Gustave Courbet was a known artist whose drawings and paintings were a Realistic revolt against the time’s Romantic clamor. Born in 1819 in a town-a-like village of Ornans, which is situated in the very center of France, the painter was the first child in a multi-child family. The family had a farm and was quite financially secure hence, Gustave didn’t have to work hard to earn a living. His artistic talent was discovered at an early age when he drew his first landscape sketches and daily rural routine.
His first artistic education was conducted in Besancon (1837) where he had the first attempts to paint. Later on, in 1840 he headed to Paris to study law which had been advised by his father. He studied hard, even though he didn’t finish his legal education since he decided to change the major and give in himself to arts. His father was fond of the son’s desire to become an artist and assured him that he would do anything in his power to help Gustave achieve his goals. So it happened.
Having moved to the capital, the young painter worked for Steuben and Hesse. However, working with the two didn’t satisfy his needs since he was aiming at creating a unique style of painting which would oppose the dominating Romanticism. Therefore, Gustave decided to teach himself by redoing and copying famous pictures. For this, he would spend days and nights in museums, the Louver in particular, where he would try to follow the artistry and techniques of such painters as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Rubens and many others.
Having created a vast range of Realistic pictures and impacted Parisian social issue, he was exiled to Switzerland in the early 70s, after having spent 6 months in prison, where he passed away at the age of 58.
Key Ideas of Works
During his first years of painting Gustave Courbet already demonstrated an authentic style and an original philosophy of an artist. His life purpose was to worship the challenging of canons and conventions established by the Romantics. He believed that:
The Art’s primordial purpose is to reflect the reality giving it a shade of fantasy by exposing everything in a new light;
An artist cannot and will not be truly free unless they break the chains of old canons which are to tame what should be liberated;
Realism is a key to reveal the true essence of life, and it has to depict it the way it is without camouflaging or decorating life’s flaws;
History is a great teacher and is to be used as an allegory to current events in order to give a lesson, not to fascinate.
The first works of the artist comprised Odalisque and Lelia (1842) which were created as an inspiration from Hugo’s and Sand’s writings. Two years later, he decided to exclude himself from such influences and create ‘art for the sake of art’ by changing his style to complete Realism. His next works were Self-Portrait with Black Dog, The Sculptor, and in 1845 he produced Desperate Man and, three years later, The Man with a Pipe.
Apart from working on portraits and life situations depiction, Gustave was also known for painting magnificent landscapes and rural life sceneries which were mostly inspired by his town, Ornans (After Dinner At Ornans, 1849) and his constant travels through Belgium and the Netherlands.
At the beginning of the 50s, the painter’s most famous pictures Peasants of Flagey, The Stone Breakers, and A Burial at Ornans established his name and enrolled him to a list of most influential artists of the time. Those works opened a new dimension of Realism that was gruesome and factual since all scenes were a subject of historical significance.
Even though later Courbet didn’t get as much attention as for his previous pictures, he still was at the peak of popularity for producing The Sleeping Spinner (1853), Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (1857), Sleep (1866) and a series of historical paintings.
The Stone Breakers
It is the first Courbet’s acknowledged work displayed in 1849. The picture shows a couple of workers, a young boy and a senior man, who mine stones while resembling monuments themselves. The social implication of the painting is the distress and relentlessness felt by the artist towards high social classes and the mercy alongside pity towards mere blue-collars.
The Origin of the World
Painted in 1866, the picture is only one of the many artist’s works depicting nude female body parts. First banned for its profanity, it has roamed through different private collections from the 1870s to 1995.
Even though the work doesn’t seem to have any social implication or, depict a historically significant subject, it’s seen as a masterpiece of copying techniques since it resembles famous works of Titian and Caravaggio.
Some critics believe that the painting is an attempt of Courbet to discard the long-lasting question of human existence and origin and to amplify the female role in the French society of the 1800s.
The Desperate Man
The Desperate Man is a self-portrait 1845 painting that designates the artist’s transition from Romanticism to Realism. Depicting himself who stares back at a viewer, Courbet tries to tell the audience his story as a young Parisian painter that has brought him to despair and possible insanity.
Here, the author is ready to question the very nature of art, fight against canons and follow his one and only goal – to liberate artists from the chains of social and public influences.
The Burial at Ornans
This 20-foot-long picture is a definite magnum opus of Gustave Courbet. No wonder, this work caused furor back in the days. For order by the Parisian City Counsel to be presented at an 1851 exhibition, the artist depicts scenery of a middle-class funeral with portraits of ‘vulgar’ and ‘inappropriately looking’ people.
While painting everything black and incorporating sadness as the main instrument on the picture, Gustave Courbet officially entered the domain of Realism.
The Sleepers is another specimen of Courbet’s series nudities. The picture was painted in 1866 and was banned right away till the end of 1988.
The work depicts two women petting on a bed while they are surrounded by expensive pieces of jewelry. The significance of the picture is in the absence of romantic and mythological subjects like Cupid, seashells, etc. making this artwork distaste for that time.