Courbet was one of the most influential artists and leader of the XIX century realist movement whose paintings challenged and shocked contemporary art critics and French society. Although widely considered as the founder of Realism, Courbet accepted this title only partly as some of his paintings are a mixture of various genres and styles and reflect elements of realistic, abstract, modern, or postmodern painting (Smith). Gustave Courbet and Realism
Jean Desire Gustave Courbet was born June 10, 1819, in a prosperous farmer’s family in Ornans, a provincial town in Eastern France. His family had lived there for many generations and Courbet’s strong loyalty to the region where he grew up was later reflected in his painting. He was simultaneously bright and rebellious at school and showed an early interest in art. Courbet trained under several minor painters for some time and then, in 1839, he finally settled in Paris where he began to study art by copying masterpieces in the Louvre (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave; Smith).
Courbet always wanted to exhibit at the Salon, an important annual government-run art show to which French artists seeking recognition had to submit their paintings. At that time, the Salon was known for its resistance to new artistic trends and artists but since it was the only public art show in Paris Courbet, despite his dislike for academy art, tried to exhibit there, too. Between 1841 and 1847 he submitted twenty-five various paintings – landscapes, portraits, religious pictures, hunting scenes – and only three of them were chosen but did not create much of an impact (100 Great Artists.
Courbet Gustave). In spite of this failure, Courbet became involved with a certain radical group of artists, writers, and critics (among which were Beaudelaire and Proudhon) who regularly met in the Brasserie Andler, a bar situated not far away from his studio. The group jokingly named it the Temple of Realism because it was there that they developed the basic principles of the new artistic “Page # 2” movement whose main idea was that art and literature should not be based only on romantic aspects of life but on realism.
In what concerned art, painters such as Courbet rebelled against the traditional religious, mythological, and historical subjects that prevailed in pictures exhibited at the Salon at that time, and wanted to replace them with paintings that depicted unidealized realities of modern life (Gustave Courbet and Realism). After the 1848 revolution in France during which thousands of people were slaughtered at the barricades, Courbet managed to exhibit ten of his paintings at the 1849 Salon due to the fact that the selection committee did not temporarily function at that time.
The artist was awarded a gold medal for one of these works, After Dinner at Ornans (1848-1849). This breakthrough was very important for the artist as it now exempted him from the selection process (Gustave Courbet and Realism; 100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave). Encouraged, Courbet wanted to repeat this success and submitted to the Salon one of his greatest masterpieces, Burial at Ornans (1849-1850), an enormous scene (21 feet by 10 feet) of life of his native region.
However, this time his painting was immediately hailed as outrageous by contemporary French art critics who mocked it and claimed that it was “too big and the figures were too ugly”. If for art critics the awkward figures of the Ornans townspeople were a joke, for the authorities such a controversial painting depicting the peasantry represented serious concern about the possibility of a second French revolution (Gustave Courbet and Realism; 100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave). The most significant clash between Courbet and the French authorities occurred in 1855.
The artist was invited to produce a painting for the Paris World’s Fair but the organizers wanted to see the sketch of it first. Courbet considered it a form of censorship and refused to participate in the show. He decided instead to stage his own exhibition that was advertised under the heading Realism. His painting The Painter’s Studio (1855) was central to this show. As many art critics point out, this is more a symbolist than realist painting. Although Courbet’s exhibition was a “Page # 3”
relative failure, it set a precedent for the next generations of artists who started to organize independent exhibitions on their own (Gustave Courbet and Realism; 100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave). After the deposition of Napoleon II, Courbet took an active part in the popular uprising during the days of the Paris Commune (1870-1871). Head of the Arts Commission in the revolutionary government, Courbet was involved in the destruction of the Vendome Column that was then viewed by many as a symbol of French imperialism and militarism.
After the Commune was defeated and order was restored, Courbet was arrested and imprisoned by the new government. Later he was also fined 300,000 francs to pay for the reconstruction of the Column, but, aware that he could never pay such a sum, he chose to flee to Switzerland in 1873. He settled in La Tour de Peilz and died there four years later (Gustave Courbet and Realism; 100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave).
Courbet’s key works also include Stonebreakers (1850), The Chateau d’Ornans (around 1850), Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854), The Winnowers (1855), The Stream of the Puits-Noir (1855), Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (1856-1857), The Valley of Ornans (1858), Reclining Nude (1862), Sleep (1866), Origin of the World, and The Kill (1867) (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave; Smith). Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine In mid XIX century France, artists were expected to produce paintings according to a strict educational and moral code.
