Gustave Courbet

The French artist Gustave Courbet was a painter of portraits, landscapes and seascapes, and someone whose art also addressed the terrible working conditions of the poor. His new Realistic mode rejected both the idealised picture of life put forward by the Neo-classical artists and the more emotional approach of the Romantic school. Courbet advocated an un-idealised and honest look at the common, everyday scenes and events in the lives of the ordinary person because he believed that an artist’s mission was the pursuit of truth, which could help erase some of the social imbalances of his day.

Gustave Courbet was born in the town of Ornans, northern France, in 1819. Although he trained for the legal profession, when he turned 21 he changed his mind and decided that he wanted to be a painter instead. He then studied in Paris under some minor painters and did the usual things which most students of art did such as drawing from models and copying the old masters at the Louvre. After he had finished his training, Courbet set up his own studio in Paris and began to produce a number of Odalisques. These kinds of voluptuous female nudes were suggested by the writings of the times although Courbet soon abandoned literary influences for the study of real life.

He began to develop a new style of his own which meant paintings landscapes as they really were, rather than painting imaginary or idealised ones. He also concentrated on everyday subjects and produced some unconventional, but witty self-portraits such as his Man with a Pipe. Courbet submitted this particular picture to the Salon at Paris where his simple, smiling portrait of himself smoking a pipe was not considered serious enough for the judges and they rejected it as facetious nonsense.

It took Courbet 3 years before any of his pictures were accepted by the Salon. Although he realized by then that he would only ‘get on’ by painting in a style which the panel of the Salon approved of, he continued looking for a better, and more naturalistic way in which to express himself. By 1846, he was exhibiting his newly found style in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and the Provinces of France. Courbet found that the audiences in these not so art-snootery places were far less critical of his work than those in Paris. During these years Courbet evolved a strong naturalism, painting scenes of everyday life, portraits, nudes, seascapes and landscapes, still life and flowers. Many of these landscapes were painted in his home town of Ornans where he always remained close to his roots.

In January, 1848, a series of democratic insurrections broke out in the capitals of 3 great European monarchies: Paris, Vienna and Berlin. The revolution in Paris brought in the Second Republic and a more liberal spirit that greatly affected the arts. So much so, that the normally ultra-conservative Salon held its annual exhibition in Paris’ first seat of democracy – the Tuilleries Gallery, and not as normal, in the royal palace of the Louvre.

It was in the Tuilleries that Courbet exhibited his first true Realist painting called After Dinner at Ornans. This large, interior scene shows 4 countrymen entertaining themselves after dinner with music and song. Courbet painted this contemporary event on a scale normally reserved for heroic classical subjects and by doing so, he helped to break down the traditional hierarchy of subject matter where classical themes were considered as far superior to all others. In the freer atmosphere of the times, Courbet’s breakthrough work was received with praise by the critics, awarded a gold medal, and bought by the State. Just 2 years later, Courbet painted another scene from his home town, the Burial at Ornans, which records an event he had witnessed in 1848.

His painting of the funeral of his grand uncle became the first masterpiece in the Realist style. Before this work, professional models had been used as actors in historical narratives but here, Courbet painted the people who had been present at the interment itself. This enormous, 10 by 22 feet long work caused a fuss with critics and the public because normally, such a huge work was reserved for events like a religious, a royal, or a historical subject. Another upset to the critics was the fact that Courbet’s mourners make no theatrical gestures of grief and so it lacks the sentimental rhetoric expected in such a genre work. Nevertheless, like his ‘Dinner’ picture, this too was awarded a gold medal and bought by the state.

By 1850, the public had grown more interested in Courbet’s Realist approach, and the lavish, decadent fantasy of Romanticism lost popularity. The artist well understood the importance of his ‘Burial’ work, and its effect on the popular Romantic style, when he cheekily claimed that “The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism.” Courbet was a friend of many intelectualls of the time including the writer Baudelaire and the social philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Both these men were social anarchists and Courbet adopted many of their ideas while much of his painting style and themes were inspired by the likes of the social-realist painter Jean-Francoise Millet, and the open-air landscape painters of the Barbizon school. This group of artists had settled in Barbizon in the early 1830s with the aim of faithfully reproducing the local character of the surrounding landscape.

Though each member of the group had his own style and specific interests, all of them emphasised the simple, ordinary face of nature rather than its monumental and grandiose aspect. They turned away from melodramatic picturesqueness and painted solid, detailed forms that were the results of face-to-face observation instead of imaginary landscapes made up in an artist’s studio. Like Millet, they were the first artists to portray peasant laborours with a grandeure hitherto reserved for V.I.P.subjects. Courbet had similar aims but went even further because he always associated his ideas of realism in painting with anarchism, and, now that he had gained a large, discerning audience, he also began to promote democratic and socialist ideas by writing politically motivated essays and dissertations.

In a letter he wrote to a friend, Courbet said ‘’…The people have my sympathies, so I must address myself to them directly.’’ One way he did this was by painting the decidedly unromantic life of rustics at work in pictures like The Peasants of Flagey. Another way was to portray the terrible working conditions of the low-paid such as we see in The Stone Breakers. This work shows 2 ragged men breaking up lumps of rock into smaller pieces, so that they can sell them on as filler material to road menders. Normally, this was the work of criminals but the two men in the painting were so poor that they were forced to take on one of the lowest jobs in society for a pittance of a wage.

