Gustave Courbet

French Realist Painter and Designer

1819 - 1877

Self Portrait of Gustave Courbet

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting.

" 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."

Best known as an innovator in Realism (and credited with coining the term), Courbet was a painter of figurative compositions, landscapes and seascapes. He also worked with social issues, and addressed peasantry and the grave working conditions of the poor. His work belonged neither to the predominant Romantic nor Neoclassical schools. Rather, Courbet believed the Realist artist's mission was the pursuit of truth, which would help erase social contradictions and abuses.

Peasant Woman: ca 1848

The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair at Ornans: 1850-55

This image of peasants returning home to the small village of Flagey was part of what Courbet called his "highway" series, which also included The Stonebreakers. The figure astride the horse in the center has traditionally been identified as Courbet's father, Régis Courbet, who was mayor of Flagey. "This is the Franche-Comté peasant in all his natural sincerity," wrote the philosopher Proudhon.

This painting, executed in 1855, is a replica of the original. Courbet, dissatisfied with the perspective, repainted the work and enlarged the canvas by some twelve inches along the right side. He also reworked the present canvas, as evidenced by his shift of the woman with the basket on her head from the right side of the composition (where traces of the basket are visible) toward the center.

The Stonebreakers

This painting was destroyed in World War II. The artist's friend, socialist Pierre Proudhon, wrote of first the older and then the younger stonebreaker: His motionless face is heartbreakingly melancholy. His stiff arms rise and fall with the regularity of a lever. Here indeed is the mechanical or mechanized man in the state of ruin to which our splendid civilization and our incomparable industry have reduced him... This modern servitude devours the generations in their youth: here is the proletariat.

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, which brought the criticism that he deliberately adopted a cult of ugliness.

His work, along with the works of Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet, became known as Realism.

Born in Ornans (Doubs), into a prosperous farming family which wanted him to study law, 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 Spanish, Flemish and French painters and painting copies of their work.

His first works were an Odalisque, suggested by the writing of Victor Hugo, and a Lélia, illustrating George Sand, but he soon abandoned literary influences for the study of real life.

A trip to the Netherlands in 1847 strengthened Courbet's belief that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals, and the other Dutch masters had done.

Among his early works, he painted his own portrait with his dog, and The Man with a Pipe, both of which the Paris Salon jury rejected. However, the younger critics, the Neo-Romantics and Realists, loudly sang his praises, and by 1849 Courbet was becoming well known, producing such pictures as After Dinner at Ornans (for which the Salon awarded him a medal) and The Valley of the Loire.

The Man with a Pipe: ca 1848-49

"Portrait of the Artist (Man with a Pipe)" was painted by Gustave Courbet in Oil on canvas during the Realism epoch in 1849. Original painting size was 14.6" x 18.5". The style of the painting is Realist and the theme represented is Figure, Portrait. The painting is currently displayed at Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

After Dinner at Ornans

One of Courbet's most important works is Burial at Ornans, a canvas recording an event which he witnessed in September 1848. Courbet's painting of the funeral of his grand uncle became the first masterpiece in the Realist style. People who had attended the funeral were used as models for the painting. Previously, models had been used as actors in historical narratives; here Courbet said that he "painted the very people who had been present at the interment, all the townspeople". The result is a realistic presentation of them, and of life, in Ornans. The painting caused a fuss with critics and the public. It is an enormous work, measuring 10 by 22 feet depicting a prosaic ritual on a scale which previously would have been reserved for a religious or royal subject. Eventually the public grew more interested in the new Realist approach, and the lavish, decadent fantasy of Romanticism lost popularity. The artist well understood the importance of this painting; as Courbet said: "The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism."

Burial at Ornans: 1849

The Salon of 1850 found him triumphant with the Burial at Ornans, the Stone-Breakers (destroyed in 1945), and the Peasants of Flagey. Other figurative works, with common folk and friends as his subjects, included Village Damsels (1852), the Wrestlers, Bathers, and A Girl Spinning (1852).

The Wrestlers: 1852-53

The Bathers: 1853

In 1852, Courbet announced his desire to take on the nude, a genre prized by the Academy. He executed a painting of male nudes, The Wrestlers (Szepmuvezeti Museum, Budapest) as well as this painting, its pendant. He exhibited both in the Salon of 1853, where The Bathers occasioned a critical uproar. The painter Eugène Delacroix, a member of the Salon jury, deplored "the vulgarity of the forms," which did not conform to the idealized nudes of Academic art. Critics expressed their disgust at the dirty feet of the models as well as the fallen stocking of the seated model, seen as emblematic of physical as well as moral squalor. When Napoleon III saw the painting at the Salon, he allegedly feigned whipping the buttocks of the standing nude with his riding crop.

