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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Gustave Courbet was a French painter who founded the realism movement in 19th century France.

Renowned for his socialist views and political fervour, Gustave was very involved with the tumultuous French domestic affairs of the time, indeed, many of his works had a socially aware, left-wing narrative. His commitment to painting what he saw and his love of all things earthy meant that he favoured the commonplace subject matter of peasants and labourers and landscapes.

While Courbet enjoyed a deal of success during his lifetime, due to the changing political landscape, he ended his life out of favour and in exile in Switzerland. However, after his death his popularity grew as the art world began to appreciate his talent for clearly expressing what he saw around him. Today, Gustave is considered one of the most influential painters of the 19th century and he continues to inspire art lovers and artists with his great genius and his commitment to honesty.

What is Realism?

Realism was born as a reaction to the 1848 French Revolution, or the February Revolution as it was known, which saw the final overthrow of the Bourbon Monarchy by the bourgeoise. The French people, sick of living in the shadows of the aristocracy, craved mastery of their own wealth and government. The resulting climate was one of pragmatism and a desire to elevate the common man. Artistically, this new social backdrop spawned a desire to reject the glorified depictions of the neo-classical painters and, instead, create art from the reality of everyday life.

This new warts and all attitude to painting meant that even the lowliest peasant in the street could become the subject of a grand work of art. Hungry to depict life as art, Courbet led the charge and found inspiration in everything; from his famous The Stone Breakers depicting labourers breaking up stones at the side of a road to A Burial at Ornans, a simple gathering of towns people at a funeral.

One of the main reasons that Gustave was so prominent and ground-breaking in this new movement, was not only that he had completely rejected all of the artificial subjects, colours and poses supported by the Paris Art Academy, but rather that he had taken the unvarnished, common man and placed him in the grand canvases that once housed idealised visions of classical or romanticised subjects, thus creating an equity between the aristocracy and the proletariat. Spurred on by his political ideals and social conscience, Gustave had inadvertently changed the world of artistic expression forever. His new style of painting would very soon inspire Monet's impressionism and much more besides.

Techniques and Style and Inspiration

Courbet's early influences came from his hometown of Ornans where he was brought up and returned to often. It was here that he developed a love and appreciation of the ordinary life around him, both the countryside and the people who lived there. He grew into a very independent spirit and he found it very difficult to follow the trajectory of a traditional education. As a result of this, when he found his way to Paris, he took charge of his own artistic study and found that he was drawn to the stark realities depicted in the paintings of the old French, Spanish and Flemish Masters. Much is made of the subject matter that Gustave favoured, and rightly so, but it is not only his style that was revolutionary.

In an effort to create the rustic nature of the hard life that the poor of France were experiencing, Courbet also pioneered the technique of roughly applying paint to the canvas. By leaving large and visible brushstrokes, he was able to infer movement and emotion that had previously been missing from the work of major artists. Naturally this method was cutting edge for its time and many of the young artists, witnessing the effectiveness of this technique, were inspired to experiment and create styles and techniques of their own.

Most Important Works

Courbet's works are not among the best known, but they are, indeed, emotive and influential. As previously mentioned, one of his first works to set him apart as a visionary, was The Stone Breakers (1849). Gustave was inspired to paint this scene when he witnessed it by a roadside. He felt that he would struggle to find a tableau that could more clearly expressed the state of poverty than these men trying to move the broken stones. The realism of the painting pulls no punches at all and we can easily understand the plight of these peasant men. It is said to be his first great work.

Sadly, however, it was destroyed during the bombing of Dresden during the second World War. Perhaps the painting that best typifies Courbet's style and political sensibilities is The Burial at Ornans Exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1851, this huge canvas initially caused a great outrage. The painting depicts the scene of the funeral of the artist’s Great Uncle in his hometown of Ornans. The reason it was so appalling to the critics and the public is because it was the moment as it actually happened with portraits of all the family and towns people who were there.

The fact that it was firstly, a study of a nobody's burial and secondly on a massive canvas, the size usually reserved for historical paintings of battles and such, made for a very offensive combination. Courbet didn't understand what all the fuss was about. His intention was to draw an allegory between the human burial and the death of romanticism. However, when the public opinion died down, people started to claim it as a triumph and Gustave was labelled a radical and a savage. A role he relished and exaggerated every chance he got.

Allegory was one of Courbet's special gifts. He often painted subject matter with the intention of social or political commentary. One of the very best examples of this is, The Artist's Studio the painting is again a huge work on a very large canvas, and it is was a massive undertaking. It depicts the artist in his studio, and on one side he has painted his friends and admirers and on the other he has painting all of life's trouble; poverty, wealth, people who exploit the poor and most controversially, the French ruler of the time, Napoleon III. This of course made it plain to everyone that Courbet had nothing but distain for Napoleon. It made him at once a hero to many and a danger to others. The painting met with little support from the public, but it was an enormous success with his fellow artists.

Finally, it is important to mention, The Origin of the World. Gustave painted a great many nudes, but unlike his predecessors, they were ordinary women being presented as themselves, not representing Goddesses or nymphs. This was considered quite scandalous, and many believed even vulgar. The Origin of the World was certainly the most graphic of Gustave's many nudes and it depicts an extremely intimate pose of a woman's genitalia. The painting does no include the woman's face or even her legs, it is simply a study of her pubis. Gustave felt it was a true likeness of the female form and found it refreshingly honest. The critics and the public disagreed, and it was, in fact, not exhibited in public until 1988.

The Legacy of Gustave Courbet

Courbet's legacy is vast and profound. He was a way-shower. A man who had the courage to stand in his own convictions both artistically and politically and make no apologies for the way he believed things should be. In his lifetime he inspired many young artists to their greatness; Claude Monet, the father of impressionism, who knew and admired Gustave's work and used his techniques as a jumping off point for his own genius, and Edouard Manet, also one of the most famous of the French impressionists. Courbet's influence did not end there, in fact, if anything, his reputation grew after his death.

Young artists the world over wanted to embrace the philosophy which he had dared to live, and they gladly threw away the rule book. Many schools of art can claim great inspiration from Gustave's work, including post impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh, Cubists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and even the surrealist world of Rene Magritte. Even today, Courbet's strength and conviction to his work is a guiding light to all those who would find artistic expression without compromise.

The public interest in realism has varied over recent centuries but the respect for Courbet's achievements always remain strong. His style and themes covered also links closely with members of several other art movements, such as Classicism, Romanticism and Academic art. The key to Courbet's approach was to reflect real life, warts and all. He was not interested in the previous styles which had aimed at essentially photoshopping life into an unrealistic dream-like presentation.

In this way comparisons can be made with many artists, particularly the early work of Vincent van Gogh through paintings such as Potato Eaters. Alternatively, the Romanticism of Eugene Delacroix and Renaissance painter El Greco would portray their subjects far differently. The artist's techniques would create heavy layers of paint, known as impasto, normally delivered from his preferred use of palette knife. Most other art movements at this time would seek a more refined finish which he consciously rejected.

Realism has continued into more recent centuries with the likes of Edward Hopper, but it is a less significant movement now than it once was. The same can be said for academic artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, with 21st century painters tending to prefer a more imaginative approach. The achievements of Courbet helped to bring about the rise of the early modernists such as Edouard Manet and Claude Monet.