They were supposed to tackle subjects from ancient mythology or history and their figures were expected to be idealized and noble. Courbet challenged the existing rules in many ways (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave). He chose to depict the themes that the critics and the public considered trivial and unworthy. Often painted on a huge scale, these themes were meant to emphasize their great significance. Instead of depicting beautiful figures like classical statues, Courbet painted his human figures as he “Page # 4”
saw them in real life and refused to idealize his subjects. Some critics even believed that Courbet deliberately sought out ugliness in order to shock people but not to be realistic (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave). Painted during 1856-1857, Courbet’s drowsy masterpiece Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine, 96. 5 x 130 cm, oil on canvas, was last exhibited in New York nearly twenty years ago. As it is known, after 1855 the artist’s palette became lighter to a certain extent and his paintings less somber.
But Courbet did not lose his ability to defy or shock the public and continued to depict life and people as he saw them without romanticisation and adornments (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave; Smith). At the 1857 Salon, the painting Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine aroused a lot of controversy particularly due to its underlying, as some critics believed, immoral features. In the foreground, the artist beautifully painted the scene of two young ladies resting in a public place by the river Seine where respectable city dwellers usually went for walks with their families.
What also upset or even disappointed the contemporary public was the fact that the young women were not the upper class ladies of pictures of that time but just two unknown women from nowhere (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave; Smith). Like a pile of apparently boneless female flesh with a look of moral lassitude, the young ladies are both reclining on the grassy bank and one of them decided to use her dress as a pillow. For the XIX century public, these young women’s behavior was shocking and considered unacceptable. Besides, Courbet’s critics did not understand clearly what the ladies’ motives and intentions were.
The girls’ overt eroticism made some believe they were prostitutes provocatively attracting the attention of potential clients, as particularly suggests the nearest girl’s gaze at the viewer (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave). Lack of energy or any motion, total lassitude, moral rather than physical, on the young women’s faces seem to be the main impression that the painter wanted to convene to the audience. “Page # 5” The lady that is dressed in beige is looking nonchalantly into the distance as if she lost interest of the things of this world and is completely absorbed in her thoughts.
This effect of total lassitude seems to be even more exacerbated by the second lady who is closer to the viewer. The apathy that can be read on her beautiful face is obvious. But there is something more about it than that. Every spectator that happens to stand in front of the lady in white can make an eye-to-eye contact with her and feel how deep her fatigue is. And what is also important is that both women do not care at all about what is going on around them or what the spectators might think of them. The main idea about the painting seems to be that they are tired of and not enthusiastic about the world around them.
Was Courbet simply trying to depict as accurately as possible the young ladies’ lassitude when he was painting this picture? Or by describing the women’s sadness and moral lassitude did he want to convey his own lassitude of the world in which he lived? We never know it for sure, but his painting does leave a lasting impression on the audience. As regards colors and light in the painting, Courbet seems to have distributed light and dark colors according to the importance of the figures and objects they refer to.
The young lady in white is central figure to the picture and, thus, the lightest who attracts attention most of all. The next figure is the lady in beige who conveys the general mood of the painting to a lesser extent than the first lady and is a transition between the white mass in the foreground and the darker trees in the background. The unclear and suspicious air of Courbet’s painting inspired some of the critics to look for hidden symbolic meanings. Some, for example, went so far as to see in the plucked blooms the symbols of the young ladies’ lost virginity.
Without a doubt, Courbet must have been aware that like many other of his works this painting would upset the public and critics. But the artist is unlikely to have intended any symbolism in his work or have been concerned about any moral implications of the scene. He was probably interested most of all in the idea of depicting a scene of “Page # 6” contemporary life and could be thus regarded as a precursor of the impressionist movement in art (100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave).
1. Gustave Courbet and Realism. Retrieved March 5, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www. redflag. org. uk/frontline/five/05courbet. html 2. 100 Great Artists. Courbet Gustave. Retrieved March 5, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www. brownreference. com/php/PDFS/AN_Title_Information/154—Sample_Spreads. pdf 3. Smith, R. (2008, February 29). Seductive Rebel Who kept It Real. New York Times on the Web. Retrieved March 5, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www. nytimes. com/2008/02/29/arts/design/29cour. html? pagewanted=1&ei=5088&en=3fdedbb3714ac828&ex=1361941200&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
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