The model for the standing bather has been identified as Henriette Bonnion, who, according to a nineteenth-century source, posed "in naturabilis " in Courbet's Paris studio in the winter of 1853. Bonnion also modeled for the photographer Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, assuming a nearly identical pose in a photograph of the same date. It is not known if the photograph was made before Courbet's painting.

The Sleeping Spinner

"In this picture," wrote Delacroix in his diary, "there is all the accustomed vigor and imitative quality of this artist. If the dress and the armchair are heavy and clumsy, the spinning wheel and the distaff are admirable. "It is a sincere, frank piece of work," wrote H. de la Madelène, "which cannot alarm anybody and must charm many. . . The girl is not a coquette and she is rather heavily wrapped up in her wide fichu and her red-flowered dress, but, thank God, she is not a Parisienne, and for that I applaud the painter. . Other people will complain no doubt that the Spinner is no more like a Greek or a Georgian woman. Good Heavens! We have only too many of your painters of Greek women and we are very lucky to have a man who is trying to paint peasant women as God made them! The eye can rest and gaze on this picture with the same pleasure that one finds in life when one leaves the company of artificial people and lights upon a simple, genuine human being."

Proudhon also was delighted with the artist for having painted neither a goddess, nor a Greek, nor a fashionable doll, nor a Florian shepherdess, but a really "physiological beauty, full-blooded, alive, strong and tranquil." With many philosophical divagations he admires the "magnificent creature . . . , the thread has fallen from her hand. Almost we can hear her slow breathing instead of the whirring of the wheel. Every day she rises early in the morning; she is the last to go to bed . . . It is in her spare moments that she takes her distaff, and turns to the gentle slow work, the slight noise of which is not enough to keep her, healthy countrywoman that she is, awake. Do you understand now why Courbet made his spinner a mere peasant? There would be no sense in her otherwise; more than that, I say she would be indecent . . . Only the truth, discarding every impure thought, could here suggest both an idea and an ideal, without which art is reduced to arbitrariness and insignificance and disappears."

"La Fileuse" has often been shown in public, notably at the Universal Exhibition of 1855 and the private exhibition of 1867. It was given by Bruyas to the Montpellier Museum.

Courbet associated his ideas of realism in art with Socialism, and, having gained an audience, he promoted democratic and Socialist ideas by writing politically motivated essays and dissertations.

To a friend in 1850 he wrote:

" in our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies; I must address myself to them directly. "

He displayed his monumental The Artist's Studio in 1855. It is an allegory of his life as a painter, seen as a heroic venture, in which he is surrounded by friends and admirers, among them Charles Baudelaire.

The Artists Studio: 1855

Towards the end of the 1860's, Courbet painted a series of increasingly erotic works such as Femme nue couchée. This culminated in The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) (1866), depicting female genitalia, and Sleep (1866), featuring two women in bed. While banned from public display, the works only served to increase his notoriety.

Femme nue couchée

Courbet’s ‘Nude Woman Reclining’ Recovered

Two nudes hanging side by side in the show might almost be by different artists. "Reclining Nude" of 1862 is a kind of joke on Titian: a rather loosely painted figure in a brownish atmosphere surrounded by excesses of red velvet drapes whose kewpie-doll knee socks add to her modern quirkiness.


"Sleep," from 1866. It offers a vision of precise forms and Rococo pinks and whites, although what is often referred to as a lesbian embrace seems more like an orbit at very close quarters, slightly above the bed.

The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) - 1866

L'Origine du monde was painted in an era when moral values were being questioned. By the very nature of its realistic, graphic eroticism, the painting still has the power to shock.

During the 19th century, the display of the nude body underwent a revolution whose main activists were Courbet and Manet. Courbet rejected academic painting and its smooth, idealized nudes, but he also directly recriminated the hypocritical social conventions of the Second Empire, where eroticism and even pornography were acceptable in mythological paintings.

Courbet later insisted he never lied in his paintings, and his realism pushed the limits of what was considered presentable. With L'Origine du monde he has made even more explicit the eroticism of Manet's Olympia. Maxime Du Camp, in a harsh tirade, reported his visit of the work's purchaser, and his sight of a painting "giving realism's last word".

