Gustave Courbet – Les Casseurs De Pierres (the Stone-breakers)

WHEN he bade old Gagey, the road-mender, to his Organs studio, in order to paint him just as he had seen him one day in November, 1849, on the road from the Château de Saint-Denis, Courbet probably had no notion of “raising the social question,” as he pretended to do later on; but we know from. his correspondence with Francis Wey that he was not only struck by the picturesque qualities of the scene. ” Here is an old man of seventy, bending over his work, with his hammer raised, his body burned by the sun, his face shaded with a wide straw hat; his coarse stuff breeches are all patched; and his heels are showing through his stockings, which once were white, in his broken old wooden shoes; near him is a young man with his hair thick with dust and his skin burned brown; his filthy ragged shirt shows his sides and his arms; a leather belt supports what is left of his trousers, and his muddy leather shoes are full of gaping holes. The old man is kneeling; the young man is standing behind him, holding a basket of broken stones. Alas! In such low life this is the beginning and the end! Rarely can one find so complete an expression of poverty and wretchedness.”

The picture was out of its element in the Salon of 1850-1851. “‘The Stone-breakers,’ ” said Claude Vignon, is a worthy companion to the ‘ Paysans de Flagey’ in its coarse representation of coarseness and filth. And we are told that this is truth and naturalism! We do not admit such principles. For us the truth can never be trivial, and Nature, the divine mirror wherein the eternal beauty is reflected, stops short at ignobility.”

Let us compare with this condemnation the more en-ightened comment of Sabathier-Ungher: “There is a bitter, though healthy, savour in this picture, which may be disagreeable to weak palates: it leaves an altogether rustic taste of salt bread in your mouth. . . . It is mercilessly naturalistic, but there is nothing vulgar in it, for, both in choice of subject and in the actual painting, there is rusticity, but nothing low, and if the types are emphasized almost to the point of caricature, they are nevertheless extremely powerful, and there is not the smallest hint of triviality in any portion of the picture; there is dignity and breadth in the painting of these ragged men.”

“Les Casseurs de Pierres ” was shown at Brussels in 1851, at the Universal Exhibition in 1855, and at the private exhibition in 1867, and everywhere gained adherents to Courbet’s cause. It was bought in 1867 for z6,000 francs by Laurent Richard, a tailor, and in 1904 it was bought from the Binant collection by Herr von Seidlitz for the Dresden Museum at the price of 50,000 francs.