Courbet painted this picture using heavy, thick oils in a quick, rough and dense manner to suggest direct and immediate observation of a real scene and not an idealised or glamorised version of the same theme. His social comment exposed the unfairness that existed in society and also showed Courbet’s insight into the harshness and poverty of life that existed for so many. By using what you might call his ‘heavy-handed’ technique, both in painting, and in outlining certain social problems, Courbet was challenging the fantasy world of the Romantics, and the smooth, perfectionist one of the Neo-classical school of art. This brought him the accusation that he had deliberately adopted a cult of ‘ugliness’. But, as the painter points out in his letters and in some of his paintings, poverty and depredation are ugly subjects indeed.

In 1854, Courbet began another immense canvas in Paris, which he completed in 6 weeks. This piece is called The Artist’s Studio, where he is seen working on a landscape and turning his back on a classical nude model – a symbolic representation of Academic tradition. Around Courbet are a large number of friends and admirers and people from all walks of life. The work is intended as a quasi-philosophical manifesto of his life as a painter. It is also an allegory of all the influences on his life as an artist. When the work was refused for the prestigious Parisian Universal Exposition of 1855, Courbet wasn’t put out and displayed this and other works privately in a specially constructed pavilion, right next door to the official one.

By holding his own show, Courbet established the precedent of independent exhibitions which were later followed by the likes of Manet and the Impressionists. Courbet was always like this for he was stubborn in his political attitudes, eloquent in his Republicanism, and staunchly anti-Imperialist. He was also rabidly anti-clerical and displayed this in a painting called Return From the Conference. This work showed priests coming back from a religious get-together – except that they are not shown as happily inspired by their holy discussions but are seen staggering drunk about the streets of Paris.

The Salon refused to show Courbet’s ‘Conference’ picture which, although based on a true incident, was never-the-less too ‘near the knuckle; and something that caused him to be reviled with general abuse. By this time, he was 40 years old and still working in defiance of much criticism in his own country. At the same time, he had become the undisputed model for a younger generation of artists who had turned away from the traditional schools of painting.

In 1865, Courbet traveled to the coast of Normandy where, by careful observation of weather patterns, he successfully painted the changing light of a storm in a series of seascapes. These various light arrangements, taken from the same spot, at different times, amazed the art world and opened the way for other painter’s like the Impressionist Monet and his similar treatment of haystacks and Rouen Cathedral. On the other hand, towards the end of the 1860s, Courbet painted a run of increasingly erotic works such as The Origin of the World, which shows a naked female torso lying on a cover, and The Sleepers, which features 2 women sleeping together in the same bed – a work which heavily implies lesbianism. These pictures were considered obscene and banned from public display.

In 1870, the French emperor, Napoleon III, declared war on Germany. One of the reasons was that his military advisers had assured him that his army could defeat that country and that such a victory would restore his declining popularity in France. This was not to be because by March of the following year, the emperor’s army had been soundly beaten in a number of battles and France had to surrender and sign a treaty of peace. Between then and the conclusion of the formal Treaty of Frankfurt, the newly installed republican government was threatened by an insurrection in Paris, where the radicals had established their own short-lived government, the Paris Commune. They intended to fight not just against the Germans in France but also to battle against the Army of Versailles which had remained loyal to the newly de-throned emperor Napoleon 111.

At the time, Courbet was a member of the Paris Commune before he was elected as president of the artist’s federation. He was placed in charge of all the museums in Paris which he subsequently saved from being looted by rioting mobs. He had always been disgusted with any form of war or military glorification and this is why, as head of the artist’s league, he insisted that the Vendome Column in Paris, which celebrated the bloody wars of Napoleon Bonaparte, should be torn down and demolished. A couple of months after this event, the regular troops of Versailles entered Paris and began to crush the opposition of the poorly armed, men and women resistance fighters. During the week long battle, the defenders set up blockades in the streets and burned public buildings – but all to no avail. Eventually, the barricades were smashed, and over 20,000 Parisians were killed in the fighting.

After the Paris Commune had been battered into submission, Courbet was arrested and charged with being the prime instigator in the destruction of Napoleon’s Column. A scapegoat was needed for this action and he was arbitrarily chosen, found guilty and condemned to 6 months in prison with a minimum fine of 500 francs. Once he was free he went home to Ornans but the matter wasn’t over for in 1873, he was again singled out, his case was re-tried, and he was sued for the cost of rebuilding Bonaparte’s monument. To pay for this, the state seized his personal property and also fined him the astronomical sum of 500,000 gold Francs. Left with nothing, Courbet crossed the border into Switzerland where he settled in the little border town of Fleurier. Here, he set up a picture factory and employed third-rate painters in what were virtually, a production line for Swiss, ‘chocolate-box’ landscapes.

In 1887, the costs for raising the Vendome Column were re-appraised at 324,000 gold pieces. Courbet was given the option to pay it in annual installments over the next 33 years – or spend the rest of his life in prison. As he had absolutely no chance of ever paying this gigantic sum of money over 10 lifetimes (never mind one), and thinking that he might be kidnapped by the French authorities and taken forcibly to jail, Courbet moved some distance inland, away from the Swiss border. There, he bought an old inn, which he called ‘The Safe Arrival’, and spent the rest of the time drinking the stock until he died on the last day of 1877. This was just one hour before he was due to start paying the first installment of his enormous fine. He couldn’t have timed it better.