The commission for L'Origine du monde is believed to have come from Khalil-Bey, a Turkish diplomat, former ambassador of the Ottoman Empire in Athens and Saint Petersburg who had just moved to Paris. Sainte-Beuve introduced him to Courbet and he ordered a painting to add to his personal collection of erotic pictures, which already included Le Bain turc (The Turkish Bath) from Ingres and another painting by Courbet, Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers), for which it is supposed that Hiffernan was one of the models.

After Khalil-Bey's finances were ruined by gambling, the painting subsequently passed through a series of private collections. It was first bought during the sale of the Khalil-Bey collection in 1868, by antique dealer Antoine de la Narde. Edmond de Goncourt hit upon it in an antique shop 1889, hidden behind a wooden pane decorated with the painting of a castle or a church in a snowy landscape. According to Robert Fernier, Hungarian collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany bought it at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1910 and took it with him to Budapest. Towards the end of the Second World War the painting was looted by Soviet troops but ransomed by Hatvany who when he emigrated was allowed to take only one art work with him, and he took L'Origine to Paris.

In 1955 L'Origine du monde was sold at auction for 1.5 million francs. Its new owner was the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Together with his wife, actress Sylvia Bataille, he installed it in their country house in Guitrancourt. Lacan asked André Masson, his stepbrother, to build a double bottom frame and draw another picture thereon. Masson painted a surrealist, allusive version of L'Origine du monde. The New York public had the opportunity to admire L'Origine du monde in 1988 during the Courbet Reconsidered show at the Brooklyn Museum; the painting was also included in the exhibition Gustave Courbet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. After Lacan died in 1981, the French Minister of Economy and Finances agreed to settle the family's inheritance tax bill through the transfer of the work (dation en lieu in French law) to the Musée d'Orsay, an act which was finalized in 1995.

La belle Irlandaise

Portrait of Jo (La belle Irlandaise), is a painting of Joanna Hiffernan, the probable model for L'Origine du monde.

On 14 April 1870, Courbet established a "Federation of Artists" (Fédération des artistes) for the free and uncensored expansion of art. The group's members included André Gill, Honoré Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugène Pottier, Jules Dalou, and Édouard Manet.

His refusal of the cross of the Legion of Honour offered to him by Napoleon III made him immensely popular with those who opposed the current regime, and in 1871 under the revolutionary Paris Commune he was placed in charge of all the Paris art museums and saved them from looting mobs. For his insistence in executing the Communal decree for the destruction of the Vendôme Column, he was designated as responsible for the act and accordingly sentenced on 2 September 1871 by a Versailles Court Martial to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs.

In 1873, the newly elected president Mac-Mahon wanted to resurrect the Column, and Courbet was singled out to pay the expenses. He then took refuge in Switzerland to avoid bankruptcy. On 4 May 1877, the estimate of the costs was finally established: 323,091 fr 68 cent. Courbet was allowed to pay the fine in yearly installments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years, until his 91st birthday.

Courbet died, age 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking on 31 December 1877, a day before the payment of the first installment was due.

Courbet's particular kind of realism influenced a number of artists to follow, notably among them, Edward Hopper. Symbolically, Hopper's "Bridge in Paris" (1906) and "Approaching a City" (1946) in particular, seem Freudian echoes of Courbet's "The Source of the Loue" and "The Origin of the World. " Hopper's "Les Deux Pigeons" (1920) is "infused with the spirit of Courbet. Lovers on a terrace ardently embrace while the river flows freely through the forest below them."

A Bay with Cliffs: ca 1869

A Family Of Deer

A Thicket of Deer at the Stream of Plaisir Fountaine

A Waterfall in the Jura: 1876

Alpine Scene: 1874

Basket of Flowers: 1863

Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet: 1854

Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase: 1862

Chateau de Chillon

Chateau du Chillon: 1874

Cliffs near Ornans: ca 1865

Deux Chevre Uils Dans la Foret

Dressing the Dead Girl (Dressing the Bride): ca 1855

"Preparation of the Bride/Dead Girl," is one of the big paintings of village life that Courbet tackled in the early 1850s. Here a roomful of women orbits around a young, limp girl being dressed by three of them. Other women make a bed, lay a tablecloth or straighten up.

Femme Nue Endormie

Fishing Boats on the Deauville Beach: 1866

Flowering Apple Tree Branch: 1872

Head of a Woman with Flowers: 1871

This one even seems a bit odd to myself. Courbet may have been attempting to make a statement about the fashion of his day or it may simply be a design for something else on which he was working. I am no expert on Courbet but he does intrigue me especially his political views. Yet, I honestly don't know though I tried to find some contemporary criticism of this work but failed there too.

