Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet was a prominent French painter, master of portrait, landscape and genre scenes, was one of the first masters to introduce ideas of realism in European art.

Early years

Gustave Courbet was born in a family of a wealthy farmer. First lessons of painting he took in Ornans, where he was taught by a student of neoclassicist Baud, and later (since 1837) at the studio in Besançon. In 1839 Gustave persuaded his father to let him move to Paris. There he mastered drawing from nature in the private studios of Steuben and Suisse for a short period, working hardly, from dawn to dusk. But the main “school” for the artist was Louvre. Courbet was inspired with Spanish painting – Velazquez, Ribera, Zurbaran. Visiting his home-place he was passionately making some landscapes, defined by pastose dabs of paint the author used to “sculpt” volumes. Along with compositions on religious and literary subjects (“Lot and His Daughters”, 1841) he creates some portraits, mainly self-portraits.

Gustave depicted features of a beautiful face with relish, even slightly idealizing his own appearance: “Self-Portrait with a Black Dog” (1841), “The Wounded Man” (1844), “The Happy Lovers” (1844), “The Man with a Pipe” (1846). It were self-portraits that draw the public’s attention to Courbet at the Paris Salon in 1849.

Origin of realism

In 1846 Gustave Courbet visited Holland. He was largely impressed by works of Hals and Rembrandt, his “Night watch” particularly. That prompted the painter to develop realistic tendencies. His aim, as Courbet himself claimed, was to “translate the customs, ideas, and appearance of my epoch as I see them”. He believed art had to criticize and correct vices of the society. Romanticists were usually attracted by unordinary type of things and heroes, who were able to stand out in the crowd and challenge it; they often used to travel around exotic countries and penetrated into their culture and history in search of new themes. However, Courbet’s personages were, on the contrary, simple people, busy with their routine chores.

Realists manifested a simple truth that life in all its fullness (with all its heroic and trite or unsightly sides) is worth being an object of art. This notion added an uplifted spirit to Courbet’s canvases and importance to his characters. Master created large-scale paintings with almost full-size figures: “After Dinner at Ornans” (1849), “Stone Breakers” (1849).

“A Burial at Ornans” (1849 – 1850) is a unique by its painting technique piece, notable for its liberate manner. It’s one of the most significant of the realistic works in the 19th cent., which captured life of French province in epic manner similar to grandiose mural art. A painting with funeral procession the artist interpreted as a sample of historical genre. Its realism was underlined by the fact that most of the numerous figures on it were painting from life.

Desire to reveal the magnitude and poetry of daily occurrence and nature of his surrounding led formation of monumentalism and certain pathos in Courbet’s works. Compositions of this period are defined by special boundedness, static tectonism of forms, compact placement of objects, soft, muted coloring.

Gustave Courbet managed to make both staunch supporters and not less staunch opponents; every of his new paintings provoked heated debates in press. Followers of realistic movement gathered around the master, however official artistic circles openly treated him with contempt. Despite the fact that Courbet’s art wasn’t fully understood in France, he could ascertained in its success abroad during his journeys to Antwerp, Munich and Frankfurt. Powerful European governors favored him and even honored with some high awards.

Things in France were quite different – Gustave’s “A Burial at Ornans” wasn’t even accepted to the Salon, dedicated to the International Exhibition of 1855. So he decided to arrange a separate pavilion “Realism” in the response to it, organized personal exhibition there and published catalogue with explanation of his artistic principles (“Manifesto of realism”).

Landscape painting

In 1850w – 1870s Gustave Courbet kept elaborating genre compositions, still life and landscapes (“Young Ladies of the Village”, 1851, “Bathers”, 1853, “Spring. Stags Fighting”, 1861 etc.). His enthusiasm about realistic manner finally resulted in a new artistic method – tonal painting. Using light he modeled volumes of things and bodies. He usually applied dark tints as imprimatur, gradually shifting to more luminous hues and finished with making the brightest highlight. Confident and vigorous brush strokes made all forms convincingly vivid.

