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The Life and Talents of Artist Gustave Courbet

An innovator and outspoken social observer, French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was leader of the Realist School of painting. He was comfortable painting many different types of subjects: landscapes, seascapes, still life, even figurative works of art. However, it was his choice of subject matter that often made his work controversial.

While historical paintings were popular during the period in which Courbet painted, he felt that the artist should paint not the past or future, but what he could see with his own two eyes and had experienced in his own life.

Realism, as a result, was not so much about painting style (such as line, color, and composition) as about its subject matter, often displaying taboo subjects, such as scenes of peasants, funerals, or explicit female nudity. All of these drew controversy to Courbet.

Early Years

Born in Ornans to a wealthy farming family, the Courbet family harbored distinctly anti-royal feelings (no doubt, due in part to the fact that his grandmother took part in the French Revolution). Gustave Courbet loved Ornans and would return there repeatedly throughout his life, as a place to find peace and inspiration. Among his earliest subjects were his sisters.

In 1839, Courbet moved to Paris, where his works were inspired by literary pieces by authors such as Victor Hugo and George Sand. He spent time (like so many other artists) copying the masters at the Louvre and working in studios under the tutelage of master painters. In the early 1840s, he took himself as subject matter, painting numerous self-portraits, of which “Self Portrait (The Desperate Man)” (1843-1845) is the most renowned.

Talent, Recognition, and Controversy

Courbet really came fully into his talents and gained recognition for his work with “After Dinner at Ornans” (1848), which appeared at the 1849 Salon, winning a gold medal and garnering a state purchase. Along with “The Stone-Breakers” (1849, unfortunately destroyed in the World War II attack on Dresden), these figurative compositions would showcase scenes of local peasants, a subject then considered “vulgar” in the art world.

During the early 1850s, the artist would showcase these and other works of peasant life at the Salon, raising eyebrows and drawing criticism. Perhaps no painting of Courbet’s drew more praise and severe censure than “Burial at Ornans” (1849-1850), an extraordinarily large painting that showed a normal burial with those in attendance as models. This taboo subject (reserved for royalty or religious figures only) made him an upstart and “savage” in the eyes of many. For Courbet, it was “in reality the burial of Romanticism” and the birth of Realism.

Notoriety, but Sales as Well

Courbet’s next controversial subject matter came at the Salon of 1857, where he exhibited six paintings. Mixed in with hunting scenes was the notorious “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer),” which depicted two prostitutes. He would take this one step further in the 1860s, where he continued to paint increasingly frank sexual depictions of women, climaxing with “The Origin of the World” (1866). Another notorious painting, “Sleep” (1866), which depicted two women in bed, was investigated by police when exhibited.

Political Exile and Death

By the 1860s, Courbet had become heavily involved in the French political scene. In the 1870s he created a Federation of Artists, dedicated to the free (uncensored) expression of art. By 1871, he was championing the Vendome Column (a symbol of imperial might) be taken down and replaced. For his leadership role in this idea, he was imprisoned and fined. After release from jail, he fled to Switzerland in self-exile, where his life took a decided turn for the worse. His drinking increased tremendously, which led to liver disease, from which he died in 1877.

While Gustave Courbet’s life ended sadly, he gave much to the world of art. Paving the way for the Impressionists to take risks, as well as many more art movements, Courbet was fearless in the face of those who would seek to curtail his subject matter or painting style. His goal was to showcase life and nature as he found it, without the trappings of sentimentality. He pushed the boundaries of the art world, and paved the way for others to do the same.

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