The Art of Gustave Courbet


1. Introduction

Gustave Courbet was an influential and prolific painter who, along with Honore Daumier and Jean Francois Millet, founder the 19th century art movement called Realism. No other artist of Courbet’s stature received as much abuse during his lifetime as he did. Under the standard of Realism, both in theory and practice, Courbet made an emphatic break with all established artistic codes. However, Courbet was not a theorist, even though his writings were influenced by Buchon, Champfleury, Baudelaire, Proudhon, and Castagnary, his own important concept was of “…the independent artist and the ties between art and politics.” (Herding, 1996).

Courbet’s prime creation are his works of the late 1840’s and early 1850’s where he portrayed peasants and labourers which underpinned his realism and which also motivated his strong political views. Courbet was committed politically in a militant sense only for short periods – 1848 to 1851, 1855, 1863 to 1864, and between 1868 and 1871. To some extent this reflects a number of creative, and artistically changing, periods in his own life. He was involved in the Paris Commune in 1871, followed by exile and his twilight years hampered by illness but, nonetheless, continuing influence. However, his political sayings cover his entire career and exerted an influence well into the 20th century artistically.

In the mid-1850’s to the 1860’s Courbet’s style and spirit was applied to less politically overt subjects and he concentrated on still-life’s, landscapes, and his favourite hunting subjects. Social commitment and anti-clericalism resurfaced during the 1860’s and continued until his imprisonment for Commune involvement in 1871. After 1873, whilst exiled in Switzerland, Courbet used a free and fresh handling technique in his art. Thus, in the mid-19th century Courbet’s influence led to new artistic concepts. The Realism of Courbet weakened the influence of Romanticism and paved the way for younger painters who were equipped with a new vision. The ‘realist’ painting of Courbet contained the potential elements of what was to develop later. These younger artists had taken Courbet, and also Corot, as their masters. Courbet’s pictures “…taught them the technique of impressions achieved by means of massed colours…and the potency of dazzling light.” (Zahar, 1950).

It is not always possible to determine an obvious political iconography in Courbet’s works. Nonetheless, throughout his life and career he was always militantly opposed to state power. Such attitudes inevitably brought him into conflict with the government of the French Second Empire. Hostile to the academic system and state patronage Courbet became “…an artist who is assessed as much by his personality as by his work “…and one who became “…highly influential in the development of modernism.” (Herding, 1996). Gustave Courbet became the artistic embodiment and leader of the Realist movement in 19th century France. It is in his own writings as well as his painted works that we shall see Courbet painting unrelated and familiar objects on the grand scale that hithertofore had been reserved for historical, religious and mythological subjects. Courbet was thus equated with anarchy and social revolution, and political upheaval. But, as the Realist Manifesto still makes so clear, the work of Courbet was revolutionary and influential long after the protagonists of 19th century political change have passed into history.

2.  Courbet’s early years until 1849

Gustav Courbet (1819-1877) was born n Ornans, near Besancon in France-Comte, and he remained attached to the region and its peasants throughout his life. Scornful of tuition and largely self-taught Courbet, like many artists of his period was not impressed by traditional academic teaching, for example the Ecole de Beaux Arts, Paris. Courbet received a few months tuition from Charles de Steuben (1788-1856) and then attended private academies such as those of Pere Suisse and Pere Lopin. Courbet began his law study in Paris in 1840 after attending the grammar school in Besancon. He learned his art copying old masters in the Louvre and in Holland (1846). Thus Courbet had admired and copied the works of Velasquez, the Venetians, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt. Like Rembrandt and Van Gogh he painted a large number of self portraits – especially in the 1840’s. In 1848 he met Corot, Daumier and Baudelaire. The subject matter of his early paintings were literary in inspiration and taken from Goethe’s Faust, books by Hugo and Sand.

Courbet is still somewhat, at this stage, influenced by Romanticism which he was soon to reject. Early works quite often reflect his state of mind and portraits a perceived personal role, for example his Self-portrait as a Sculptor (1844); his Self-portrait with a Black Dog (1842); his Self-portrait as a Wounded Man (1944); and his Self-portrait as a Desperate Man (1843), see Figure 1.

Desperate man

Figure 1.  Self-portrait as a Desperate Man (1843).

Courbet also painted landscapes around Fontainebleau and family member portraits, for example Juliette Courbet, see Figure 2, now in the Musee de Petit Palais, Pparis. His first accepted painting in the Salon in 1843 was the Courbet with a Black Dog.


Figure 2.  Portrait of Juliette Courbet (1844).

Courbet apparently painted himself for two reasons. Firstly, a lack of models, and secondly because he suffered a long-term crisis of artistic identity which indicates he was “…still influenced by the self-centredness (egotisme) typical of the Romantics…” (Herding, 1996). In his Self-portrait with a Leather Belt of 1845, see Figure 3, and his Self-portrait with a Pipe of 1848, see Figure 4, Courbet seems to express that his extroverted personality hid his loneliness felt in Paris.

man with belt

Figure 3. Self-Portrait with a Leather Belt (1845).


Figure 4Self Portrait with a Pipe (1847 or 1848).

Castagnary claimed Courbet reached maturity with his man with a Leather belt, which harks back in colour treatment to the Venetians saying “There is in the ensemble a nobility, a harmony, a distinction which denote the master.” (Castagnary, 1911). Again in 1846 Courbet went to The Netherlands where he painted several portraits including H. J. Wisselingh (1846) and now in Fort Worth, USA. Between 1846 and 1847 he stayed a while in Belgium and made many sketches. The museums of The Hague and Amsterdam stimulated his interest in Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro and Frans Hals’s expressive and free brushwork. This experience subsequently influenced his own painting technique. Indeed, a special quality of Courbet’s painting is achieved by the use of colour which he initially learned from 17th century Dutch and Spanish art – for example Velasquez, Ribera, Rembrandt and Hals – it must be noted that he used a dark ground throughout his life.

