"I paint like God Himself."
Creating a split into the Romantic
style, Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, became the founder of Realism. He
was born in eastern French town of Ornans. His father was the farmer of a vineyard. Young Courbet loved the countryside and
happily identified himself as a wealthy bourgeoisie individual. He was always interested in painting and drawing and took
lessons from a former student of Jacques Louis David, who taught him to work in his sketchbook.
Courbet left the country for Paris in 1839, where his family
wanted him to study law. In Paris, he his only ambition was as an artist and loved the escape it created for him. "Painting
is an essentially concrete art and can consist only of the representation of things both real and existing."
Courbet began his formal art training at the age of fourteen, taking lessons from Pere Baud, who
studied under the more known, Antoine-Jean Gros. He refused to go to a university because
he hated the art they were teaching. Soon he was taking lessons from Charles-Antoine Flajoulot.
Quickly he had to completely change his way of life: converting from that upper middle class to a Bohemian lifestyle. Moving
around for the sake of study, he moved back to Paris, where he studied under Charles von Steuben.
This training exposed him to the wonders found in the Louvre and an admiration for the work of Rembrandt van Rijn. While studying he was trying to nudge his way into the Salon. His art training was not ideal in his mind and he questioned
the apprentice system throughout his life. "I, who believe that every artist should be his own teacher,
cannot dream of setting myself up as a professor…For each artist, [art is] nothing but the talent issuing from his own
inspiration and his own studies of tradition." Over a six year stretch, only three of twenty-five works went into the
Salon and selling basically nothing in his first decade of working.
It was during this decade of nothingness, that he met Virginia
Binet. She would become infatuated with the handsome Courbet and had his son in 1847. She was not the only one that was into
Courbet. An art dealer from Holland wanted to commission a painting. He knew that one prominent sale could result in a domino
affect that could be a huge break through the artist. It was then it happened. Courbet fell into a leading role at the Brasserie
Andler, or Temple of Realism, a café where the Realistic movement would be promoted and were Realists would meet to exchange
ideas. Strangely, he took on a persona of a foolish peasant at the Brasserie Andler. Why? He wanted to separate himself from
the middle class of Paris so that he might be accepted into the high class French society. That is until the Republicans took
control of the government and riots broke out in protest in 1848. That same year, Courbet won the gold medal at the Salon.
This is crucial because that exempted him from the selection process in future Salons.
Times were changing for Courbet. Virginia Binet left him in 1850. But truely, he was not all that
affected by the break up, on an emotional level. Professionally, he was becoming popular outside of Paris, showing throughout
Europe. One of his most important works of that time was The Stone Breakers. As with all of his works, he began the work by underpainting the whole canvas in a dark umber brown. The subject
that evolved was focused on the blunt depiction of the common man in his daily routine, repairing a road.
I would compare the concept to Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers: we are given the everyday so we can truly see the everyday. Life and nature were to be depicted as they
are, in the mind of Courbet. The Stone Breakers was a reflection onto the people of France,
and thus became a political statement about France. This, of course upset many people that
lashed out against the work calling it everything from inartistic to socialistic. But, this artwork was also a statement about
art: a slap in the face to the Romantic formula of art making. Without the glitz that most artists were placing in the art,
he was showing the true France and projected himself further to the top of the Realist movement. Sadly, in 1945, this work
was a casualty of World War II, after the museum in Dresden, Germany was destroyed.
1851. Oil on Canvas. 65 X 94 inches. destroyed in war.
Then in 1855, Courbet executed his allegotical insight into his own studio with
the Painter's Studio. The work contained the subtitle: A True Allegory Concerning Seven Years of My Artistic
Life. This monumental shows us Courbet‘s studio, dual lives, and a sense of his artistic ideals. The
work was attacked by academic painters. Realism was the enemy to the art superiority, so in response to this Courbet takes
the work away from the academics and gives it to the people directly in a private “Pavilion of Realism” show at
the 1855 Paris World’s Fair. For a small admission fee, one could see the Realist Manifesto and forty artworks, crowned
by The Painter’s Studio. It was a huge success for him. Within the work, we see Courbet at the center. "It is the moral and physical history of my studio…I am in the middle, painting amidst the participants,
that is to say, the friends, workers, art lovers." He works with a little boy, his dog, and his nude female
model. These are symbols. He loved the youth of art, as opposed to the nasty academics Loyalty was a great asset in his mind,
and it is represented via the dog. And the model is nature. See the painting? What is it of? Nature. The female model is a
symbol of ideal harmony with nature. Again we see the connection between life and nature. The naked truth from the hand of
Courbet. To the left we see the common people of poverty in Paris. Too the right, there are his new friends from the high
society of Paris. His studio is the center of life in Paris where he is at the command: "I am the proudest
and most arrogant man in France."
1855. Oil on Canvas. 141.3 X 245.4 inches. destroyed.
But all things that go up, must also go down. After the French woopin' in the Franco-Prusian
War, governmental control of Paris became locally ruled for a two month span. This Paris Commune, as the government
was known, named Courbet as the President of a committee that was set up preserve art from the looting mobs. Through this
role he was directly involved in the demolition of Vendôme Column, a huge column built by Napoléon Bonaparte to commemorate
one of his greatest victories (at the Battle of Austerlitz) that was modeled after the famed Trajan's Column in Rome, Italy.
It was knocked down, but preserved, on May 8, 1871. When French leader Adolphe Thiers'
power was restored in Paris, he was quite angery about this. Bacause Courbet was incarge of the art and its removal, on September
2 (days more than four months after the columns being placed into storage) he was sentenced by a Versailles court to
six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs. He served some time in the Sainte-Pelagie but was set free due
to illness. The following years his son died. When new president, Patrice de Mac-Mahon, wanted to resurrect the monument in 1873 (complete with a
new statue of Napoléon on top), he ordered Courbet to pay the expenses. The cost of the project was over 300,000 francs, so
the government set up a payment plan over a thirty-three year period of time. Courbet moved to Vevey, Switzerland so he could
avoid bankruptcy. Angery and isolated, when not intoxicated, he was painting. However, with failing kidneys and liver
disease, his body was worn out and he died one day before the installment on the Column was due. With no claim for his body in France, he was buried in Switzerland. In 1919, his remains were transported to their
new and final resting place in Ornans, France.