In the late nineteenth century faith in science and technology reflected a growing sense that people could observe the facts of everyday life carefully, understand them, and use the understanding to control the world more successfully than ever before. The artists also closely observed contemporary life in their paintings. During the second half of the century their focus included the methods of science and the realities of urban life. The romanticism of the early-nineteenth-century culture – which had idealized love, religion, and the exotic – gave way to a gritty sense of realism.
Realists felt free to look modern life full in the face and both praise its successes and criticize its failings. Innovative painters turned to realistic depictions of life on their canvases. The French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77) who believed that the artist should “never permit the sentiment to overthrow logic” led the attack on the romantic art by painting sober senses of urban life and rural labor. Gustave Courbet is today known as a “realist” for his essentially unsentimental portrayal of life in the mid-nineteenth century. One of the most famous of his early works is his vast A burial at Ornans (fig. 1) of 1849.
Its acute description of this simple yet profound ceremony seems to have provoked very specific, sometimes vehement, responses in the years immediately after its unveiling, and as a result the realism was thought to be motivated by little more than socialist concerns. The negative reaction to this subject matter should not come as a surprise, as throughout the history of western art few artists had ever considered the plight and devoting of the peasant as a topic worthy of serious attention – other than for overtly sentimental or moralizing reasons .
But it would be misleading to view Courbet as principally a politically motivated painter; instead, his work asserts a very modern notion that an artist is first and foremost a social barometer of the age and context. Courbet’s painting technique is not easy to describe because of its variety and disregard for the academic rules governing composition. He often inserted his figures as if they were removable set pieces. In spite of this ‘collage’ technique, many of his pictures look as if they had been painted at a single sitting because of their unity of color.
They were in fact often produced very quickly. Courbet prided himself on being able to paint a picture in two hours as well as produce several versions of equal quality. On the other hand Courbet’s pictures frequently form a closed world: landscapes can give the impression of being locked away, and, though they are at close quarters, people may turn away from the viewer like in The Stone-breakers. Thus a stiff composition is often found in conjunction with a fluid use of color. The special quality of Courbet’s work is really achieved by means of color.
Courbet initially imitated 17th-century Dutch and Spanish painters (Rembrandt, Hals, Velazquez, Ribera) from whom he derived the use of black as the starting-point. He employed a dark ground throughout his life, but the treatment of surfaces changed. Courbet resorted more and more to using broad brushes: he rejected detailed academic painting. By working increasingly with a spatula and palette knife he gave color a special, substantial quality, which influenced van Gogh and Cezanne . In 1861 Courbet wrote: “An epoch can be reproduced only by its own artists.
I mean artists who have lived in it. I hold that the artists of the century are fundamentally incompetent to represent the things of a past or future century… It is in this sense that I deny the existence of an historical art applied to the past. ” This was, of course, an affront to the academic standards of Neo-Classicism, but it also was an artistic call to arms for expression tied directly to the events, traumas, and psychology of the age – art as a dynamic if sometimes uncertain voice within culture, rather than a decorative or didactic tool.
This opinion did not go over very well in critical circles, since most influential writers and “taste-makers” still viewed art as a tool for moral elevation and profound teaching, and consequently saw everyday events as simplistic and unworthy subject matter. As a result, Burial at Ornans was rejected at the Universal Exposition of 1855 . Courbet responded by setting up his own show in a tent next to the official exhibition. In the process, the always flamboyant Courbet sealed his reputation as a master of self-promotion, again a posture considered unworthy of an artist in earlier times, and a politically astute artist.
Some critics assert that a dramatically different view of art can alter the way in which the artist, and thus the viewer, comes to appreciate an artwork’s meaning . It is known that there is an important reciprocal relationship between contemporary ideas in other fields of human inquiry and those in the visual arts. If one attentively considers Courbet’s The stone Breakers (fig. 2) of 1849 one can understand that the relationship between form and content is no less important to Courbet, but his choice of conventions to accentuate his message is telling.
Though Courbet understood and even utilized a number of traditional compositional devices in his execution of work, the seemingly natural gestures of the figures give the impression of an authentic and perhaps more “natural” space. Rather than developing an architectural framework or other mathematically derived pictorial structure, Courbet’s painting enables the viewer to enter into the scene with few external or otherwise presumed considerations other that the labors of the two man.
As a result, one’s concentration is thrust upon these two solitary figures and their brute activity; if there is any heroism present, it must rest with the travails of the workers, and the elevation of the here and now. The two men’s tattered clothing and averted faces make them seem anonymous and therefore representative of many other workers. While there is dignity in their work, Courbet does not glorify either the stonebreakers or nature. The scene, like the men’s lives, is harsh. Painted only a year after the 1848 revolt in France, it speaks of an art for the masses and a creative process intimately linked to the stresses of the street.
This is what “realism” meant to Courbet. Courbet like other realistic artists depicted everyday life on large canvases, and thereby earned the wrath of those artists and critics who believed that only paintings of historical, mythological religious or exotic scenes should be considered great art. Figure 1 Courbet, Gustave A Burial at Ornans 1849-1850 Oil on canvas 10′ 3 1/2″ x 21′ 9″ (314 x 663 cm) Musee d’Orsay, Paris Figure 2 Courbet, Gustave The Stone Breakers 1849 Oil on canvas 10′ 3″ x 8′ 6″ (160 x 259 cm) Formerly Gemaeldegalerie, Dresden (Destroyed 1945) Bibliography Berger, K.
“Courbet in his Century”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, II (1943): pp. 19–40 Joseph C. Sloane “The Tradition of Figure Painting and Concepts of Modern Art in France from 1845 to 1870” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Sep. , 1948), pp. 1-29 Novotny, Fritz. Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1780 to 1880. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1960. Schapiro M. “Courbet and Popular Imagery. An Essay on Realism and Naivete”, Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes, IV (1941): pp. 164–91 Weir, David. Anarchy & Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.