. 19th century France saw the birth of Socialism as a combination of social doctrines, where poverty and inequality of the industrial times were highly criticized. Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Louis Blanc (1811-1882) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) were among the first socialists who presented a new way of organizing society by distributing wealth among all, creating communities and abolishing private property, believing in the collective instead of the individual. Socialism can be linked to Communism, but, while Socialism has less extreme ideas, the radical communist ideals proclaimed a need for a total change. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a self-proclaimed anarchist and a friend of Courbet, believed that property was a way of theft, and that socialism had the goal of improving society; he also developed ideas concerning the open-trade market.
In the specific case of Courbet, he saw both an artistic and a political awakening a few years after he painted Man in Despair (1841), in 1848. This was a crucial year not only relatively about the political state of France, but also about his personal endeavours. Courbet’s provocative personality, could not even resist to show in his works his resentment of Alfred Bruyas’s high status (an art collector and his patron since the early 1850s), for example in Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! (1854). In 1870 he was elected to the Council of the Commune, however did not join battle during the Franco-Prussian War, for the fact he did not belong to the National Guard. In the following year, Courbet was elected as President of the Federation of Artists, and only four days before, made the mistake of leading the petition asking the government of the National Defence to allow the demolition of the Vendôme column on 16th May (something which came to be somewhat of a symbol of the French monarchies, as it had been commissioned by Napoleon I), which was approved by the Commune on 12th April 1871. Later, in 1873, after a new trial, Courbet was found guilty of playing a leading role in the incident, even though he alleged he had only been a member of the Comune for a short period of time. He was sentenced to pay the costs for the rebuild (323,091 francs), losing much of his possessions. After that he exiled to Switzerland in fear of further prosecution.
Courbet has reached fame around the world not only by his daring works but also by his personality. The artist even proclaimed himself as the “proudest and most arrogant man in France”. Even the way he signs his works, in a very prominent manner, illustrates his outstanding confidence and ego. Despite his narcissistic personality, he showed deep affection for his family and hometown. Courbet made various portraits of them on numerous occasions (some disguised among his greatest paintings); also, the backdrop of many of his compositions resemble his hometown, Ornans. He also visited northern France multiple times during his life, where he was well-liked. In addition, the artist believed in the accuracy of the portrayal of reality, of the lesser, the ugly and the erotic, the outcasts and tabus of 19th century French society. His unapologetic views on art echoe his many connections to his perception of what was wrong about the society of the time, both socially and politically. His ties with the Commune did not only gifted him with the presidency of the Federation of Artists (elected on 16 April 1871), but implicated him in judiciary problems. Just four days before his election, he was believed to be involved in the vandalism attack on 16th May 1871, which resulted in the demolition of the Vendôme column (a symbol of the First and Second Empires), as he was seen leading a petition to tear down the column in April. This led to him being arrested and found guilty of playing a role in the act, in 1873. Many point to the fact that Courbet, by being pronounced guilty of this act in combination with his artistic stand, made him a man who literally and figuratively tore down the establishment. On another occasion, Courbet was also associated with scandal as it is believed to have had an affair with Joanna Hifferman, his friend Whistler’s lover (an American painter), which led to the end of the friendship. Furthermore, regarding his body of work, the uneven quality of his paintings (some are masterpieces, others are uninspired and sloppy works), are a pure reflection of his erratic behaviour: his passion faded as quickly as it emerged. By the end of his life, living in exile in Switzerland, he became overwhelmed by financial and legal issues, and started drinking compulsively, producing works unworthy of his full potential. He succumbed to death in 1877, just a few days following the sale of his studio’s contents in Paris.
Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, the only son and the eldest of four children, always had close ties to his family. He came from a rich background, mostly due to his father’s many estates. When he was twenty years old he was advised by his family to pursue a career in law. He later abandoned that path, and, instead moved to Paris, in 1839, and attended the studios of Steuben and Hesse. The artist traveled to many places, like Etretat, Saintonge, Normandy and Montpellier, with friends such as the North-American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and the French art collector Alfred Bruyas (1821-1876). In 1848, he frequented a studio on the Left Bank, where he got in touch with the art critic Champfleury (1821-1889), the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1866) and the socialist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). In fact, Proudhon was the one to incentivize Courbet to pursue the depiction of the harsh realities of the working class. In 1849, he exhibited works in the Paris Salon, for example After Dinner at Ornans (1849), which led to him not only selling this work to the State (to the Musée des Beaux-Arts), but to also be awarded with the second-class gold medal. This exposure led to the friendship with critic Champfleury (writer and founder of Realism in literature) and gifted him with public recognition.
