Gustave Courbet was a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting. The Realist movement bridged the Romantic movement (characterized by the paintings of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix) with the Barbizon School and the Impressionists. Courbet occupies an important place in 19th century French painting as an innovator and as an artist willing to make bold social statements through his work. Courbet painted figurative compositions, landscapes, seascapes, and still-lifes. He courted controversy by addressing social issues in his work, and by painting subjects that were considered vulgar, such as the rural bourgeoisie, peasants, and working conditions of the poor. His work belonged neither to the predominant Romantic nor Neoclassical schools. History painting, which the Paris Salon esteemed as a painter's highest calling, did not interest Courbet, he believed that the only possible source for living art is the artist's own experience. His work, along with that of Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet, became known as Realism. For Courbet, Realism dealt not with the perfection of line and form, but entailed spontaneous and rough handling of paint, suggesting direct observation by the artist while portraying the irregularities in nature.
Courbet was born in 1819 in Ornans. Being a prosperous farming family, anti-monarchical feelings prevailed in the household. After moving to Paris in 1839, he often returned home to Ornans. In Paris he worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse. An independent spirit, he soon left, preferring to develop his own style by studying the paintings of Spanish, Flemish and French masters. Among his paintings of the early 1840s are several self-portraits, in which the artist portrayed himself in various roles.
Trips to the Netherlands and Belgium in 1846–1847 strengthened Courbet's belief that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals and other Dutch masters had. By 1848, he had gained supporters among the younger critics, the Neo-romantics and Realists, notably Champfleury. Courbet achieved greater recognition after the success of his painting After Dinner at Ornans at the Salon of 1849. The work, earned Courbet a gold medal and was purchased by the state. The result is a realistic presentation of his grand uncle funeral, and of life in Ornans. It upset convention by depicting a prosaic ritual on a scale which would previously have been reserved for a religious or royal subject. Eventually, the public grew more interested in the new Realist approach, and the lavish, decadent fantasy of Romanticism lost popularity. Courbet became a celebrity, and was spoken of as a genius, a "terrible socialist" and a "savage".
The Salon of 1850–1851 found him triumphant with The Stone Breakers, the Peasants of Flagey and A Burial at Ornans. Courbet associated his ideas of realism in art with political anarchism, and, having gained an audience, he promoted democratic and socialist ideas by writing politically motivated essays. In 1855, Courbet submitted fourteen paintings for exhibition at the Exposition Universelle. Three were rejected for lack of space, including A Burial at Ornans and his other monumental canvas The Artist's Studio. Refusing to be denied, Courbet took matters into his own hands. He displayed forty of his paintings, in his own gallery called The Pavilion of Realism which was a temporary structure that he erected next door to the official Salon-like Exposition Universelle.
Although artists like Eugène Delacroix were ardent champions of his effort, the public went to the show mostly out of curiosity and to deride him. Attendance and sales were disappointing, but Courbet's status as a hero to the French avant-garde became assured. He became an inspiration to the younger generation of French artists including Édouard Manet and the Impressionist painters. The Artist's Studio was recognized as a masterpiece by Delacroix, Baudelaire, and Champfleury, if not by the public.
In the Salon of 1857 Courbet showed six paintings. These included the scandalous Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), depicting two prostitutes under a tree, as well as the first of many hunting scenes Courbet was to paint during the remainder of his life: Hind at Bay in the Snow and The Quarry. By exhibiting sensational works, Courbet guaranteed himself "both notoriety and sales". During the 1860s, he painted a series of increasingly erotic works such as Femme nue couchée. This culminated in The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) (1866), which depicts female genitalia and was not publicly exhibited until 1988, and Sleep (1866), featuring two women in bed. The latter painting became the subject of a police report when it was exhibited by a picture dealer in 1872.
By the 1870s, Courbet had become well established as one of the leading artists in France. On 14 April 1870, Courbet established a "Federation of Artists" (Fédération des artistes) for the free and uncensored expansion of art. The group's members included André Gill, Honoré Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugène Pottier, Jules Dalou, and Édouard Manet.
In the 1860s, Napoléon III made more concessions to placate his liberal opponents. As a sign of appeasement he nominated Courbet to the Legion of Honour in 1870. His refusal angered those in power but made him immensely popular with those who opposed the prevailing regime. In 1871, under the revolutionary Paris Commune, he was placed in charge of all the Paris art museums. But when the power shifted back to the old guard, Courbet found himself in an untenable political position. For his insistence in executing the Communal decree for the destruction of the Vendôme Column, he was designated as responsible for the act and sentenced to six months in prison and a fine. During his incarceration, Courbet painted several still-life compositions. Condemned to pay the expenses but unable to pay, Courbet went into a self-imposed exile in Switzerland to avoid bankruptcy. In the following years, he participated quite actively in some regional and national exhibitions. On 31 December 1877, a day before the first installment for the column was due, Courbet died, aged 58, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, of a liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking.
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