Senex Magister

Hollyhocks in a Copper Bowl: 1872

La Ferme De Bonnevaux

La Foret En Automne

La Petite Bergere (The Young Shepherdess)

La Ruisseau de la Breme: 1865

La Vague

Bald Rock in the Valley of Ornans: 1864

Landscape near Puit Noir near Ornans: 1872

The Source among the Rocks of the Doubs: 1871

Landscape with a Stag

Le Chateau de Thoraise: ca 1865

Le Glacier

Les Doubs A La Maison Monsieur

Lisiere de foret: 1865


Marine: 1865-66

Marine A Etretat

Marine de Saint Aubin: 1872

Marine Les Equilleurs

Mere Gregoire: 1855

Model Reading: ca 1849

Paysage Guyere: ca 1874-76

Plage de Normandie

Portrait of Countess Karoly

Portrait of Gabrielle Borreau: The Dreamer - 1862

Portrait of Juliette Courbet as a Sleeping Child: 1841

Portrait of Pierre Joseph Proudhon: 1865

Portrait of Pierre Joseph Proudhon in 1853 - (1865)

River Landscape: 1869

Rocky Seashore: ca 1865

Seascape Near Trouville

Still Life Fruit: ca 1871-72

Study for Landscape with Waterfall: ca 1877

Study for Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine Ete: 1856

Sunset on Lake Leman: 1874

The Beach at Trouville at Low Tide: 1865

The Cellist - Self Portrait: 1847

The Desperate Man (The Man Made by Fear): 1843-44

No artist before Picasso put so much of himself on canvas. In one self-portrait, he is long-haired and delicate, a Pontormo prince. In another he tears his hair, wide-eyed and wild, like Johnny Depp's pirate rendered by Caravaggio. And in "Self-Portrait with Pipe" we see an early version of the disengaged gaze, at once dreaming and sardonic, that would become a trademark.

The Fox in the Snow: 1860

The Girl with the Seagulls - Trouville: 1865

The Grain Sifters: 1844-45

The Houses of the Chateau d'Ornans: ca 1853

The Lady of Frankfurt: 1858

The Quarry: 1857

The Shaded Stream: 1865

The Source: 1868

TThe Stormy Sea: 1869

The Trellis: 1862

The Woman in a Podoscaphe: 1865

The Young Ladies of the Village: 1851-52

The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine: 1856-57

Courbet's look reaches a zenith of some kind in his drowsy masterpiece "Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine" of 1856-57. Here the two subjects lie side by side forming a mass of frothy garments, female flesh, assorted flowers and moral lassitude. The overt, possibly lesbian eroticism that shocked viewers remains palpable. So does the ebullient, taunting hash of traditions, of public park with boudoir, of still life and figure painting, all crowded by a strangely vertical plane of water.

Woman in Waves

The other fascinating thing about Courbet is the subtle and not to subtle way in which he emphasizes the scale of his female figures, making them seem larger than life. In paintings like Young Ladies of the Village, The Source and The Woman in the Waves Courbet sets the female form in settings that are at once realistic and diminished, using perspective to achieve an effect that is at once mythic and breathtakingly real.

Woman with a Parrot: 1866

When this painting was shown in the Salon of 1866, critics censured Courbet's "lack of taste" as well as his model's "ungainly" pose and "disheveled hair." Clearly, Courbet's woman was perceived as provocative. The picture, however, was admired by contemporary artists: Cézanne seems to have carried a small photograph of it in his wallet, and in 1866 Manet began his version of the subject, "Young Lady in 1866 (Woman with a Parrot)"

Reclining Nude

Wounded Man: 1844-45

Self-portraits occupied a central place in Gustave Courbet's youthful works. They were aesthetic and moral statements in which Courbet both claimed the heritage of the old Masters, the Dutch and Venetians in particular and indulged in romantic dramatization.

In 1854, already taking a retrospective look at his oeuvre, Courbet wrote to Alfred Bruyas, his patron in Montpellier: "During my life, I have painted myself many times, whenever my state of mind changed. In short, I have written the story of my life". The Wounded Man subscribes to this subjectivity by investing the romantic theme of the artist made heroic by suffering. The picture painted in 1844 was reworked by Courbet ten years later, at the end of a love affair. The woman, who was originally leaning on the artist's shoulder, has been replaced by a sword and Courbet has added a red bloodstain on his shirt over his heart. The artist has ambiguously and seductively combined the most intimate autobiographical register (by evoking a duel) with a death struggle confused with the sensual abandonment of sleep.

Source: Art Renewal Center

This page is the work of Senex Magister

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