Gustave Courbet - Biography and Legacy
Ornans, Doubs, France
La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland
Biography of Gustave Courbet
Born in the summer of 1819 in the small rural town of Ornans, near the French Alps, Courbet grew up in a picturesque environment with a supportive family. He enjoyed vigorous physical activities, like swimming with his sisters in the Loue River and playing in the family's pastures and vineyards. At school Courbet relished being the center of attention and entertaining his classmates with his wit and charm.
Though Courbet's general education was solid, his formal art training was mediocre. At fourteen he took lessons from a minor Neoclassical painter, which likely gave him a foundation to react against. Through the prodding of his father he studied pre-law at a local college, but he was miserable until a drawing professor at the college invited him to take painting lessons in a home studio. This gave him further confidence in his artistic potential and convinced him to pursue his passion.
At 21, Courbet moved to Paris. He avoided study in the studios of any of the period's many academic celebrities, nor did he enroll in the top tier academic system for the arts in Paris, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Instead he took a few lessons from lesser-known teachers, but mostly taught himself by copying paintings by Caravaggio, Rubens and others in the Louvre. On a visit to Holland he was also able to copy the paintings of Rembrandt and Velazquez. While Academy students waited up to a year to pick up a brush (as drawing classes came first), Courbet made his own rigorous schedule and jumped headlong into painting. He often replicated a classical painting again and again to uncover its secrets. He rounded out his independent study by painting from nature and paid models. When visiting home at Ornans, he painted friends and family.
Courbet also threw himself into his personal vision of Realism which rejected any classical treatment or rhetoric. Although this was quite radical at the time, he still focused on being selected for the official French Salons. But, during his first seven years in Paris only three of his 25 submissions were accepted.
Courbet painted consistently in a Realist mode during his time in Paris. For example, he was quick to decline a request to paint angels for a church - remarking, "Show me an angel and I will paint one." Instead he painted regular folk in all their glorious ordinariness, and it was not a surprise when, in 1848, Courbet's growing group of influential friends appointed him leader of the Realist movement in Paris. The poet Charles Baudelaire, and the outspoken anarchist Pierre Proudhon, were both part of this group of intellectuals that pushed each other to challenge the norms of the day.
Also in 1848, under a newly formed Republic, the Paris Salon became jury-free for one year. This allowed Courbet's submission of ten paintings to win automatic acceptance, where they made a great impression, and helped the painter win a gold medal the following year. Under Academy rules, the gold medal gave Courbet immunity against future selection committees, a bypass that he enjoyed until 1857, when this rule was changed. Without this protection, Burial at Ornans (1849), amongst other important paintings, probably would have been rejected. This huge confrontational painting was Courbet's most audacious display of rural Realism. The grand scale at which he depicted the ordinary people attracted a firestorm of rebuke, with many conservative critics uncomfortable with the picture's implicit support for democratic politics.
Ironically, shortly after the debut of Burial at Ornans, the French government reverted to an authoritarian Empire under Napoleon III. Courbet remained staunchly opposed to his rule, and in time the Emperor would also have cause to express distaste at Courbet's nudes. In 1853, Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie made the most memorable gestures of disapproval: the story goes that while perusing the Paris Salon, Eugenie made a remark of appreciation of Rosa Bonheur's painting, The Horse Fair, which exhibited enormous workhorses from a rear view. Shortly thereafter, standing in front of Courbet's painting of The Bathers (1853), that features two robust farm women bathing in a stream, she remarked that Courbet's models bore a resemblance to the bulky Bonheur horses - then, supposedly, the Emperor struck the canvas with the nude with his riding crop.
Two years later, when three of the most important of the fourteen canvases Courbet submitted to the Paris 1855 World Exposition jury were rejected, the artist invented a way of doing business that became just as shocking and innovative as his paintings. He defiantly made his own pavilion outside the grounds under the banner "Realism", and displayed forty paintings from his 15-year working period.
During the 1860s Courbet focused on erotic nudes, hunting scenes, landscapes, and seascapes. In this work he further subverted Academic Classicism in ways that promoted his new vision and inspired other modernists. For instance, his late series of seascapes pointed the way for the Impressionists. Courbet's water is raw and tangible where thick paint on a surface speaks almost as forcefully as the illusion of water itself.
Courbet's nudes from this decade challenged the norms of his day and in some cases remain confrontational even to the present day. The most notorious, Origin of the World (1866), displays a woman's lower torso and open thighs. The classical artifice is stripped away and the viewer is forced to focus on the most intimate view of female anatomy; Courbet directs the viewer exactly where to look and implies that looking at such pictorial reality should be acceptable. This frank treatment of the nude foreshadowed the raw eroticism of some early-20th-century painters such as Egon Schiele.
For most of his career, Courbet was not regarded well by the French Academy and other state institutions. But in the year 1870 has was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the greatest French order of merit, which Courbet proceeded to turn down. In typically rebellious, Courbet fashion, he crafted an open letter where he stated that "Honor is neither in a title nor in a ribbon, it is in actions and the motivations for those actions. Respect for oneself and for one's ideas constitutes the greater part of it. I do myself honour by staying true to my lifelong principles.."
Courbet never married often claiming his art didn't allow him the time to settle down. In 1872 he did propose to a very young woman, declaring in a letter to her that, were she to accept, she would be envied across France, and even "be reborn three times without ever coming across a position like this one". Yet, the woman refused - Courbet remained a life-long bachelor.
Final Years and Death
When the French Empire was finally crushed in the Franco-Prussian war, Courbet was elected chairman of the Republican Arts Commission under the short-lived Paris Commune. Under his watch the Place Vendôme Column, which Napoleon I had created from the bronze of enemy cannons, was destroyed. Courbet's precise role in the column's destruction is uncertain, and it is possible that he intended only to move it. Nevertheless, the column's undoing led to his own. When the new Commune quickly failed, Courbet was sent to prison in 1871 for six months, spending the later part of the sentence in a clinic when he became sick. This tragedy segued into another when in 1873 he was ordered to personally pay 300,000 francs for the erection of a new Vendôme Column. Facing this impossible bill, he went into a self-imposed exile in Switzerland. He did continue to paint, but never returned to France. He died of heavy drinking and liver disease in La Tour-de-Pails, Switzerland in 1877, at age 58. His remains are now in the Cemetery of Ornans.
The Legacy of Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet's democratic eye revolutionized Western Art. His new form of Realism paved the way for other Modern movements, such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Manet, Monet, Renoir, and others had direct contact with Courbet and were profoundly affected by the man and his paintings. Courbet's visceral paint application also opened a path for figure and landscape painters of the 20th century such as Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, Lucian Freud, the Bay Area Figurative Painters, and others.