Step-by-step the painter deviated from his restrained, sometimes even severe palette of 1840s – beginning of 1850s, making it brighter and enriching intensity and texture of brushstrokes during practicing plein air. Tangible concreteness, sensitive naturalness and accent on the role of color were typical for Courbet’s landscapes. The artists didn’t attempt to reach illusion but to represent the essence of the wave’s spirit – stern, uncontrolled by human and magnificent in its rage. A various coloring gamma of his seascapes (marines) changed depending on the lighting, yet the artist always underlined voluminosity and materiality of the image, filling it with air.

Genre paintings

The principle of social significance of art, stated in then-contemporary art criticism, was embodied in Courbet’s pieces “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” (or “The Meeting”, 1854), where the master painted himself meeting Alfred Bruyas, his patron and supporter, and “Atelier” (“The Painter’s studio”, 1855), showing Gustave in the surrounding of allegorical representations of various influences on Courbet’s artistic life and his friends. As art-historian Richard Muther wrote, “As a sound, full-blooded being Courbet painted, as a man drinks, digests, and talks, with an activity that knows no exertion, a force that knows no weariness”.

Erotic painting

As the founder of Realism, Gustave Courbet couldn’t go past the phenomenon of photography that emerged in the middle of the 19th cent. He didn’t only collected pictures of nudes, but actively used them in his work. It’s known that the artists referred to the photos of Julien Vallou de Villeneuve for depicting the figure of Nature on his “Atelier” and for other pieces, for which he searched inspiration in the images of erotic kind.

His naturalism provoked scandals during whole his life. In his review on one of Gustave’s exhibitions Alexandre Dumas, fils. wrote: “From what fabulous meeting of a slug with a peacock, from what genital antitheses, from what fatty oozings can have come this thing called M. Gustave Courbet? Under what gardener’s cloche, with the help of what manure, as a result of what mixture of wine, beer, corrosive mucus and flatulent swellings can have grown this sonorous and hairy pumpkin, this aesthetic belly, this imbecilic and impotent incarnation of the Self?”

Talking about female nude in Courbet’s legacy, “The Bathers” are believed to be its . brightest sample. This canvas caused a true tumult at the Salon of 1853. Public heaped ridicule on it for a massive figure of a woman, walking out of water – it was a total opposition to the odalisques of neoclassicist Ingres and oriental models of romaniticist Delacroix. Light coloring also differed the painting from previous creations of the author.

“The Bathers” was an overt action against not simply old subjects, but against all prior conceptions and perception of nature in painting. Napoleon III was so angered with it that whacked the canvas with the riding crop. Remembering her husband had admired the Percheron horses on another painting the Empress Eugenie asked: “Is she a Percheron too?”

“The Bathers” broke up several rules of “bon ton”. First of all, the heroines were simple woman and only mythological personalities had been shown nude before. Secondly, the public thought their poses to be blasphemous, as they weren’t motivated by any plot and risen hand was typical for pictures of Maria Magdalena seeing resurrected Jesus. Besides, Courbet’s models were far from having classical proportions, so even one critic marked that “His bather is so monstrously ugly that she would spoil a crocodile’s appetite”. Finally, many viewers were dissatisfied with dirty drapery on the women’s hips and their dirty feet. Specialists draw parallel between “The Bathers” and “Death of the Virgon” of Caravaggio, which had caused analogic shock.

Support of the Commune and Exile

The master travelled a lot and visited Germany, Austria, Britain. During the period of Paris Commune Gustave Courbet was a delegate of Fine Arts, member of the Commission on Education and founder of Federation Artists. After the fall of the Commune the government of the Third Republic he was brought before the court for the destruction of the Vendôme Column and finally imprisoned. After being free from restraint in 1873 Courbet had to appear before the court again and was condemned to pay a huge penalty – these money were supposed to be used for reconstruction of the Column. The painter was forced to leave the country for Switzerland and died in the exile.