Gustave Courbet

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Courbet, Gustave

(güstäv` ko͞orbā`), 1819–77, French painter, b. Ornans. He moved to Paris in 1839 and studied there, learning chiefly by copying masterpieces in the Louvre. An avowed realist, Courbet was always at odds with vested authority, aesthetic or political. In 1847 his Wounded Man (Louvre) was rejected by the SalonSalon,
annual exhibition of art works chosen by jury and presented by the French Academy since 1737; it was originally held in the Salon d'Apollon of the Louvre. By the mid-19th cent. the Salon had become an expression of conservative, established tastes in art.
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, although two of his earlier pictures had been accepted. He first won wide attention with his After Dinner at Ornans (Lille) in 1849. The next year he exhibited his famous Funeral at Ornans (1849–50) and Stonebreakers (1849, both: Louvre). For his choice of subjects from ordinary life, and more especially for his obstinacy and audacity, his work was reviled as offensive to prevailing politics and aesthetic taste. Enjoying the drama, Courbet rose to defend his work as the expression of his newfound political radicalism. His statements did nothing to recommend the work to his enemies.

In 1855, Courbet exhibited the vast Painter's Studio (Louvre). Attacked by academic painters, he set up his own pavilion where he exhibited 40 of his paintings and issued a manifesto on realismrealism,
in art, the movement of the mid-19th cent. formed in reaction against the severely academic production of the French school. Realist painters sought to portray what they saw without idealizing it, choosing their subjects from the commonplaces of everyday life.
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. While he continued to provoke the establishment by submitting works to the Salon that were twice rejected in the mid-1860s, within that decade he triumphed as the leader of the realist school. His influence became enormous, reaching its height with his rejection of the cross of the Legion of Honor offered him by Napoleon III in 1870. Under the Commune of ParisCommune of Paris,
insurrectionary governments in Paris formed during (1792) the French Revolution and at the end (1871) of the Franco-Prussian War. In the French Revolution, the Revolutionary commune, representing urban workers, tradespeople, and radical bourgeois, engineered
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 (1871), Courbet was president of the artists' federation and initially active in the Commune; he was later unfairly held responsible, fined, and imprisoned for the destruction of the Vendôme column. In 1873 he fled to Switzerland, where he spent his few remaining years in poverty. Although his aesthetic theories were not destined to prevail, his painting is greatly admired for its frankness, vigor, and solid construction.


See his letters, ed. by ten-Doesschate Chu (1992); J. Lindsay, Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art (1973) and P. ten-Doesschate Chu, The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture (2007); studies by T. J. Clark (1973), S. Faunce and L. Nochlin (1988), M. Fried (1990), and J. H. Rubin (1997).

Courbet, Gustave


Born June 10, 1819, in Ornans, Franche-Comté; died Dec. 31, 1877, in Tour de Peilz, Switzerland. French painter.

Courbet was the son of a wealthy farmer. Beginning in 1837 he attended the drawing school of C. A. Flajoulot in Besançon. He received no systematic artistic training. Courbet settled in Paris in 1839, where he painted from models in private studios. He was influenced by 17th-century Flemish and Spanish painting and visited Holland in 1847 and Belgium in 1851. The revolutionary events of 1848, which Courbet witnessed, greatly helped to determine the democratic direction that his work was to take.

After passing through a stage close to romanticism, represented by a series of self-portraits and the painting Lovers in the Countryside (1844, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon), Courbet began to question both romanticism and academic classicism. He rejected these traditions for, as he called it, a new type of “positive” art, which re-created life in a state of flux, affirmed the material significance of the world, and denied the artistic value of that which could not be embodied palpably and concretely.

A desire to reveal the significance and poetry of everyday life and of the French provincial countryside led Courbet to create major canvases imbued with realistic spirit, for example, After Dinner at Ornans (1849, Museum of Fine Arts, Lille), Burial at Ornans (1849, Louvre, Paris), and The Village Damsels (1851, Metropolitan Museum, New York). The composition of his works from this period is marked by confined space, static equilibrium of forms, compact or friezelike grouping of figures (as in Burial at Ornans), and subdued palettes.

Courbet was particularly interested in the theme of labor, which he understood as a process that enervated yet exalted man. This interest led him to seek images that were heroic, typical, and sculpturally expressive (for example, The Stone Breakers, 1849, destroyed, formerly in the Dresden Picture Gallery; The Winnowers, 1854). In The Bathers (1853, Musée Fabré, Montpellier), Courbet depicted women from the countryside with emphatic honesty, boldly setting the nude figures in a realistic landscape. True to the democratic ideals of his era, he treated social themes with critical acuteness, approaching the grotesque in the painting Returning From the Conference (destroyed; sketch, 1862, Public Art Collection, Basel) and in a series of anticlerical drawings (1863).

The principle of the social significance of art as put forward by the art critics of Courbet’s time, such as P. -J. Proudhon and J. Champsfleury, found expression in the artist’s works. These works include Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854, Musée Fabré, Montpellier), which depicts the meeting of the proudly striding artist with the art patron A. Bruja, and The Artist’s Studio (1855, Louvre), an allegorical composition in which Courbet depicted himself surrounded by his creations and his friends. Courbet related the social significance of art in his theoretical works, including his declaration “Realism” (1855) and his speech at a meeting of artists in Antwerp (1861).

Using not local colors but tones and gradations of tones as the principal elements of his painting language, Courbet gradually abandoned the restrained and, at times, severe palette that characterized his works of the 1840’s and early 1850’s. Influenced by plein air painting, he lightened and enriched his palette, achieving luminosity of color and emphasizing the texture of the brush-work. Courbet’s landscapes and still lifes, in which color plays an important role as an element of organization, are characterized by a convincing concreteness and palpability (for example, Winter Landscape, 1867, Louvre; Mountain Hut, c. 1874, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Fruits, Tannhauser Gallery, New York). In his late pictorial compositions, primarily nudes and hunting scenes, elements of eroticism and high society appear (for example, Deer Hunt, 1867, Metropolitan Museum; The Spring, 1869, Louvre).

Courbet was active in the Paris Commune of 1871. Accused of participating in the toppling of the Vendôme Column and persecuted by the reactionary government, he emigrated to Switzerland in 1873.


Tikhomirov, A. Giustav Kurbe. Moscow, 1968.
Giustav Kurbe: Pis’ma, dokumenty, vospominaniia sovremennikov. Moscow, 1970.
Zahar, M. Courbet. Paris, 1950.


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