Between 1849 and 1850 Courbet was back home in Ornans where his first Realist paintings emerged – these were his The Stonebreakers, the Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, and Burial at Ornans. Thus by 1848 to 1849 Courbet had set himself up “…in conscious antagonism, artistically, and politically, to all the established standards of his day.” (Lindsay, 1977). These paintings were considered revolutionary. Revolutionary because they depicted, in an unsentimental and earthy manner, the lives of common people. Indeed they were one of the reasons why Courbet was castigated as an “…infamous dauber [barbouilleur]” (James, 1971). The choice of subject was revolutionary and the real and existing objects were thus represented in dark hues, applied heavily with palette knife and brush. The pictures were Courbet’s art of realism that had a social function and which rejected traditional subject matter. In 1849 Courbet had also painted After Dinner at Ornans, see Figure 5, a picture of a silent, dark group that won him the admiration of both Ingres and Delacroix. It is with such pictures that Courbet established himself as the Realist movement by 1850.


Figure 5.  After Dinner at Ornans.  (1849).

3.  The Realist Debate, 1849 to 1855

Courbet achieved his breakthrough with three paintings shown at the Paris Salon of 1851. The first was the now lost The Stonebreakers (1849). the Burial at Ornans, and The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair (1850). All three paintings show the influence of Old Dutch Masters but possess also an atmosphere of austerity and directness. The paintings show Courbet attempting to combine Dutch portrait and genre styles with that of large-scale French history painting. The works were championed by Courbet’s friends Champfleury and Buchon who recognised them as “…breaking away from academic idealism and spoke approvingly of Courbet’s Realism.” (Herding, 1996).

The Stone Breakers of 1849, see Figure 6, was believed destroyed in 1945 but has since been catalogued as missing by the Gemaldegalerie Neve Meister, Dresden, in 1987. It is of interest to note that the whereabouts of the picture are the subject of a mystery thriller even today (Hook, 1994). The picture is forthright in its portrayal of labourers making


Figure 6.  The Stonebreakers (1849).

repairs to a country road. Prud’hon wrote at length on The Stonebreakers calling it “…an irony addressed to our industrial civilisation…” (Prud’hon, 1939), and continued by saying “The condition of the stonebreakers is that of more than six million souls in France; then boast of your industry, your philanthropy, and your politics.” The painting The Stonebreakers does show the unusual social consciousness  and commitment of Courbet with the workers averted faces, ragged apparel, where Courbet has created an art peculiar to his own period that would introduce the common man as an equally worthy subject.” (Herding, 1996). The picture did symbolise all those toilers who existed on the edge of subsistence – it also attracted the most criticism of its detractors in the Salon of 1851. In 1849 Courbet wrote to the director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts defending his picture The Stonebreakers – in doing so he enunciated the principle he later constructed as the basis for Realism – “Yes, M. Peisse, art must be dragged in the gutter.” (Cited in Riat, 1906).

Courbet adopted the concept of Realism from his friend Champfleury who first used the term in the Journal des Faits in 1851 (Champfleury, 1855). It was Champfleury who put the ideas of Courbet into coherent form. A staunch supporter the critic Champfleury was the initiator of the bataille realiste , the so-called Realist Manifesto, in which Courbet stated  Realist as a title “…was thrust upon me just as the title of Romantic was thrust upon the men of 1830.” (Courbet, 1861), was the catalogue introduction to Courbet’s private exhibition of 1855.

Another of the paintings Courbet exhibited in 1851 was the seminal Funeral at Ornans of 1849-50, see Figure 7. The picture shows country mourners at a burial possibly based on that of Corbet’s great-uncle Claude-Etienne Teste (1765-1848) in which Buchon saw the grave-digger as representing the avenger of the stonebreakers. The work stirred the fears


Figure 7Funeral at Ornans (1849-50).

of urban dwellers being swamped by the rural populace. It also caused a sensation at the Salon of 1850. The Funeral or Burial at Ornans is an enormous canvas portraying over 30 life-size figures. This huge burial scene was attacked by some as crude and deliberately ugly. Nonetheless, Jules Francois Husson Champfleury (1821-1889) who had discovered Courbet at the Salon of 1848 wrote to George Sand stating “…I prefer the Burial over all the other canvases because of the idea within it, because of the complete and human drama in which the grotesque, tears, egotism, and the indifference, are handled in the manner of a great master.” (Champfleury, 1857).

The Burial at Ornans, as with The Stonebreakers, shows Courbet insisting on portraying scenes from his own era – referring to The Stonebreakers Courbet wrote that “It is rare to encounter the most complete expression of misery, so immediately a painting came to mind.” (Courbet, 1849). However, Courbet is also responding to a demand – that which has prevailed in France since the Revolution to replace Classical imagery with those of contemporary subjects (Courthion, 1948-1950). The Burial at Ornans was also hailed for its powerful ‘naturalism’ and it was noted that never before had an everyday scene been portrayed in such an epic manner and it cast Courbet in the role of a revolutionary socialist (Chilvers, 1997). Even though the picture had probably not been painted with a political purpose  Courbet accepted the role.

