Gustave Courbet

May 3, 2012 | | Comments Off on Gustave Courbet

The first artist in the series was a revolutionary in many different ways; he was involved in the 1848 revolution in France, the Paris Commune in 1871, helped found a radical new artistic movement and produced paintings that shocked contemporary French society. Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans in 1819, the son of a wealthy bourgeois farmer of peasant origin. It is possibly this ambivalent contradiction of family origins and present family status that made Courbet particularly aware of the deep class divisions that existed in rural France at that time. In 1839 he left to study art in Paris, probably unaware at this time of the great social upheavals that would befall that city over the next couple of decades. He became involved with a group of individuals who met in the Brasserie Andler. These included the poet Baudelaire, Proudhon, founder of anarchism and the author Champfleury. They named the Brasserie Andler the ‘Temple of Realism’ as it was here that they expounded their theories on art and literature, which they thought should be based on realism and not romantic notions of life. The Realist movement expounded the idea that art should rebel against the traditional historical, mythological and religious subjects in favour of unidealised scenes of modern life. At this time and for many years to come French artists submitted paintings to the Salon if they wished to have any kind of recognition. The Salon was France’s official government-run art exhibition, and was very resistant to new art and artists. As it was the only public exhibition in Paris even artists like Courbet who disliked academy art had to exhibit there. However, anyone outwith the mainstream found it very difficult to get their paintings shown and out of 25 sent by Courbet between 1841 and 1847 only 3 were chosen. All this was about to change however.


In 1848 the whole of Europe was ablaze with revolution. Even in Britain the Chartist movement was at its peak. Marx and Engels published the ‘Communist Manifesto’ in February that year. In France protesters forced the abdication of King Louis-Philippe. However, an attempt at setting up a Constituent Assembly to represent France’s poor failed amidst counter-revolution and the slaughter of thousands at the barricades. Eventually Napoleon III was elected president of the French Republic only to proclaim himself Emperor after a coup in 1851. During this period, Courbet not only provided Baudelaire with a drawing for the front page of his revolutionary magazine ‘Le Salut Public’ but he managed to have ten of his paintings exhibited at the Salon as there was no selection committee at this time. One of these After dinner at Ornans, won a gold medal, which meant that he was now exempt from the selection process. Fortuitously for Courbet and the Realist movement this could not have happened at a better time as a backlash against the Realists was about to break. In 1850 he produced the first of his great masterpieces, Burial at Ornans which he exhibited at the Salon. This painting shocked contemporary French critics who hated it, claming it was “too big and the figures were too ugly”. What was it about the panting that caused so much disdain? To start with is its size. It really is a huge painting, some 21 feet by 10 feet; the effect of seeing it for the first time is truly stunning. But paintings of this size were reserved for religious or mythological subjects, not a peasant funeral in rural France. Second is the composition; it contains almost forty figures, with the male and female figures separated according to the custom of that time. It is a sombre painting with the only bright colour provided by the clergymen’s vestments and by the headscarves of the women. The density of the people forces the viewer to concentrate on the figures, with the open grave only partly in view coming toward the viewer, who would have to be standing in it to get this viewpoint. What also offended the sensibilities of the observers was that this was not the romanticised ideal of peasant life that they were used to, and in these turbulent times they did not wish to be reminded of that reality. The faces of the peasants are worn with a lifetime of hard labour, grim and lined with grief. This is Realism at its most powerful, turning a commonplace event into an historical one. The next two paintings did not fare any better with the critics. In The Meeting, where Courbet meets his patron, he is depicted as an equal or even superior to his wealthy benefactor.


However, his next work The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of my Artistic and Moral Life, is probably his most political. In 1853 Courbet was asked to submit sketches for paintings to be viewed at the forthcoming World Exhibition. This was meant as an olive branch from the government but Courbet rejected it, opting instead to hold his own exhibition under the heading ‘Realism’. Central to this was The Painter’s Studio. Rather paradoxically for a realist painting there is a heavy element of symbolism within it. It is however, a disguised attack on the betrayers of the Republic. Another huge painting, it is set as the title suggests in Courbet’s studio, portraying Courbet himself, various friends of his and an assortment of ‘types’ in different poses and mode of dress. These ‘types’ turn out to be symbolic of other people; for example the ‘Poacher’ is in fact Napoleon III. They are also split into two groups those on the left who “live on death” and those on the right who “live on life”. Whilst most of the figures have been identified the precise meaning of the allegory has not been worked out. Courbet himself said, “it’s pretty mysterious. Good luck to anyone who can make it out”. After 1855 Coubert’s palette became lighter and his work less sombre; But he lost none of his ability to shock, or to produce paintings that reflected life as it was without adornments or romanticisation. Young ladies on the banks of the Seine for example is a beautifully painted picture of two young women resting after a stroll along the Seine, in many ways unremarkable as subject matter. However, the young ladies are not the dainty upper class women of paintings of that time but are two homely women one of whom has removed her dress and is in her petticoat lying on the ground and looking possibly at an observer (the viewer?) in a sensual manner. Courbet was not above painting of a very sexual nature and produced several such paintings for a Turkish patron. Alongside his painting of peasant and working-class life he also found time to collaborate in 1863 with Proudhon on a book entitled ‘Art and its Social Significance’. Courbet also painted his portrait after his death in 1865, as Proudhon would not sit for him whilst he was alive. In 1871 Courbet was elected chair of the republican Arts Commission and was made a member of the Commune.


In 1870 Napoleon III’s adventure against the Prussians ended in ignominy. In an attempt to defend France from the advancing German troops the government retreated to Paris; whereupon the Germans laid siege to it. In order to defend the city a National Guard was formed consisting of some 350,000 men. However the government of Adolphe Thiers, capitulated to the Germans. Part of the armistice was the disarming of the National Guard. Due to distrust of the government they refused and were involved in fighting with government troops. Thiers retreated to Versailles and in 1871 the people of Paris set up the Commune to defend the city. The Communards set about reorganising Paris along democratic socialist lines. Coubert, as head of the Arts Commission, was amongst those who destroyed the Vendôme Column, a monument to Napoleon I. Originally a symbol of the French revolution of 1789, it was now viewed as a symbol of French militarism and imperialism. After the defeat of the Commune and the massacre of thousands of those who had taken part in it, Courbet was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. Later the government fined him 300,000 francs to pay for the rebuilding of the Column. As he could not afford this vindictive fine he fled to Switzerland where he lived out the rest of his life, painting until his death in 1877. In 1919 his remains were returned to Ornans where he was interred in the local cemetery. Courbet’s influence is widespread, breaking the mould of established convention in many ways, allowing others to follow in his footsteps, most notably the Impressionists and in particular Manet who, rather than Courbet is considered the father of Impressionism. In summing up his view of what art is and what the artist should paint, I will finish with a quote from Courbet when he was asked to paint some angles on a painting for a church, ‘I have never seen angles. Show me an angle and I’ll paint one’.


Justin Sahs


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