This was an epoch-making picture when first exhibited, and it sums up, more clearly than his larger pictures in the Louvre, the distinctive features of Courbet’s art. Classified under the vague word ” naturalism,” it stood for a conscious reaction away from both Ingres and Delacroix; away from two different styles, both artificial and conventional, in Courbet’s opinion. One was that of cold, precise, linear classicism; the other that of romanticism, with its flamboyant swirls, its flaming colors and its theatrically passionate subject-matter. Against both of these traditions Courbet championed an-other: that of representing life and nature as they are, unidealized, in all their crude, simple vigor.
For a subject, he chooses in this picture humble workmen; he gives them no sculptural grace and no exotic allurements; no finely balanced, neatly organized design. All such qualities, praised in other pictures, would conflict with that of truthful representation, which he most desires.
The tendency thus revived was beneficial, in that it led painters back to more direct observation of nature, and a quest for new, unconventional designs. It was not a new movement, for in their own time several Italian, Dutch and Spanish painters, as well as Louis Le Nain, Chardin and Millet in France, had stood for reactions “back to nature.” Such movements are periodic, and their ultimate effect is usually to introduce some new convention, some new artificial way of looking at nature. For the artist must select from nature, and reassemble what he selects into some sort of new, ideal form.
In this picture, and in Courbet’s art in general, the most important element is not mere truthfulness in representing nature, but the distinctive ways in which he transformed what he saw. One of these was to intensify the surface richness of the most ordinary materials. There is a silvery, mossy sheen to these rocks, a deep, juicy coolness to the grass, and a dark lustre of creamy brown and gold to these ragged garments, that is not unnatural, but more intense than any-thing ordinary eyes could see. They combine to make a consistent color-harmony, that implies much altering and eliminating on the part of the painter: the dinner-pail must be made more silvery, the bread a richer brown, and the straw a more glistening yellow. And the drawing would not satisfy so well if it did not represent selected attitudes of strain and weary work, more expressive than any casual photograph, and more linked together by hidden repetitions of linear theme. In other words, a new artificial form is created, of fresh, limpid coloring and brusque, irregular, heavy lines.