Described as a ‘socialist’ painter in 1851 in the Journal du Faits (15.11.1851) and cited in Herding (1996)  Courbet replied  on 19.11.1851 in reference to the Revolution of 1848 stating “I am not only a socialist, but also a democrat and republican…a supporter of that the revolution stands for…first and foremost I am a realist.” Courbet now had a persona of controversy and was accused of democratising art by Prosper Merimee (1803-1870) and Alexander Dumas fils (1824-1895) – prompted especially by The Stonebreakers. In response defenders (Buchon, Champfleury, Castagnary, Thore) stressed his social commitment, honest concern and fidelity to the present, and moreover his modernity. Later in 1861, at a conference of artists in Antwerp, Courbet stated that “Realism is essentially a democratic art…” and that for him the “Burial at Ornans was really the burial of Romanticism.” (Riat, 1906). By 1850 then, Courbet had fully “…broken through the conventions of academic art and insisted on thinking everything out again from the ground up.” (Lindsay, 1977). For many the Burial at Ornans was attacked, despite Courbet presenting as a sincere and unidentified group portrait, as depicting the clergy as cynical and the peasants as brutalised (Read, 1994).

yet the basis of Courbet’s realism “…is the denial of the ideal…” as he said in his own words (Riat, 1906). This did not prevent his studies of animals, seascapes, landscapes, flower paintings, nudes, and large scale genre pictures being the target of savage criticism. This brings us to another painting , as with The Stonebreakers and the Burial at Ornans, that dealt with the demographic transition between town and country – an acute social issue at the time.

The picture Peasants at Flagey Returning from the Fair (1850), see Figure 8, was seen by Prud’hon as the proud superiority of the rugged peasants from the Franche-Comte (Herding, 1996). As with other pictures of this time the painting has a rather wooden composition that is offset by a very fluid use of colour. It shows a closed world to urban


Figure 8.  Peasants at Flagey Returning Home from the Fair (1850).

dwellers.  It was during this period that the term ‘Realism’ was still being used perjoratively and the emerging movement was continuously attacked. Still in 1852 it was being said that “Realism has been more contemptuous than it should be of any poetic interpretation of Reality.” (Chesneau, 1852) and still later “The Realist argument is that nature is enough.” (Perrier, 1855). However, Courbet possessed a friend and associate in Max Buchon (1818-1869), the poet and author of Essais Poetiques who summed up the sentiment of Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair “…Courbet’s works are the natural flowering of his personality, in the midst of his family, in that lovely valley of Ornans.” (Buchon, 1856). The last of his peasant paintings was the Grain Sifters (1855), see Figure 9, which is a simple, quiet picture of working people. As a work it has even been interpreted as having imparted a feminist message (Fried, 1990; Herding, 1991). Politically these pictures can be seen against tensions of rural-urban migration which concerned Prud’hon and


Figure 9.  The Grain Sifters (1855).

and his utopian rural social-anarchism compared to the developing socialist ideas in the urban proletariat. Note that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

At this period one of Courbet’s most provocative works was Women Bathing or The Bathers (1853) which attacked the prevailing aesthetic norms, see Figure 10. As a modern history painting it presented contemporary society with quite a challenge. Nonetheless, the picture illustrates Courbet’s spontaneous use of colour and his ability to convey movement, instantaneous in effect, within landscapes and the figures they contain. Despite unwarranted criticism The bathers does in fact show a clear, deeply felt aesthetic

women bathing

Figure 10.  Women Bathing or The Bathers (1853).

sense that he developed continually and resolutely (Lindsay, 1977). Among the diatribes were descriptions such as ‘Hottentot Venus’ or a ‘bourgeois Callipyge’ (refering to Calipygian or having well shaped buttocks, see Figure 11, and even the artist himself as ‘Watteau of the ugly’ (cited in Lindsay, 1977). The picture shows a well proportioned, statuesque and not unattractive naked woman which rejects the academic concept of the nude.


Figure 11.  The Bathers (detail).

Alfred Bruyas , a bankers son from Montpellier, saw the Bathers as the initiation of the beginning of an independent modern art form (Herding, 1996). The painting won praise from Eugene Delacroix , a Romantic, who stated he “…was amazed by the vigour and the depth…but what a picture! What a subject…a fat bourgeoise, seen from the back and quite naked but for a strip of cloth, negligently painted…” (Delacroix, 1853). The anti-academic of Courbet’s big, naked woman, was directed against prevailing hypocrisies. For Courbet – truth is naked. The voluptuous and nude woman exposes the petty indulgencies of greed of petty lives and outlooks. The model symbolises the gross existence of the bourgeois world. And yet, for Courbet the model is ordinary, natural whilst being also a goddess in a sacred Arcadian grove. Courbet’s own vibrant love of life is shown in his honest painting of every crease and fleshy ounce of this very feminine earth-mother form. She is a real woman, un-idealised and representative of many women everywhere – peasant, worker, mother, or bourgeois. Courbet had exposed the hypocrisy of the idealised, vapid and soapy nudes of academia as a sham.

In 1855 Courbet was rejected by the jury of the old Fair in Paris. He protested by organising his own exhibition next door to the exhibition building, which he called the Pavilion du Realisme. Showing some 40 paintings he demonstrated his own perception of art. Prior to this Alfred Bruyas , of whom Courbet had painted a portrait in 1853, commissioned The Meeting or Good Morning Mr Courbet (1854), see Figure 12. The work is done entirely in light colours in a free, but concise style. The painting includes a self-portrait derived from the ‘Wandering Jew’, and thus he represents himself as a rejected outsider as well as superior man of wisdom. Included also is his patron Alfred Bruyas. Courbet also did a


Figure 12.  The Meeting or Good Morning Mr Courbet (1854).

portrait of his friend and defender Max Buchon. Courbet’s unconventionality, expressed in his The Meeting, was included in his Pavilion du Realisme and a reflection of his very forced dissatisfaction with the representation allotted to him at the Paris Universal Exhibition. In his Realist Manifesto, the introduction to his exhibition, Courbet stated his reasons that “To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, 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.” (Courbet, 1855).

