Gustave Courbet

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Gustave Courbet

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (10 June 1819–31 December 1877) was a French painter. He was the leader of the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting. Courbet is very important in French painting for two reasons. Firstly, he was prepared to try out new ideas and ways of painting. Secondly, his paintings made social comment on the world around him. In other words, he was not afraid to show "real life" in a way that was not always beautiful and nice.

Courbet's paintings were an inspiration to many other painters, particularly the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec were all inspired by Gustave Courbet's paintings of people. His landscape paintings were an inspiration to Claude Monet, Seurat, Cezanne and many other painters.

Early life[change | change source]

Self-portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843–1845 (Private collection)

Courbet was born in 1819, and was the son of Régis and Sylvie Oudot Courbet in Ornans, Doubs. Courbet's sisters, Zoé, Zélie and Juliette, were his first models for drawing and painting.

When Courbet was twenty he went to Paris in 1839, and worked at the studio of two other painters, Steuben and Hesse. He was not happy there, and wanted to work on his own. He studied the works of many great masters, including Goya, Velazquez and Titian. He painted several self-portraits at this time. He often returned home to Ornans to hunt, fish and find inspiration in the countryside and country life.[1]

In 1846–1847 Coubet travelled to the Netherlands and Belgium where he studied the paintings of Rembrandt, Franz Hals and Jan Steen who all painted in the 1600s. The paintings by these artists often showed realistic scenes and portraits of everyday life. They showed ordinary people at the table together, dancing, writing, cooking, working at trades and in businesses and in the fields. There were many pictures of soldiers. Courbet decided that he wanted to paint scenes of ordinary life the way that these artists did. He did not want to paint scenes from literature, history or mythology like most other artists in France at that time. [2]

Success[change | change source]

Stone-Breakers, 1849

Courbet painted a large picture of everday-life at Ornans. The painting, called After Dinner at Ornans, shows four men who have just finished a meal at a little table, which is perhaps in an inn. One man is playing his violin, one man is lighting his pipe. Courbet sits listening, with his head leaning on his hand. A large dog is curled under a chair. Courbet showed the painting at the Salon Exhibition in Paris. It was a great success. It won a Gold Medal and was bought by the French Government.[3] Because of the gold medal, Courbet could hang his pictures at the Salon Exhibitions without having them checked by a jury first. (This rule was changed in 1857.)[4] Courbet's work, along with the work of Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet, became known as Realism. Like the Dutch painters that he admired, Courbet often painted in broad, rough brush strokes. He often used dark earthy colours, particularly brown, in his paintings.

Stone Breakers[change | change source]

In 1849 Courbet saw two people working by the roadside, using small hammers to break large rocks into gravel. One was an old man and the other was a young boy. Courbet painted a picture of this scene. He explained it to a friend "It is not often that one meets with so complete an expression of poverty and so, right then and there I got the idea for a painting. I told them to come to my studio the next morning."

The picture soon became one of the most famous scenes of the life of poor people that has ever been painted. It was destroyed during World War II in Dresden.[5]

A Burial at Ornans[change | change source]

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Courbet's other important painting that was shown at the Salon of 1850 was a scene of life at his village. Beginning in 1849, he painted the funeral of his great-uncle who had died the previous year. Courbet got all the village people who had been at the funeral to come to his studio and pose for him, one by one, until the painting was complete. The painting was very large, 10 by 22 feet (3.1 by 6.6 meters). The famous artist Jacques Louis David had once painted a very large picture in the same way. David's picture was of the Coronation of Napoleon and showed all the people who were present.

Some people praised The Funeral at Ornans but other people were very angry about it. They thought that it was wrong to show the burial of an ordinary man in a huge painting, as if he was as important as an emperor. They thought that it was wrong to show the poor people of a village, with their old clothes and dirty boots, as if they were all as important as lords and ladies. [6] Some of the critics said that Courbet was deliberately trying to paint ugliness.[6] Many people came to see the picture and liked the new Realist way of painting. Courbet said: "The Burial at Ornans was .... the burial of Romanticism."

Courbet became a celebrity. (He became famous and written about in the newspapers- like a film star.) People said he was a genius, a "terrible socialist", and a "savage".[6] Courbet wrote to a friend in 1850:

...in our very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.[7]

During the 1850s Courbet painted many other pictures using common folk and friends as his subjects, such as Village Damsels (1852), the Wrestlers (1853), Bathers (1853), The Sleeping Spinner (1853), and The Wheat Sifters (1854).

The Artist's Studio[change | change source]

The Artist's Studio, 1855, 359 × 598 cm (141.33 × 235.43 in), oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Courbet then painted another huge picture. This painting is called The Artist's Studio and is about seven years in his life as a painter. He shows himself at the centre of the picture, working on a large landscape painting. Behind him is an artists' model, who is naked. All around Courbet are his friends and people from his village. His mother stands to one side of the picture. Another woman is sitting on the floor feeding her baby. A little boy watches the artist, while a white cat plays on the floor.

