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GUSTAVE COURBET

Gustave Courbet {koor-bay'}, b. June 10, 1819, d. Dec. 31, 1877, was the foremost realist painter (see realism, art) of mid-19th-century France. A member of an affluent landowning family, Courbet remained close to his rural origins and frequently returned to his birthplace, Ornans, in search of subjects.

Proudhon and His Children

"Proudhon and His Children"
by Gustave Courbet
Erich Lessing/
Art Resource, New York

From 1837 he studied at the Royal College in Besançon, and when sent to Paris in 1840 to study law he defied his father's wishes and pursued a career as an artist. During the 1840s, Courbet produced many canvases in a typically romantic style, including figures of sleeping girls and some complacent self-portraits. In 1844 he exhibited Self-Portrait with a Black Dog (1842; Museum of the Petit Palais, Paris) at the Paris Salon. Courbet's maturing as an artist coincided with the Revolution of 1848; in After Dinner in Ornans (1848-49; Palace of Fine Arts, Lille), exhibited at the Salon of 1849, Courbet painted an intimate genre scene (see genre painting) on the monumental scale formerly reserved for paintings of historical and mythological subjects.

Cliffs at Etretat After a Storm

"Cliffs at Etretat After a Storm"
by Gustave Courbet
Print © Shorewood Fine Art

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This painting was followed rapidly by other major works, such as The Burial at Ornans (1849-50; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and The Stone Breakers (1850; destroyed), notable for their large scale and volumetric solidity.

During the 1850s and '60s, Courbet was the archetypical bohemian artist of radical political beliefs. Dissatisfied with his treatment by art juries, Courbet took the revolutionary step of constructing pavilions to show his work at his own expense during the world's fairs of 1855 and 1867. Although his massive The Artist's Studio (1855; Louvre, Paris) was not well received, the popularity of his smaller landscapes, hunting scenes, still lifes, and nudes made him financially secure in the 1860s.

The Artist's Studio

"The Artist's Studio"
by Gustave Courbet
Giraudon/Art Resource, New York

Courbet's republican sympathies led to his involvement in the Paris Commune of 1871 and to his imprisonment following the collapse of the revolutionary government. Accused of complicity in the destruction of the Vendôme column, a Paris monument, Courbet was ordered to pay a huge fine for its reconstruction; he fled to Switzerland in 1873.

Courbet was perhaps the first painter of genre subjects to become the acknowledged leader of a major school. By giving everyday scenes a monumental treatment, he helped to break down the traditional hierarchy of subject matter, giving an increased emphasis to purely formal values in painting. His example had a great influence on the impressionists (see impressionism) and, through them, on 20th-century art.


Donald Rosenthal, Curator of Collections, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997.
Bibliography: T.J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1978); Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin, Courbet Reconsidered (1988); Robert Fernier, Courbet: The Complete Paintings, 2 vols. (1988); Michael Fried, Courbet's Realism (1990); Klaus Herding, Courbet, trans. by John Gabriel (1991); Gerstle Mack, Gustave Courbet (1951; repr. 1989).
Images: "Proudhon and His Children" (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York); "Cliffs at Etretat After a Storm" (Print Copyright: Shorewood Fine Art); "The Artist's Studio" (Giraudon/Art Resource, New York).
Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: DiscoverFrance.net Copyrights.]

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