Among the portraits in the 1855 exhibition by Courbet is Pierre-Joseph Prud’hon and his children (1853), see Figure 13, which, as a picture illuminates both painter and subject. Prud’hon himself was a self-educated and poor socialist, one of the most important of his day, who shared Courbet’s roughness, exaggerated behavioural traits, aggressiveness, and


Figure 13.  Pierre-Joseph Prud’hon and his children (1853).

contradictory coarseness tempered with delicacy and gentleness. Courbet had been a close friend of Prud’hon since his arrival in Paris in 1847. The picture of Prud’hon was repainted as a memorial after his death. Prud’hon’s greatest work was his The System of Economic Contradictions, or the Philosophy of Poverty (1846). Friends with Courbet since 1848 they considered the collaboration on a book in 1863. This treatise on art was eventually published by Prud’hon as Du Principe de l’et et de sa destination sociale (1865), in which he wrote “It is against this degrading theory of art for art’s sake that Courbet and with him, the whole school called realist up until the present, boldly arise and energetically protest.” (Proudhon, 1939).  The picture of Prud’hon omits his wife – supposedly this device stresses the solitariness and the monumentality of the philosopher. But, is this the true case? Even though the background is rendered, obviously with intention, in a free and slapdash manner (Herding, 1996) the figures are carefully depicted. The wife is missing because “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon openly despised women and treated his own wife as a mildly irritating necessity, rather like a cough mixture.” (Mullins, 1985). Perhaps Prud’hon’s wife declined to be included in the portrait of her ‘socialist’ husband? She may have also been aware that “…Courbet, himself a part-time revolutionary, viewed women’s position in an artist’s life with a kind of utilitarian contempt:’… an artist who marries isn’t an artist, he’s a sort of jealous proprietor…who syas ‘…my wife as he’d say “my stick” or “my umbrella”…” (Mullins, 1985). As ‘revolutionaries’ both Courbet and Prud’hon seemed unaware of the adage that ‘socialism begins at home’!

Courbet may have been “…the first artist who made a clear and conscious unity of personal life (the revolt against Romantic art), artistic aims (the development of every object with entire respect, as an embodiment of energy in a specific form), and social and political views (his socialism which is Prud’honian  and yet goes beyond Prud’hon). (Lindsay, 1977). It is indeed ironic that Prud’hon, and Courbet especially, as men of their times, should have had such chauvinistic ideas vis a vis women. Courbet painted real women, iterated time and time that he painted only what he could see. It seems an irony that he could not see beyond the natural form of the women he painted – or did not, as is the case of the wife of Prud’hon?

The most important picture painted for the Exposition Universelle and rejected was The Painter’s Studio, see Figure 14. This painting was the culmination of the series that


Figure 14. The Painter’s Studio (1855).

(a true allegory depicting a phase of seven years of his artistic life).

demonstrated Courbet’s attitudes to society, the composition which “…brought the dispute about politically and aesthetically disruptive effects of Realist art to a conclusion.” (Herding, 1996). The Painter’s Studio includes a portrait of Prud’hon – indeed Courbet modelled many of the figures on his friends, political figures (including Napoleon III) and various personalities (including Baudelaire reading on the far right. The picture comprises three clearly distinguished areas. On the left is depicted the political or external world. On the right is the internal aesthetic world. In the centre sit the artist painting a landscape next to a naked muse, a cat, and a peasant boy. In a sense a suggestion that Courbet saw the painting as a summation of his artistic progress since the revolution of 1848. It is then an allegory on the grand scale reflecting his political, cultural, artistic environment (Wolf, 1999). The picture is a huge 6 m wide canvas which Courbet accounted for as “…the moral and physical history of my studio…” (Lindsay, 1977). In the centre Courbet sits at an easel , see Figure 15, surrounded by “…all the people who serve my cause, sustain me in my ideal and support my activity.” (Lindsay, 1977), – but he is not


Figure 15The Painter’s Studio – detail (1855).

painting them. He paints instead a landscape, a view of his native and beloved Franche-Comte. This is still a Romantic view and shows he saw nature and not politics or industry, as having the power for renewal. Again, we detect the Prud’honist view that that reconciliation of contemporary society was to be achieved through utopian rural socialism and consciousness. The central work the artist paints serves to place nature and landscape above the level of history painting. Centrally then sits Courbet the artist hero using the activity of creating art that echoed and reverberated into the 20th century. In the picture Courbet is saying “One must be of one’s times – or ‘Il fait etre de son temps’.” (Cited in Nochlin, 1994).

This concept became central to the concept of Realism in the 19th century and became the proseletysing slogan of Courbet and his followers and the “…admonition to reject the atemporal generalisation of classical art or the anachronistic historicism of the Romantics and turn instead to the contemporary world in all its detailed concreteness for inspiration.” (Nochlin, 1994). From now on Courbet gives pride of place to landscape painting – his previous works had combined fiures and landscape as with The Painter’s Studio, The bathers, and also his work of 1856-1857 called The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), see Figure 16.


