COURBET, GUSTAVE (1819–1877), French painter.
Born in Ornans, a small village in the Jura Mountains of France, Jean Desiré Gustave Courbet took his first drawing lessons at the Collège Royal de Besançon. At age twenty, he moved to Paris, where he studied briefly with the successful portraitist Charles de Steuben (1788–1856). Then, deciding to pursue his art studies independently, he copied old-master paintings in the Louvre and drew after live models in an open studio. In 1842 he started to submit works to the annual Paris Salon but although he submitted two works every year for the next six years, the jury accepted only three and none brought him critical acclaim.
Courbet's breakthrough as an artist had much to do with the Revolution of 1848, which spelled the end, if only temporarily, to the rigid jury system of the Salon. To the unjuried Salon of that year, he sent no fewer than ten works. More important for his future, however, was the 1849 Salon, juried by a committee democratically elected by all artists, where he exhibited six paintings and received a medal. This meant that henceforth he was hors concours: his works no longer had to pass by the jury to be admitted. This new status allowed him to make an important statement at the combined Salon of 1850/51, where he exhibited nine paintings, including the Stonebreakers and the Burial at Ornans, two paintings that received much critical attention. Both works were related to the ideology and the events of the Revolution and the short-lived Second Republic that followed it (1848–1851). The first, showing two men engaged in the meanest form of contemporary labor—the manual breaking of fieldstones to create gravel for roads—dealt with poverty, a hotbutton issue during the Second Republic. The second, a monumental group portrait of rural bourgeois and well-to-do peasants, alluded to the new sense of civic equality that had been created by the introduction, in 1848, of universal suffrage. On an artistic level, it also called into question the traditional hierarchy of genres. Courbet had painted an ordinary scene of contemporary life on a canvas the size of a monumental history painting. Maintaining that the Burial, in fact, was a history painting, he claimed that, contrary to traditional history paintings, which reimagined the past for the public of the present, his work offered an accurate record of the present for the viewers of the future. This new concept of history painting was an important aspect of Courbet's artistic program, which he referred to as realism.
Courbet continued to send several controversial works to the Salons of the next few years. These paintings included Young Ladies of the Village (1852), The Bathers (1853), and the Grain Sifters (1855). Although these works often got negative press, the sheer amount of publicity made Courbet exceedingly well known in Paris and eventually brought him some patrons. The eccentric collector Alfred Bruyas (1821–1876) bought Courbet's notorious Bathers in 1853 and commissioned the artist to paint his portrait. Encouraged by this commercial success, Courbet painted a huge selfreferential painting for the art exhibition to be held at the International Exhibition of 1855: The Atelier
of the Artist or Real Allegory of Seven Years of My Artistic Life. When the organizing committee of that exhibition refused to hang the work, Courbet managed to organize a private exhibition, held in a specially built pavilion (Le Pavillon du Réalisme) on the very grounds of the fair. This was a revolutionary step that would set an example for the next generation of French artists, especially Édouard Manet (1832–1883) and the impressionists.
His reputation made, Courbet, after 1855, began to concentrate on sales. As landscape paintings were especially salable at the time, he began to specialize in this genre, which he had practiced since the beginning of his career but on a modest scale. He now began to paint larger landscapes, for the most part representing the rugged scenery of the Jura Mountains. Some of these he exhibited at the Salon, and their success brought him numerous commissions from dealers and collectors for copies, replicas, or smaller versions. Along with landscapes, he also painted portraits and produced floral still lifes, another popular genre among collectors.
Always a fierce opponent of the Second Empire, Courbet applauded Napoleon III's (1808–1873) defeat by the Prussians in the Battle of Sedan in 1870. In 1871 Courbet joined the Paris Commune and played an important role in the demolition of the Vendôme Column, that much-hated French imperialist monument. For his role in the Commune he spent six months in prison. The demolition of the Vendôme Column cost him more dearly. Threatened with the sequestration of all his possessions in 1873, he went into exile in Switzerland to save at least some of his assets. There he died, severely alcoholic, in 1877.
Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate, ed. and trans. Letters of Gustave Courbet. Chicago, 1992.
Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture. Princeton, N.J., forthcoming.
Faunce, Sarah, and Linda Nochlin. Courbet Reconsidered. Brooklyn, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn., 1988.
Fried, Michael. Courbet's Realism. Chicago, 1990.
Nochlin, Linda. Gustave Courbet: A Study of Style and Society. New York, 1976.
Rubin, James H. Courbet. London, 1997.
http://www.metmuseum.org; http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk; http://www.nga.gov