A French painter who spearheaded the Realist Movement against Romantic paintings of his time, Gustave Courbet was a prominent name during the mid-nineteenth century. Courbet went to Paris from a province called Franche-Comté to study Law but decided against it and wished to pursue art. 

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Gustave Courbet©en.wikipedia.org

With the support of his parents, sponsoring his education, he studied both at the Collège Royal and the college of fine arts at Besançon. He started his career by honing the technical knowledge of paintings by replicating pieces of Spanish painters like Diego Velázquez and José de Ribera. 

When Courbet was 25, he completed his self-portrait titled, ‘Courbet with a black dog’, painted in 1842-44. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, it was the first painting to be accepted at the Salon, sponsored by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. It was an initiative by the French government to exhibit art to the general public. 

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Gustave Courbet-The Burial at Ornans The Stonebreakers_©www.gustave-courbet.com

In 1849, during his visit to his parents, back to the countryside, he was inspired and produced two of his greatest paintings of all time – Burial at Ornans and The Stonebreaker. These pictures have a more administered approach with pictures of not aristocrats, but humble peasants. 

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Gustave Courbet-The Stone Breakers ©thingsireadbyjordan.wordpress.com
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Gustave Courbet-The Artist’s studio ©khanacademy.org

Courbet’s initial style of painting which consisted of vivid figures and unconventional approach was criticised by many, for example, ‘The Artist’s Studio’ painted during 1854-1855. This painting portrayed people from all walks of life, kind of an apology for all the influences in Corbet’s artistic life. Scale that time was an indication of importance. This painting had a contradiction built into it, it was real but symbolic at the same time. 

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Gustave Courbet-Still life with Apples and a pomegranate ©nationalgallery.org.uk

In 1856, he was welcomed by fellow artists in Germany and became a role model for a new generation of artists who relinquished the norms of Renaissance art. With experience in all genres, he also worked on feminine nudity with remarkable warmth and sensuality. 

Landscape played a crucial role in Courbet’s imagery. He identified himself with the topography to replicate the gushing water and rock formations in the scenes.

Gustave Courbet-View of Lac Léman ©nationalgallery.org.uk

From the 1860s, a more colourful and sensuous manner prevailed in his work. He set up his workshop on the cliffs of Étretat, Trouville, where he represented the architecture of a storm in an array of seascapes. He witnessed the winds and ocean currents and put down his observation with paints and canvas. This soon gave way to Impressionism, wherein the objective was to achieve substantial sensuousness. It includes a technique producing the colour and light reflected from the object instead of their linear shapes. 

After the Franco-German war broke out in 1870, Courbet, the then President of the Artist’s Federation was assigned to reopen the museums by the Paris Commune. In the same year, he defied the authority of the government and refused the award, Legion of Honor, declaring his independence from the state. 

He undertook the responsibility to protect various public monuments especially, the Palace of Fontainebleau and the Sèvres porcelain factory. Courbet was put behind bars when the Army of Versailles overthrew the Paris Commune in 1871. He was arrested under the notion that he instigated the destruction of the column in the Place Vendôme which commemorates the Army of Napoleon Bonaparte since he made known his repulsion towards the supposed militarism of the monument. 

Adolphe Thiers, who was the head of the provincial government of the French republic intervened and reduced his sentence to about six months with a fine of five hundred francs. His happiness was short-lived. When Thiers resigned in 1872, all of Courbet’s properties and holdings were seized. 

Having no other option but to leave France, he resettled in Fleurier, Switzerland in 1873. He bought an old inn and renamed it Bon-Port, which means “safe arrival”. His perilous life exhausted morally and physically, ended at the age of 58 due to liver disease. His remains are present in the cemetery of Ornans. 

People view his work only through the eyes of socialism, irrevocably ignoring the lens of his political beliefs were the fruit of compassion and generosity. Courbet exerted his influence on the modern schools of art such as Manet, Monet and Renoir, which followed him soon after. His grail was not to embellish or idealize reality but to replicate or reproduce actuality as it is. He rid his paintings of cliches and timeworn models. 

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Gustave Courbet-The diligence of snow ©www.nationalgallery.org.uk

During his lifetime, he developed the technique of using palette knives and the thumb to shape paint, which is now commonplace. He entered the political field just before the Paris Commune of 1871 and assumed a functioning part in the political and imaginative daily routine of this short-experienced communist government. With the downfall of the Commune, Courbet was captured and condemned to a half year detainment for his association in the obliteration of the Vendôme Column, an image of Napoleonic position. 

In 1873, dreading oppression by the recently introduced government, Courbet wilfully went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877. Through his ground-breaking authenticity, Courbet turned into a spearheading figure throughout the entire existence of modernism.


Asmita Kothari is currently pursuing B.Arch at the School of Architecture, VIT University. She is an avid reader and a movie buff, who loves watching architectural and travel documentaries and shows. She believes that ambitious and curious souls make the world a better place.