Sunday, 16 November 2014


“What is indispensable to inspiration? ...Sound sleep and the provocation of a good book or a companion.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Looking through my books this morning, I found a book on a French 19th century artist that I had misplaced and which gave me the idea for this Sunday’s Art Sunday. It is Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) who was an influential and prolific French painter, a realist painter par excellence. Courbet, together with his compatriots Honoré Daumier and Jean Francois Millet, founded the mid-19th-century art movement subsequently called “realism”.

Courbet, was a farmer's son and was born June 10, 1819, in Ornans. He went to Paris about 1840, ostensibly to study law; instead, he taught himself to paint by copying masterpieces in the Louvre, Paris. In 1850 he exhibited “The Stone Breakers” (1849, formerly Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, destroyed 1945), a blunt, forthright depiction of labourers repairing a road. In it, Courbet deliberately flouted the precepts of the romantics’ champions of emotionally charged exoticism and of the powerful Academicians, guardians of the moralising Beaux-Arts traditions.

Courbet further outraged Academicians with his enormous “Burial at Ornan” (1850, Musée d' Orsay, Paris), in which a frieze of poorly clad peasants surrounds a yawning grave. Courbet compounded his defiance of convention in another huge painting, “The Artist's Studio” (1855, Musée d’ Orsay), which he subtitled “A True Allegory Concerning Seven Years of My Artistic Life”. In it, Courbet sits painting a landscape centre stage, attended by a small boy, a dog, and a voluptuous female nude; at left a listless, bored group studiously ignores him; at right a lively, spirited crowd of his friends admires his work. At the same time he issued a provocative manifesto detailing his social realist credo of art and life. By this time he was enjoying widespread popularity.

He continued to flout his critics by painting as he liked, what he liked and often found himself censured with his controversial choices of subject matter. Explicit female nudes and realistic studies of “hard grit” type of subjects, were however, interspersed with idyllic landscapes, hunting scenes, extravagant bouquets of flowers and sensitive pencil sketches of intimate, homely types of subjects. The sleeping form fascinated this artist and on more than several occasions, his subjects are asleep. Surely, canvases such as this catered to the tastes of genteel society and must have earned Courbet quite a great deal of his income. Nevertheless, even in such “bread-and-butter” work, his genius is able to shine through.

The painting illustrated is one of my favourite works of Courbet. There is much emotion and raw energy in this work and even though realistic, this work is also impressionistic to a certain extent and even romantic in its mood. It is the “Stormy Sea” of 1869. A dramatic, roiling, cloudy sky overhangs portentously the stormy sea. Green waves break on the beach and the foam shines white amongst the dark water. The boat in the distance battling the elements is in contrast to the boats seemingly safe on the beach – but are they really safe? This is a great depiction of the power of natural forces, but also an allegory for the artist’s passionate and angry view of life…


  1. What an intense and dramatic painting!

  2. Good on Courbet for writing a provocative manifesto that clearly set out his social realist credo of art and life. But he and other "modernists" could have paid a great price. There was no guarantee they would be enjoying widespread popularity amongst the art buying public or the galleries, especially if the academies and critics didn't like the work.