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Gustave Courbet

1819 - 1877

Place Born

Ornans (Dombes)

Place Died

Tour de Peitz (Switzerland)

Bio

Gustave Courbet was born in 1819 in the small town of Ornans, in the Doubs region of the Franche-Comté in rural eastern France, to a farming family made newly prosperous by the Revolution. His father was typical of his class in that he wanted his son to carry the family another step forward into the bourgeoisie by studying law in Paris after his local schooling in the provincial capital of Besançon. But when the young man traveled to Paris late in 1839, he did so with the intention of becoming a painter; and he spent many of the following years trying to convince his father that he had become a successful one. However, unlike like so many ambitious young men of the time who came to make a career in Paris, he did not shed his earlier ways to become a thorough Parisian. Instead, both family ties and love of his native countryside drew him back to the region for several months each year. The high pasturelands, cliffs, forests and streams of the Jura remained a resource to him as a landscape painter throughout his life.

In Paris Courbet did not enrol in the academic system, though he studied for a few months with a painter named Steuben. He learned mainly from copying earlier masters, especially paintings of the 17th-century Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish schools. His Salon submissions met with little success until 1848, the year when the Salon was more open due to the Revolution and the establishment of the Second Republic. His first masterwork, The After-dinner at Ornans, admired by fellow artists, won a gold medal in the Salon of 1849 and was bought by the State for the museum at Lille. But it was at the Salon of 1850, whose opening was delayed until December by the coup d’état of the future Napoleon III, that his work sent shock waves through the ranks of the critics, responding to the apparently outrageous character of The Burial at Ornans, The Stonebreakers, and The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair. In a situation in which large, serious paintings could only be understood in terms of neo-classical form and traditional narrative subject matter and in which the fears of peasant revolt ran high among the conservative establishment, these paintings which represented ordinary village people without idealization and symbolically elevated this imagery into the canonical status of history painting, were treated as a danger that needed to be violently discredited. This was Courbet’s first experience of what we might call “media frenzy” and its lessons were not lost on him. He already knew that, lacking the backing of the academic structure, he needed to find ways to bring attention to his work; and it was clear that the attention it was now getting was worth the price of being insulted as a rabid Socialist, not to mention an unwashed vulgarian.

The first half of the 1850s saw a remarkable production of major figure paintings drawn from the life of his region – such as The Young Ladies of the Village and The Grain Sifters, in addition to such works as Bonjour, M. Courbet, which dealt with the relation between artist and patron, in the form of himself and his first important buyer, Alfred Bruyas of Montpellier. This concept of creating what he called a “real allegory “ from the ideas and personalities of his own life culminated in the great manifesto painting of 1855, The Studio of the Painter. To exhibit this vast painting, together with 40 others of his works, he built his own “Pavilion of Realism” near the grounds of the International Exposition, an unprecedented act of self-presentation which expressed his conviction that the controlled Salon – even though he himself had by now gained regular admittance — should not be the only means for an artist’s work to be seen by the public. Courbet depicts himself at the center of The Studio as a landscape painter, despite the fact that he was best known for his controversial figure paintings. Landscape became of increasing importance to him during the subsequent years, as he responded pictorially to other parts of France to which he was drawn by both the company and the visual environment: Montpellier in the south in the fifties, the Saintonge in the west in the early sixties, and the Channel coast in the second half of the sixties. Throughout this time he never ceased to work in the landscape of his own homeland, inventing motifs in the shaded pools, the high pastures and the stony sources of the streams. Despite the objections of many academic critics to the growth of landscape painting, with its implication that nature was worth representing for its own sake (in itself a reason, if Courbet needed one, for him to actively engage in this genre), it gradually became more popular, and Courbet was only one of the mid-century painters who eventually benefited from this change by finding a wider market.

Beginning in 1870, Courbet got caught in the machinery of political history. When the Franco-Prussian war toppled the imperialist rule of Napoleon III, he welcomed the new Third Republic and went to work for it, protecting works of art in the Paris region from the German guns, and attempting reforms of the art education system. When in early 1871 the Republic appeared to be capitulating to the Germans, he welcomed the revolutionary opposition government of the Commune, for a time. But though had resigned from it before the sudden toppling of the Vendôme Column — long considered a militaristic symbol — he was made the scapegoat for this action as well as being prosecuted for membership in the vanquished Commune. Imprisonment, interrogation, trial, and a jail sentence followed, only mitigated by a period of house arrest at a clinic. Here, and later after his return to Ornans in June 1872, he was able to paint some fruit still lives which are the most powerful of his work in this genre. But he was under the pressure of a government threat to make him pay the whole cost of restoring the Column, or face prison again; and so he went in mid-1973 as an exile to Switzerland, settling in a village on the lake near Lausanne. Though not in the best of health and filled with anxiety about his future, Courbet was active as a painter and in the large community of political refugees in Switzerland at that time. He developed landscape motifs in his new surroundings, among them the always changing view across Lac Leman to the steep mountains and the views of the Chateau de Chillon, made famous by Byron as the symbol of political imprisonment and already a tourist attraction. He died on the last day of 1877, having endured the news only the previous month of a kind of “fire sale” in Paris of paintings the government had managed to confiscate from his studio there.

Sarah Faunce

Available Art Works

Mother and Child on a Hammock

Work Available
Historical Period: 1840-1900 Realism to Impressionism
Mother and Child on a Hammock
Bord de mer

Work Available
Historical Period: 1840-1900 Realism to Impressionism
Bord de mer

Art Works Sold

Bouquet de Fleurs

Sold or not Available
Historical Period: 1810-1870 Romanticism
Bouquet de Fleurs
Vue d’'une mer agitée près d’une falaise

Sold or not Available
Historical Period: 1840-1900 Realism to Impressionism
Vue d’'une mer agitée près d’une falaise