Figure 16The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), (1856-57).

Most of his pictures of the late 1850’s and 1860’s, as shall be seen, have landscape predominant. Even though he found companionship in the bohemian circles of Paris – especially in the Brasserie Anler with Prud’hon, Corot, Baudelaire and Monet, it is significant that he never painted a Paris townscape. Thus Courbet, the sturdy peasant, non-Parisian in taste and with the personal view of the self-styled anarchist and socialist, put him in the position “To be in Paris, but not of it: that was what Courbet wanted.” (Clark, 1973).

4.  The sojourn of the late 1850’s and early 1860’s

Courbet was therefore now thoroughly concerned with the idea of ‘living art’ which he viewed as having a self-liberating effect. For im man was not born free but only obtained freedom through work. His realist outlook now contains the thesis that by “…reaching the conclusion that the ideal and all that it entails should be denied, I can completely bring about the emancipation of the individual, and finally achieve democracy.” (Cited in Riat, 1906). And yet after 1855 his painting became less doctrinaire. His colours were less sombre and he often opted for more attractive subjects. He painted landscapes from the Forest of Fontainebleau, the Jura, the Mediterranean. His seascapes have distant vistas and his voluptuous nudes are painted in warm and vibrant, almost sensualising colours.

Courbet’s landscapes now reflect an increasing awareness of recreational areas for holidays and leisure. This theme was to become a dominant one for the Impressionists of the 1870’s and 1880’s (Seurat, Monet, Signac, Renoir). Courbet’s work was successfully received in Germany and he stayed at Frankfurt between 1858 and 1859, and in Munich in 1869. His champion Champfleury wrote at this time to George Sand that “m. Courbet never overdoes the sonority of his tones…” and that “…M. Courbet’s scale is imposing and calm.” (Champfleury, 1857). Examples can be seen in his landscapes of the early 1860’s such as The Black Well of 1865, see Figure 17, and the Les Gours de Conches (1864), see Figure 18. These stress provincial autonomy have been seen as a protest against the centralised French state (Herding, 1996). The regionalism of the works emphasised grottoesThe Black Well

Figure 17.  The Stream at the Black Well (1865).


Figure 18Les Gours de Conches (1864).

hidden forest ravines and streams, and places of refuge – as if Courbet is trying to stress that there is something safer to be found in the countryside compared to the towns. In essence his landscapes and other works of this period, even the nudes, seem to be a ‘back to his roots’ sojourn, a taking stock on the fringes of urban politics.

Courbet had a passion for hunting. His hunting scenes result from visits to German hunting reserves at Baden-Baden and Bad Hamburg. These include Stag Taking to the Water (1865), The Kill (1867). Sometimes the time after a hunt such as The Quarry (1857), the Hunt Breakfast (1858) and the Salon entry of 1866 showing the Covert of Roe Deer by the Stream of Plaisir-Fontaine. Sometimes interpreted as symbolic of political persecution and containing allegedly latent social and political messages these pictures also contain snow scenes that may have influenced Monet such as The Magpie (1869), and Pissarro. These landscapes and scenes gave Courbet’s work a sombre and predominantly tonal style, plus the browns more typical of studio shadows – the achievement of studio chiaroscuro in outdoor studies. However, his late seascapes show a trend towards cool blue shadows and diffused effects of light. This is associated with Courbet capturing natural effects of atmospheric contrasts. Even with his landscapes, seascapes, and nudes we have with Courbet’s Realism a clarity of statement and delight in rendering material reality.

From 1859 Courbet often stayed on the coast of Normandy. The result was a series of wave pictures and beach scenes that indicate a new peak in his creative development. He painted several versions of the Cliff at Entretat after a Storm (1869), see Figure 19. These paintings are stylistically varies, some small and self-contained. Some are block-like


Figure 19.  Cliff at Entretat after a Storm (1869).

and appeared built by a mason or sculpted from marble. As with landscapes in a similar style Courbet seems to have influenced Cezanne – indeed an important forerunner of that. In Stormy Sea, or the Wave (1870), see Figure 20,  and again in 1870 another called The Wave, see Figure 21. Courbet has “…completely dissolved the surface of objects, so moving away from naturalistic representation.” (Herding, 1996), that it is now displaying a tendency towards abstraction and an increase in surface colours – a trend evident since


Figure 20. Stormy Sea, or the Wave (1870).


Figure 21The Wave (1870).

1864. Again, he shows himself a forerunner of Cezanne. These pictures are evidence of the boldness of Courbet, as well as his self-confidence in subject choice as well as technique – often so deftly done with the subtle use of palette knife and his relish in the use of the brush. Again, we are thus reminded in these works of Courbet’s avowed aim that the “…art of painting can only consist of the representation of objects which are visible and tangible for the artist .” (Courbet, 1861).

Still-life’s were a theme of Courbet’s work also. Very modern in manner because of the lack of definition. An example is his Bunch of Flowers (1855). However, in 1862 to 1863 he stayed at Saintonge where he worked with Corot, producing superb still-life’s. Important examples are Magnolias (1862), The Trellis – a still life with flowers done plein-aire and with the portrait of a woman, painted in 1863. It has been said of The Trellis that it produced “…an asymmetric composition similar to that in works by Degas.” (Herding, 1996). His Flowers in a Basket (1863) is in Glasgow. It is at this time while Castagnary is stressing Courbet’s colourful charm, dreamy depths and lively atmosphere, Emil Zola is attempting a critical assessment. Emil Zola hated Prud’hons political assessment of Courbet’s work so he attempted in 1866 to paly Courbet the politician off against Courbet the painter (Picon, 1974). Courbet’s nude paintings went on a different tangent. Again, their manner, pose and style was an attempt to defeat Salon traditionalism by “…painting completely naturalistically and choosing garishly brilliant colours.” (Herding, 1996).

