Sunday, 10 June 2012


“Beauty, like truth, is relative to the time when one lives and to the individual who can grasp it. The expression of beauty is in direct ratio to the power of conception the artist has acquired.” - Gustave Courbet
As it is Gustave Courbet’s birth anniversary today, it seems appropriate to devote Art Sunday to him. Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (10 June 1819 – 31 December 1877) was a French painter and the leader of the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting. Courbet is very important in French painting for two reasons. Firstly, he was prepared to try out new ideas and ways of painting. Secondly, his paintings made social comment on the world around him. He was unafraid to show “real life” in a way that was not always picturesque and conventionally “beautiful”.

Courbet’s paintings were an inspiration to many other painters, particularly the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec were all inspired by Gustave Courbet’s paintings, especially those depicting people. His landscape paintings were an inspiration to Claude Monet, Seurat, Cezanne and many other painters.

Born in Ornans (Doubs), into a prosperous farming family, which wanted him to study law, Courbet went to Paris in 1839, and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse. An independent spirit, he soon left, preferring to develop his own style by studying Spanish, Flemish and French painters and painting copies of their work.  His first works were an Odalisque, suggested by the writing of Victor Hugo, and a Lelia, illustrating George Sand, but he soon abandoned literary influences for the study of real life.  A trip to the Netherlands in 1847 strengthened Courbet’s belief that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals, and the other Dutch masters had done.

Among his early works, he painted his own portrait with his dog, and “The Man with a Pipe”, both of which the Paris Salon jury rejected. However, the younger critics, the Neo-romantics and Realists, loudly sang his praises, and by 1849 Courbet was becoming well known, producing such pictures as “After Dinner at Ornans” (for which the Salon awarded him a medal) and “The Valley of the Loire”.

One of Courbet's most important works is the “Burial at Ornans”, a huge canvas (3.1 by 6.6 meters) recording an event which he witnessed in September 1848. Courbet’s painting of the funeral of his grand uncle became the first masterpiece in the Realist style. People who had attended the funeral were used as models for the painting. Courbet said that he “painted the very people who had been present at the interment, all the townspeople”, rather than models as other artists were doing. The result is a realistic presentation of them, and of life, in Ornans. The painting caused a fuss with critics and the public. Eventually the public grew more interested in the new Realist approach, and the lavish, decadent fantasy of Romanticism lost popularity. The artist well understood the importance of this painting; as Courbet said: “The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism”.

Towards the end of the 1860s, Courbet painted a series of increasingly erotic works such as “Femme nue couchee”. This culminated in “The Origin of the World” (1866), depicting female genitalia, and “Sleep” (1866), featuring two naked women in bed. While banned from public display, these works only served to increase his notoriety.  On 14 April 1870, Courbet established a “Federation of Artists” for the free and uncensored expansion of art. The group'’ members included Andre Gill, Honore Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugene Pottier, Jules Dalou, and Edouard Manet.

His refusal of the cross of the Legion of Honour offered to him by Napoleon III made him immensely popular with those who opposed the current regime, and in 1871 under the revolutionary Paris Commune he was placed in charge of all the Paris art museums and saved them from looting mobs. For his insistence in executing the Communal decree for the destruction of the Vendome Column, he was designated as responsible for the act and accordingly sentenced on 2 September 1871 by a Versailles court martial to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs.

Courbet died, age 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking on 31 December 1877. Illustrated above is his “Self-portrait” (The Desperate Man), painted ca 1843–1845. This is influenced by a host of renaissance and Flemish self-portraits, but the artist gives himself an intense confronting expression, whose vehemence and passion challenge the viewer. This is indeed the portrait of an artist as a desperate man who will not be stopped by convention and will provoke public mores and tradition without any compunction.

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