After Dinner at Ornans (1849)
By the early 1850s he had already the financial support of his patron Alfred Bruyas (a rich art collector from Montpellier), and produced paintings that would be accepted at the Paris Salon, once again, between 1850 and 1851. These events swiftly helped establish Courbet as the leading figure of the new Realism movement. He also obtained foreign recognition during this time, especially when Berlin and Vienna argued about who would stage Courbet’s exhibition in 1854. In 1855, all of Courbet’s works were rejected by the Salon jurors, which led him to create a simultaneous personal exhibition at Place de l’Alma, “The Pavilion of Realism”, displaying 140 works, and paying for the construction of the building himself (this would inspire the conception of the Salon des Refusés, in 1863). It was his painting Young Ladies by the Seine (1857) that would grant him the beginning of his golden years, achieving tremendous fame until 1870. Later, in 1870, he remained in the city during the siege of Paris by the Prussian forces, unlike the many who fled the capital. He later joined the Commune, and by 1871 he was elected President of the Federation of Artists, after the fall of the Second Empire. He continued his political career by running for the legislative elections, but lost. However, he was appointed by the Executive Committee for the Commune of Paris, the task of reopening and organizing the Salon and other galleries. During this year, his involvement in the demolishing of the Vendôme column, led to mishaps with justice, in 1873, and to his exile in Switzerland. He lived his final years being constantly harassed by the French State, who kept his family and friends under surveillance and confiscated all his property. He remained there, and refused to go back to his native country unless they issued a general amnesty. Despite being well liked in the neighbouring country, Courbet’s life spiraled down, producing mediocre works and drinking tremendously, with financial and legal difficulties. Courbet passed away on 31st December 1877 at Tour-de-Peilz, after the contents of his studio in France were sold.
Gustave Courbet’s artistic journey can be divided into four key phases: early career (1833-1848), beginnings of Realism (1848-1855), the pinnacle (1856-1870), and difficult years (1871-1877).
Early Career (1833-1848): In this period of self-discovery, the artist was searching for his aesthetic and style. He was firstly introduced to painting when he was fourteen years old, by his Ornans teacher, Baud (formed in Neoclassicism). He then acquired his skills upon moving to Besançon, in 1837, in the studio of a David follower, and also attended the studios of Steuben and Hesse, after moving to Paris. When living there, Courbet also studied the works of the masters of the Louvre, which included Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrant and Hals. It is a fact that Courbet has drawn inspiration from his visits to museums and galleries, for example Louis Philippe’s “Spanish Gallery” where he discovered Velazquez and Zurbarán. During his early career, the artist was also influenced and inspired by his fellow Romantic painters Delacroix and Géricault. This period is marked by works of self-promotion, characterized by the painting of several self-portraits (Man in Despair (1841), Courbet with a Black Dog (1842), Man Mad with Fear (1843-1845), The Wounded Man (1844-1854), The Man with the Leather Belt (1845-1846) and Man with Pipe (1848-1849)), and, by the end of it, Courbet began developing his own personal and sincere style.
During this stage, the artist began to portray simpler and more honest and humble themes, which were considered an outrage by the manner they came to be. Courbet painted funeral and rural labor scenes in the same dimensions dictated by academism to only be reserved to historical, religious, mythological or allegorical themes. Among the best of these monumental paintings are The Stone Breakers (1849), which was later destroyed, and A Burial at Ornans (1850); these in particular caused a great outrage and scandal by defying and disregarding tradition. However, these lend him the leading role in the establishment of the new Realism: for Courbet, these were just as worthy as those academic themes, which exalted their contemporary history, the ordinary everyday life. Furthermore, his highest achievement of this period is The Artist’s Studio (1854-1855); a manifesto in the form of a painting, demonstrating both his artistic and political views, as suggested by its subtitle: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life.
During this period the artist fame gifted him with plenty of commissions, especially after he painted Young Ladies by the Seine (1857), ranging from many different themes (still life, landscape and hunting scenes, for example). By the 1860s, Courbet started engaging in far more controversial and morally questionable subjects, painting satires of religious figures, drunkenness, nudity and erotica. The most shocking of his paintings, which still continues to outrage many, is The Origin of the World (1866), although it has inspired many artists to this day. Besides this scandalous side of his art, the artist also pursue landscape painting, spending some time in Etretat in 1869 (a common hotspot for painters at the time and in years to come), from which he painted its seascapes plenty of times, seen in the many variations of The Wave (1869-1870) and in The Cliff at Etretat after the Storm (1869), where he shown his constant pursuit of capturing the mood and changing seascape – greatly praised when exhibited at the Salon in 1870.
