Stormy personality in the nineteenth-century French development of Realism in painting. Breaking with the long history of French painting, which had been so intensely associated with Paris and which had so continuously enunciated the importance of its own historical past, Courbet posed as a “self-taught” artist and assumed the air and accents of the provinces. Although of strongly Romantic taste at first, he cast aside the imaginative sensibilities of that movement and declared, “In particular, the art of painting can consist only in the representation of objects visible and tangible to the painter.” He was born in Ornans (Franche-Comte) of peasant extraction and of revolutionary lineage, facts that he made clear in his famous Burial at Ornans (1849, Louvre). In this composition, which he called “an historical picture,” history is contemporary and meaningful, not of the past. Time, it is true, is suggested by the range of ages present at the grave-side, and the range of types suggests a sociological analysis of the community. But the action, such as there is, is frozen in the present, round about the empty pit of the grave. And the allegory of “birthto-death,” which is so apparent in the popular woodcuts from which he drew his idea, is nearly lost in his meticulous recording of dull physiognomies in a humdrum landscape.
In the early development of his style Courbet relied primarily on painting from the model and on copying in the Louvre: However, he did spend time in the ateliers of Flajoulot, Steuben and Hesse. His early works are romantic or literary in sentiment, but already show his independence of tradition and his frank materialism of technique. The Lovers in the Country (1845, Lyon) or the Man with the Leather Belt (1849, Louvre) are examples of this. On the other hand, the After-Dinner at Ornans (1849, Lille) suggests a study of the Le Nains, who were “discovered” by his circle. The presentation of a medal for this painting admitted Courbet to the Salons, set off controversy and began the running battle with the authorities and public alike which Courbet carried on throughout his lifetime. Courbet at this time won his reputation as a social revolutionary by taking part in the events of 1848 and painting such studies as the Stone Breakers (1849, Louvre). This was interpreted as social comment. In contrast to this type of subject matter, Courbet constantly painted studio nudes, such as the Bathers of 1853, about which a critic remarked, “This creature is such that a crocodile wouldn’t want to eat her.” Whether these were painted out of pure sensuous delight on his part, or to ridicule the academic practice of nude studies, is not quite clear. Certainly arrogance was a frequent element in his work, as evidenced by his own posturing in the Meeting with Bruyas (1854, Montpellier).
In 1855, on the occasion of the Exposition Universelle, Courbet was refused entry to the Salon, so he organized a private exhibition of his canvases in the vicinity. It was for this occasion that he prepared his famous Studio. He called this “a real allegory of seven years of my artistic life.” In it he pictures himself, the artist, in action, and through this action serving as the catalyst between the common man in his manifold (and miserable) aspects and the Parisian elite. Discarded are the trappings of romantic pretensions, and several are the allusions to the naive eye and child art. At this point social implications tend to drop out of Courbet’s art, and henceforth his paintings usually make only artistic allusions. He paints figure studies, landscapes, seascapes, hunting scenes. The last relate to an old royal tradition of French realism (see DESPORTES, OUDRY), but also reveal Courbet’s love of the hunt and his feeling for thick pelts, thick pigment. Some of the most beautiful (and innocuous) of his works are flower pieces painted while he was imprisoned for the part he was presumed to have played in the Commune of 1871. He died in exile in Switzerland.