The subject and composition of Women Sleeping or The Sleepers, see Figure 22, shocked the critics. Painted in 1866 its subject was ostensibly that of lesbian women. As with the Origin of the World (1866) it was seen as highly provocative. Both pictures were commissioned by a client – the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey. The picture was not therefore painted


Figure 22Women Asleep or  The Sleepers (1862).

for a femme damneee of the time but for Bey because in “…the case of art with lesbian themes, men were considered the audience.” (Nochlin, 1994). Thus The Sleepers depicted a social relationship (Lucie-Smith, 1997). Another picture regarded as provocative was Woman with White Stockings, see Figure 23, and his first erotic or sensual made since the


Figure 23.  Woman with White Stockings (1861)

bathers. This was the painting that opened a whole series of erotic nudes. yet, in organisational terms it is a masterpiece, its mass, violence, and patterning create a composition with a powerful unity. Again with the Woman with  Parrot, see Figure 24, painted in 1866 “…there were complaints about the vulgarity of Courbet’s types, and their lack of


Figure 24Lady with a Parrot (1866).

idealism.” (Lucie-Smith, 1997). Despite this it is now accepted that the “…Realism of Courbet and Manet, and the Impressionist movement which grew out of it a decade or two later, did put women back on earth and described them in terms of their day to day life than as the stuff of male dreams.” (Mullins, 1985). In Lady with a Parrot the bird symbolises a magic bird which can be traced in the writings of Flaubert. The picture itself, despite the un-idealised form of the model, by its pose and composition shows ironic links with Salon painting. A now destroyed picture in this series – Venus and Psyche (1864) –  lost in air action in Berlin 1945 -but with a version of 1866 is in Basle, Figure 25.


Figure 25  Venus and Psyche (1866).

In his nudes Courbet’s technical mastery and compositional simplicity can readily be see, even though his models may seem harshly produced they possess a sensual realism and naturalness not shared with the idealised, moralising Beaux-Arts Salon figures – Courbet’s nudes are not sylph-like and misty denizens of woodlands and boudoirs, they are real women and as such are not the stuff of dreams.  See, for example, Figure 26. Two other nudes in an outdoor setting are shown by Figure 27 and Figure 28.


Figure 26. Nude Reclining Woman (1862).


Figure 27The Source (1868).


Figure 28. The Young Bather (1866).

In the 1880’s however, some artists took their cue from the nudes of Courbet. One source of inspiration was his The Sleepers. In the Painting The Sleepers of Courbet and the Sleep  of George Callot (1857-1903) of 1895, see Figure 29, there is an explicit sexual imagery which reinforces the idea that women are generalised, non-individualised creatures. The


Figure 29Sleep (1895) by George Callot.

Courbet motif of the inter-lacing of women’s limbs and the suggestion of the women’s physical resemblance also stresses an absence of individual identity, and where “…a woman loving another woman was little more than an extension of woman’s inherent autoerotic concerns…” (Dijkstra, 1986). Again, similar imagery derived from Courbet’s inter-lacing of limbs is seen in the picture by St George Hare (1857-1933) titled Victory of Faith (1891), see Figure 30. Added to the motif is a spurious religious theme combined with a woman-


Figure 30Victory of Faith (1891) by St George Hare.

as-slave theme. The Courbet enlacement structure is now not just two women sleeping together after an assumed sexual liaison – it is now an inter-ethnic enlacement to add to the viewers titillation. A similar motif can be seen in the work of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Picasso’s The Friends (1903). Another motif is the alleged  bestiality of woman expressed as an affinity with animals or their environment. This was also derived in part from a later interpretation of Courbet’s paintings, for example his Woman in the Wave  (1868), Figure 31.


Figure 31Woman in the Wave (1868).

Similarly, and in contrast, Courbet’s theme of ‘sleep’ is shown in his much earlier realism in the picture of 1853 called The Sleeping Spinner see Figure 32. Again, comparison can


Figure 32The Sleeping Spinner (1853).

be made to the pose in A Dance by the Sea  by Charles-Amable Lenoir (1861-1932), see Figure 33. Lenoir, as he shows, combined the stylistic traits of Courbet with the academic and highly idealised style of his master, teacher and mentor – Bougereau. With these pictures we have art for the voyeur and reminds us as Khalil Bey looking at his The Sleepers, who “…no doubt felt as invigorated by the spectacle of two voluptuous female nudes locked in each others arms as he had by the delectably realistic bas ventre Courbet had


Figure 33. A Dance by the Sea. By Charles-Amable Lenoir.

previously executed to his own specifications.” (Nochlin, 1996). The bas ventre or ‘low abdomen’ is of course Courbet’s masterpiece The Origin of the World (1866) which finally went on public and open display in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris in 1995, see Figure 34. As a provocative example of a contemporary art icon the website of the Musee d’Orsay expressed the view that “Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a frankly libertine vein. But in the Origin of the World he went to lengths of daring


Figure 34. The Origin of the World (1866).

and frankness which give his painting its peculiar fascination. The almost anatomical description of female sex organs is not attenuated by any historical or literary device…”