Although his works show a massive range of themes, they all contain one thing in common: they are not only large in scale, its subjects reflect large-scale concepts (life, death, destiny, ocean, forest, and so on). Courbet rejected the corrupt political system of the Second Empire of France and the old-fashioned French Academy, which presented an artistic and social conflict among the French intellectual circle. This led to the materialization of his ultimate goal of making real changes in the taste and in the way of perceiving art. His ideologies are better explained in his visual manifesto, The Artist’s Studio (1854-1855), in which Courbet denounces the wrongs in French society and government, exposes the discrepancies between the wealthy aristocrats and the miserable outcasts, while still demonstrating the differences between what academics believed (supporters of the French Empires) and what the socialist supporters of the new Realism movement wanted to expose. Summing up, many of Courbet’s works were created as an act of protest against the traditional rules of the system, as he was dedicated to capture the truth about modern life – the founding ideal behind Realism.
When it comes to Courbet’s audacious technique, the use of thick layers of paint and the notable brushwork emphasizes the painting process. In addition, the unusual rich green, mostly noticeable in his landscape paintings based on Ornans, is a direct reference to the hometown, as the vegetation assumes that hue due to the copper present in the soil. The artist’s emphasis on material reality (the physical properties of the medium: the texture, the density and the weight), through his pronounced technique, enhances the dignity of the elements represented. Most of his subjects showcase the toughness of reality which he grew in, by portraying the domestic sphere of rural life and the working class. However, the themes of his painting show a lot of range, from still life and landscapes to hunting, erotic and satirical scenes. One thing they have in common is the way they deviate from classical depictions, reinforcing the unresting, repulsing and outraging aspects of realism: for example, his female erotic paintings contradict completely the ideal of classical nude.
Courbet became the leading figure of Realism in the peak of his career, considered as the father of the new movement by the time of his death in 1877, influencing and marking the precedents for the upcoming avant-garde movements, especially Impressionism and Cubism. “The Pavilion of Realism” in 1855, inspired the concept for the Salon des Refusés in 1863, which exhibited rejected works by the oficial jury from the Paris Salon. This proved to be not only fundamental for Impressionists, such as Manet, but is also considered to be the precedent for contemporary forms of exhibition – the solo and retrospective exhibitions which flooded galleries and museums from our days, from Tate to MET. He is now even considered to be the father of modern art.
The artist was greatly inspired by great masters, from Italians such as Titian and Caravaggio, Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Hals, the French Romanticists Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault, and the Spanish painters Velázquez and Zurbarán. The Artist’s Studio draws clear inspiration from Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656-1657), not only considering the similarities between colour palettes, but also the similar theme illustrating the artist’s creative process.
Courbet was a direct influence on Impressionism and Cubism. On one hand, his views about the artistic method, on studying the subject live and painting on site, greatly inspired the methods of the Impressionists. Édouard Manet’s works pay a close resemblance to Courbet’s scandalous subjects, rejecting the academic rules in similar ways in paintings like Lunch on the Lawn (1863) and Olympia (1863). The notable brushwork was adopted by Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler. Whistler shows this in works such as The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-1865). Monet, besides technique wise, also paints his own version of Lunch on the Lawn (1866), including a figure who resembles Courbet itself, who visited the artist’s studio while it was being painted. Courbet’s nudes also influenced Auguste Renoir’s body of work, in examples like the Bather (c. 1903). Regarding the Cubist movement, and its precedents, his approach to the materialistic realm combined with Cezánne’s approach to the visual realm of Reality, created the path for the revolutionary style of Cubism and others. Guillaume Apollinaire, spokesman of the Cubists, points to the crucial role of Courbet in art and in Cubists artistic views, affirming in Les Peintres Cubistes, Méditations Esthétiques (1913) that “Courbet is the father of the new painters.”
Lunch on the Lawn (1863) by Manet
Olympia (1863) by Manet
The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-1865) by J. M. Whistler
Lunch on the Lawn (1866) by Claude Monet
Seated Bather (c. 1903) by Renoir
“To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art—this is my goal.”
“All I have tried to do is to derive, from a complete knowledge of tradition, a reasoned sense of my own independence and individuality.”