Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (10 June 1819 – 31
December 1877) was a French painter who led the Realist movement in
19th-century French painting. Committed to painting only what he could see, he
rejected academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation of
visual artists. His independence set an example that was important to later
artists, such as the Impressionists and the Cubists. Courbet occupies an
important place in 19th-century French painting as an innovator and as an
artist willing to make bold social statements through his work.
Courbet's paintings of the late 1840s and early 1850s brought him his first
recognition. They challenged convention by depicting unidealized peasants and
workers, often on a grand scale traditionally reserved for paintings of religious
or historical subjects. Courbet's subsequent paintings were mostly of a less
overtly political character: landscapes, seascapes, hunting scenes, nudes and still
lifes. He was imprisoned for six months in 1871 for his involvement with the Paris
Commune, and lived in exile in Switzerland from 1873 until his death.
I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life
free; when I am dead let this be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no
church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the
régime of liberty.'
Courbet was born in 1819 to Régis and Sylvie Oudot Courbet in Ornans (department
of Doubs). Being a prosperous farming family, anti-monarchical feelings prevailed
in the household. (His maternal grandfather fought in the French Revolution.)
Courbet's sisters, Zoé, Zélie and Juliette, were his first models for drawing and
painting. After moving to Paris he often returned home to Ornans to hunt, fish and
He went to Paris in 1839 and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse. An
independent spirit, he soon left, preferring to develop his own style by studying
the paintings of Spanish, Flemish and French masters in the Louvre, and painting
copies of their work.
His first works were an Odalisque inspired by the writing of Victor
Hugo and a Lélia illustrating George Sand, but he soon abandoned literary
influences, choosing instead to base his paintings on observed reality. Among his
paintings of the early 1840s are several self-portraits, Romantic in conception, in
which the artist portrayed himself in various roles. These include
Self-Portrait with Black Dog (c. 1842–44, accepted for exhibition at the
1844 Paris Salon), the theatrical Self-Portrait which is also known as
Desperate Man (c. 1843–45), Lovers in the Countryside (1844,
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), The Sculptor (1845), The Wounded Man
(1844–54, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), The Cellist, Self-Portrait (1847,
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, shown at the 1848 Salon), and Man with a Pipe
(1848–49, Musée Fabre, Montpellier).
Trips to the Netherlands and Belgium in 1846–47 strengthened Courbet's belief
that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals and other
Dutch masters had. By 1848, he had gained supporters among the younger critics, the
Neo-romantics and Realists, notably Champfleury.
Courbet achieved his first Salon success in 1849 with his painting After
Dinner at Ornans. The work, reminiscent of Chardin and Le Nain, earned Courbet
a gold medal and was purchased by the state. The gold medal meant that his works
would no longer require jury approval for exhibition at the Salon - an exemption
Courbet enjoyed until 1857 (when the rule changed).
In 1849-50, Courbet painted Stone-Breakers (destroyed in the Allied
Bombing of Dresden in 1945), which Proudhon admired as an icon of peasant life; it
has been called "the first of his great works". The painting was inspired by a
scene Courbet witnessed on the roadside. He later explained to Champfleury and the
writer Francis Wey: "It is not often that one encounters 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."
Courbet's work belonged neither to the predominant Romantic nor Neoclassical
schools. History painting, which the Paris Salon esteemed as a painter's highest
calling, did not interest him, for he believed that "the artists of one century
[are] basically incapable of reproducing the aspect of a past or future century
..." Instead, he maintained that the only possible source for living art is the
artist's own experience.
Courbet painted figurative compositions, landscapes, seascapes, and still lifes.
He courted controversy by addressing social issues in his work, and by painting
subjects that were considered vulgar, such as the rural bourgeoisie, peasants, and
working conditions of the poor. His work, along with that of Honoré Daumier and
Jean-François Millet, became known as Realism. For Courbet realism dealt not with
the perfection of line and form, but entailed spontaneous and rough handling of
paint, suggesting direct observation by the artist while portraying the
irregularities in nature. He depicted the harshness in life, and in so doing
challenged contemporary academic ideas of art.
Courbet was admired by many younger artists. Claude Monet included a portrait of
Courbet in his own version of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe from 1865–1866.
Courbet's particular kind of realism influenced many artists to follow, notably
among them the German painters of the Leibl circle, James McNeill Whistler, and
Paul Cézanne. Courbet's influence can also be seen in the work of Edward Hopper,
whose Bridge in Paris (1906) and Approaching a City (1946) have
been described as Freudian echoes of Courbet's The Source of the Loue and
The Origin of the World. His pupils included Henri Fantin-Latour, Hector
Hanoteau and Olaf Isaachsen.