In 1855 Coubet took this picture, with Burial at Ornan and twelve other paintings to be shown in a big international exhibition in Paris called Exposition Universelle. The two biggest paintings and another one were sent away because there was not enough room. Courbet was angry. He had his own building put up, and showed forty of his paintings.[8] Many other artists praised Courbet, but some people laughed at him, and the public did not buy very many of his pictures.[9] Because of what he had done, younger artists heard about him and admired him. These included James McNeill Whistler in the United States as well as Édouard Manet in France.

Later life[change | change source]

In 1857 Courbet showed six pictures in the Salon exhibition. One was a hunting scene and one was a picture of two prostitutes lying under a tree on the banks of the River Seine in Paris. Many people came to see the exhibition and to buy his paintings. The hunting scenes were very popular for decorating the halls and dining rooms of large houses. [4]

Two prostitutes on the banks of the Seine, (1856)

For the rest of his life, Courbet painted erotic (sexy) pictures like the picture of the prostitutes, and also many more hunting scenes. His last erotic painting was called The Origin of the World and was a close-up painting of female genitals. This painting was not shown in a public exhibition until 1988.[10] He also painted very many landscapes, which he began by doing outdoor sketches, then made into big paintings in his studio. By the 1870s Courbet was thought of as one of the leading artists in France. The emperor offered to make Courbet a member of the Légion d'honneur which was the highest honour in France, but Courbet refused to accept it. He believed that he belonged to the poor and ordinary people, not to the high and mighty.

At this time, there were many political problems in France. Courbet became involved in the political problems. In 1871, he was blamed because a public monument called the Vendôme Column had been demolished. He was put in prison for six months. In 1873, the new government expected him to pay to have the monument restored and put back. He did not have enough money so left France to live in Switzerland.[11] The government decided to make terms so that Courbet could pay for the column in yearly payments of 10,000 francs for 33 years. Courbet died at La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, on 31 December 1877, one day before the first payment was due. He was 58 and died of liver disease, made worse by heavy drinking.[12]

Gallery[change | change source]

Other pages[change | change source]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Avis Berman, "Larger than Life", Smithsonian Magazine, April 2008.
  2. Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 83.
  3. Masanès, Fabrice 2006, pp. 30–32
  4. 4.0 4.1 Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 55.
  5. Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 31.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 4.
  7. Courbet, Gustave: artchive.com citing Perl, Jed: Gallery Going: Four Seasons in the Art World, 1991, Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-15-134260-0.
  8. Masanès, p. 52
  9. Faunce, Sarah; Courbet, Gustave; and Nochlin, Linda 1988, p. 84.
  10. Schwabsky, Barry 2008, p. 34.
  11. Fischer, Matthias 2009, pp. 57–80.
  12. Noël, Bernard 1978

References[change | change source]

  • Champfleury, Les Grandes Figures d’hier et d’aujourd’hui (Paris, 1861)
  • Chu, Petra ten Doesschate. Courbet in Perspective. (Prentice Hall, 1977) ASIN B000OIFL3E
  • Chu, Petra ten Doesschate and Gustave Courbet. Letters of Gustave Courbet. (Chicago: Univ Chicago Press, 1992) ISBN 0-226-11653-0
  • Chu, Petra ten Doesschate. The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture.(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007) ISBN 0-691-12679-8
  • Clark, Timothy J., Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); (Originally published 1973. Based on his doctoral dissertation along with The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-1851), 208pp. ISBN 978-0-520-21745-4. (Considered the definitive treatment of Courbet's politics and painting in 1848, and a foundational text of Marxist art history).
  • Danto, Arthur (January 23, 1989). "Courbet". The Nation: 97–100.
  • Faunce, Sarah, Gustave Courbet, and Linda Nochlin. Courbet Reconsidered. ([Brooklyn, N.Y.]: Brooklyn Museum, 1988) ISBN 0-300-04298-1
  • Fischer, Matthias, Der junge Hodler. Eine Künstlerkarriere 1872-1897, Wädenswil: Nimbus, 2009. ISBN 978-3-907142-30-1
  • Forster-Hahn, Françoise, et al., Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth-Century Paintings From the Nationalgalerie, Berlin (London: National Gallery Company, 2001) ISBN 1-85709-981-8
  • Hutchinson, Mark, "The history of 'The Origin of the World'", Times Literary Supplement, Aug. 8, 2007.
  • Lindsay, Jack. Gustave Courbet his life and art. Publ. Jupiter Books (London) Limited 1977.
  • Lemonnier, C, Les Peintres de la Vie (Paris, 1888).
  • Mantz, "G. Courbet," Gaz. des beaux-arts (Paris, 1878)
  • Masanès, Fabrice, Gustave Courbet (Cologne: Taschen, 2006) ISBN 3-8228-5683-5
  • Nochlin, Linda, Courbet, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007) ISBN 978-0-500-28676-0
  • Nochlin, Linda, Realism: Style and Civilization (New York: Penguin, 1972).
  • Noël, Bernard, Dictionnaire de la Commune (Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1978)
  • Schwabsky, Barry (March 24, 2008). "Daring Intransigence". The Nation: 28–34.
  • Zola, Émile, Mes Haines (Paris, 1879)
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