5.  Re-emergence of social commitment, late 1860’s onwards

During the reign of Napoleon III Courbet’s satirical and critical work was repressed by the artist’s own inclination. But, towards the end of the Second Empire, like Daumier, he went back to explicitly political subjects. One notable work of 1862 to 1863 was Courbet’s Priests Returning from Conference. An example of Courbet’s anti-clerical sentiments, see Figure 35. Also known as The Return from the meeting the picture was not well received by the Salon of 1863 causing Castagnary, who Courbet painted in 1870, to say “I would


Figure 35The Return from the Conference (1862).

have preferred not to have talked about Courbet because Courbet has been represented in the Salon by only two inadequate sketches, and because his major work, the Return from the Meeting, has not even passed beneath the eyes of the public.” (Castagnary, 1863). The large canvas was regarded as scandalous. Not only rejected by the Salon of 1863 it was also rejected by the Salons des Refuses. The picture portrays a group of drunken clerics returning from a weekly Monday night meeting and is now destroyed. Known only through rough drawings and photographs the picture was eventually bought by a fanatical catholic and burnt.

In 1868 Courbet painted an obvious reference to the ragged rural proletariat in his Charity of the Beggar at Ornans, see Figure 36, now in Glasgow. It was an indication that other ‘socialist’ paintings were to follow. Thus in 1868 Courbet planned the portrait of Martin Bidoure – a peasant executed for having fought against the coup d’état of 1851.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Figure 36Charity of the Beggar at Ornans (1868).

In 1870 an attempt was made to diffuse Courbet’s socialist sentiments by offering him the Legion of Honour. In common with Daumier, he refused it. Increasingly at this time Courbet’s work shows an aversion  to the use of line and academically smooth style. In 1869 he painted Rocks at Ornans and later in 1871 The Source, or Rocks of the Doubs, see Figure 37. These landscapes have an earthy, almost rough texture which renders them both realistic and evocative.


Figure 37.  The Source. or the Rocks of the Doubs (1868).

In 1871 Courbet joined the Paris Commune after the fall of Napoleon III. Appointed Director of Museums he had the task of protecting them from war damage. Strangely Thore, the socialist writer, described Courbet at this period as depoliticised as he was “…accepted, bemedalled, decorated, glorified, embalmed.” (Thore, 1870). The same writer had stated concerning Courbet and Millet that “…a truly social art is not necessarily one with an overtly proseletysing or propagandist theme, but rather one in which the artist’s natural responses to landscape and human beings around him find their fullest and most individual expression (Thore, 1861). The Commune was deposed after three months and Courbet was sentenced to 6 months in prison for his part in the destruction of the Napoleonic column in the Place de Vendome, as well as heavy fines. Unable to pay these fines Courbet crossed into exile in Switzerland in 1873 and remained there for the last four years of his life. During this time he concentrated mainly on portraits and landscapes.

After his release from prison he painted a few still-life’s that are quite exquisite in their realism and bold style, as in Apples and Pomegranates in a Dish (1871), see Figure 38, and his The Trout (1872), see Figure 39, which is a colouristic masterpiece.


Figure 38.  Apples and Pomegranates in a Dish (1871).


Figure 39.  The Trout (1872).

These pictures preceded his paintings in exile such as the portrait of his father Regis Courbet (1873), see Figure 40, and which can be compared to his Portrait of Regis Courbet of circa 1840. see Figure 41.


Figure 40. Portrait of Regis Courbet (1873),


Figure 41Portrait of Regis Courbet (circa 1840).

Another exile painting was Lake Geneva at Sunset (1874), see Figure 42, a Winter Landscape: the Dents du Midi (1876), and the Grand Panorama of the Alps (1877). In all of these works Courbet still used his dark colouring technique and also broke up objects portrayed with spots and flecks of paint. This technique was similar to that used by the later Impressionists. Courbet died at La Tour-de-Peilz, near Vevey, in 1877.


Figure 42.  Lake Geneva at Sunset (1874).

6.  The Influence of Courbet

In the middle of the 19th century Courbet’s influence led to new concepts in art. Courbet influenced and guided the young Impressionists as much as he himself was the leading exponent of “…a naturalistic realism that employs the devices of art to point up the contradictions and iniquities in society.” (Wolf, 1999). For example, the painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), an animal painter who celebrated rural work in the tradition of Millet and Courbet (Chadwick, 1996). It was Courbet’s actions over independent exhibitions and anti-Salon attitudes that set the precedent or the Salons des Refuses and the Impressionist exhibitions. Courbet was an artist of his times, he was thus “…a critical, analytic, humanitarian painter…an expression of his times.” (Nochlin, 1966).

What were these times? The work of Courbet occurred at the same time as the Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, the Positive Metaphysics of Vacherot, and the Hunan Right or Immanent Justice of Prud’hon. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was a mathematician  and founder of positivism – one of the 19th century’s most influential doctrines. Charles Baudelaire iterated such views in his review of the Salon of 1859. He called Realists positivists because they wanted to represent “…things as they are, or as they would be, supposing that I, the perceiving subject, did not exist…the Universe without man.” (Baudelaire, 1859). Despite his influence Courbet did not form a school. His influence stems from his emphatic rejection of idealisation in painting, in his own words he said painting “…is an art of sight and should, therefore, abandon both the historical scenes of the classical school and poetic subjects  from Goethe and Shakespeare favoured by the Romantic school.” (Chilvers, 1997). Courbet was not one of the 19th century’s foremost draughtsmen, unlike Delacroix or Millet. Nonetheless Courbet’s skill with a palette knife by which he “…gave colour a special, substantial quality.” (Herding, 1996), was a feature that influenced both Cezanne and Van Gogh.

Even though he did not, or said he did not, teach his art Courbet had a school which Fantin-Latour attended in 1861 and therefore studied under Courbet. Johan Jongkind (1819-1891) the Dutch landscape and seascape painter who preceded Monet in his capturing the transitory effects of light, stated his admiration of Courbet. He was also admired by Eugene Boudin (1824-1898), the outdoor painter who was transitional between Corot and the Impressionists. Indeed, it was Boudin who introduced Monet to Courbet. The style of Frederick Bazille (an intimate of Monet), an early Impressionist, was influenced by The Meeting, or Good Morning, M. Courbet. The woman artist Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was an Impressionist, and grand-daughter of Fragonard, who specialised in scenes of gentle domesticity as well as admitting “I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas.” (Chadwick, 1996). Renoir imitated Courbet in his initial experiments in painting and Cezanne’s early art hesitated between that of Courbet and Delacroix. The landscapes of a block-like colour nature are to be seen in Cezanne’s later landscapes. The new atmosphere and colouring of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe was derived from the Burial at Ornans, by Courbet.

It was Courbet’s new stylistic range of techniques, attitudes, feelings and gestures that was developed and enriched by later artists, some even younger contemporaries, such as Degas, van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) – the Impressionist who may have met Courbet at the Academie-Suisse. In Germany Courbet was praised as an early pioneer of modernism (Meier-Graefe, 1905).

In the 1880’s, when France began to remember and revitalise its Republican traditions, Courbet’s art went through a process of rehabilitation. Thus Courbet in France was seen as both a politically committed painter and modernist  (Sanchez, 1978). Cezanne thus expressed his admiration for Courbet in recorded conversations (Gasquet, 1926). Since then the description of Courbet as a modernist by Appollinaire has held sway. Whilst since the 1970’s the interpretations and attitudes of Zola and Thore vis-à-vis Courbet have become more intense and reiterated. The enduring achievement of Courbet the realist painter was that he liberated art from the strait-jacket of the academic ideal – he became the “…artist’s artist…” (Sedgewick, 1960).

Finally, Courbet’s art was the reproduction of exact reality and represented a phase of 19th century French art. It entailed the logical and necessary rejection of Romanticism’s idealist trends by concentrating on what was accessible in social and sensory terms. Realism was a historical movement that achieved dominance in France, through Courbet, from about 1840 until 1870-1880. Its aim was to provide  “…a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world, based on meticulous observation of contemporary life.” (Nochlin, 1990). Courbet’s work was the history painting of contemporary life that developed into the painting of real life of Manet  and others, thence to Impressionism, for Courbet “…Realism is…the basis of all art…” (Lewis, 1858). Even though its influence extended into the 20th century its later forms are now often labelled social realism. The essence of Courbet’s Realism is the central motifs of Burial at Ornans – centre stage for the burial of Romanticism, and The Artist’s Studio – centre stage for the artist and the rebirth of non-academic art. On either side of both stand the groups which symbolise the motivating forces of his art.

References and sources

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Buchon, M.  (1856).  Reoveil de dissertation sur la realisme.  Neuchatel.

Castagnary, J. A.  (1863).  Le Nord, Brussels. Reprinted in Salons (1857-70).

Castagnary, J. A.  (1911).  Fragments d’un livre sur Courbet.   Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 53 (643).

Chadwick, W.  (1996).  Women, Art and Society.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Champfleury, J.  (1855).  Du realisme: Lettre a Madame Sand.  L’Artiste.  5 (xvi).

Champfleury, J.  (1857).  Sur M. Courbet: Lettre a Madame Sand. La realisme. Michel Levey Freres, Paris.

Chesneau, E.  (1852).  Review of the Salon de Paris.  Cited in Rubin, J. H.  (1996).

Chilvers, I.  et al.  (1997).  The Oxford Dictionary of Art.  OUP.

Clark, T. J.  (1973).  The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851.  London.

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Courbet, G.  (1849).  Letter to Francis Way..26.11.1849. Cited in Nochlin (1966).

Courthion, P.  (1948-50). Courbet raconte par lui-meme et par ses amis.  2 vols.  Geneva.

Delacroix. E.  (1853).  Journal.  15.4.1853.

Dijkstra, B.  (1986).  Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin’ de’ Siecle Culture. OUP, New York.

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Lucie-Smith, E.  (1997).  Sexuality in Western Art.  Thames & Hudson, London.

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Meier-Graefe, J.  (1905).  Corot and Courbet.  Leipzig.

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Prud’hon, P-J.  (1939).  Du principe de l’art et de the destination sociale. In: Ouvres complete de P.J. Prud’hon.  C. Boyle & Moysset, H. eds.  Paris.

Read, H.  (1994).  Dictionary of Art and Artists.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Riat, G.  (1906).  Gustave Courbet, peintre.  Paris.

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Sanchez, J-P.  (1978).  La critique de Courbet et la critique du Realisme entre 1880 et 1890.  Hist & Crit.  A. IV-V.

Sedgewick, J. P.  (1960).  The Artist’s Artist.  ARTnews, lviii.

Thore, T.  (1870).  Salon de W. Burger.  Paris.

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Turner, E.  (1996).  The Dictionary of Art.  Grove, Macmillan.

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Filed under History Of Art

3 responses to “The Art of Gustave Courbet

  1. Pingback: Research & Reflection – Part 3 – Research Point 1 – Artists’ self-portraits | Stuart Brownlee

  2. Pingback: Gustave Corbet the artist | Little Bitty Eagle

  3. I love Courbet – and your great blog article!

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