Jean-Desiré-Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans, a rugged area in the Franche-Comté region close to the France-Swiss border in 1819. His father Règis Courbet and his mother, Sylvie were landowners, who owned a vineyard in Flagey, ten miles outside of Ornans. They were a prosperous family but despite that Courbet’s parents held left of centre, anti-monarchist views. This was probably a long held passion as his mother’s father had fought in the French Revolution. At the age of twelve he attended a seminary in Ornans and it was during his time there that, according to his friend and art critic, Jules-Antoine Castagny, he came up before the priest to confess his sins and to have them forgiven. According to Jack Lindsay in his biography of the artist, Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art
“…The sins he revealed to his confessor so monstrously exceeded, in number and in kind, the iniquities appropriate to his tender age that nobody was willing to give him absolution…These successive rejections began to affect his reputation…To make sure he had forgotten nothing, Courbet had compiled a list of all the sins it would have been possible to commit, from the most trifling peccadillo to the darkest of crimes…”
This was an early sign of Courbet’s rebellious nature which would remain with him for the rest of his life. When he was eighteen years of age his father arranged for Gustave to attend the Collège Royal at Besançon to study law. At the same time he attended lessons at the Académie and studied painting under the tutelage of Charles-Antoine Flageoulet, who had once been a pupil of the great neo-classical artist Jacques-Louis David. Courbet left Besançon and moved to Paris. His father still believed that this move was to further his legal studies but Gustave had other ideas. Whilst there, he became great friends with Francois Bonvin, the French realist painter and the two would frequent the Louvre and study the Masters. He also attended the atelier of Steuben and Hesse on the Île de La Cité. He set about a series of self portraits in the 1840’s, one of which, Self portrait with Black Dog, he submitted to the Salon Exhibition of 1844 and was accepted while the rest of his submissions did not pass the jury’s scrutiny. This was the start of a long running battle Courbet was to have with the Salon’s juries and lead to many vociferous comments by the artist against what he believed was the Salon jurists’ petty vindictiveness against himself.
The following three years saw Courbet travelling around Belgium and Holland. His art was very popular in the Low Countries and he had built himself a large wealthy international clientele. It was through these connections that his fame as an artist spread throughout Europe. Courbet was in the forefront of the Realism art movement, a grouping of artists who believed that artist should represent the world as it is even if that meant breaking with artistic and social conventions. Realist artists painted everyday characters and situations all in a true-to-life manner. These artists wanted to rid art of the theatrical drama, lofty subjects and the classical style and in its place they wanted to depict more everyday commonplace themes. Realism was starting to be popular not only in art but in literature. Strictly speaking realism in literature denoted a particular kind of subject matter, especially the representation of middle-class life. In literature, like in art, realism was a reaction against romanticism. Realists focused their attention, in the main, on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and its verifiable consequence.
Courbet used to meet his fellow realists in the Brasserie Andler, which was only a few steps away from his studio at 28 rue Hautefeuille in Paris. He would rub shoulders with writers such as Champfleury and Proudhon and the poet Beaudelaire. Max Buchon, his old school friend from Ornans would also be there. Fellow artists, such as the caricaturist and painter Honoré Daumier and Alexandre Décamps were also regulars who congregated at the brasserie. Courbet had carved himself a leading role within this group of Realists. The biographer Jack Lindsay quoted in his book Gustave Courbet his life and art, the words of the 19th century French journalist and writer Alfred Delvau, who described Courbet’s role within this circle of friends and his realist philosophy, saying:
“….And in this temple of Realism, where M. Courbet was then the sovereign pontiff and M. Champfleury the cardinal officiating, there were then, as the public of boozers, students, and wood engravers understood, only realists and non-realists…”
Courbet’s many pictures of peasants and scenes of everyday life established him as the leading figure of the realist movement of the mid nineteenth century. He was an outspoken opponent of the French government and it was during the short lived Paris Commune that he took part in the destruction of the Vendôme Column in 1871 during the uprising in Paris which followed after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Courbet expressed his reasoning for the removal of the Vendome column, saying:
“…In as much as the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorise him to disassemble this column…”
The uprising was chiefly caused by the disaster of the war and the growing discontent among French workers. For Courbet the Column was totally devoid of artistic value but more importantly he was against what it stood for. For his part in the pulling down of the column he was sentenced on 2 September 1871 by a Versailles court martial to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs. In 1877 the estimated cost of rebuilding the Vendome was finally established as being 323,091 francs and 68 centimes. Courbet was told he must pay for it to be rebuilt and he was to pay a fine in yearly installments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years meaning the final payment would be when he had reached the age of 91. On July 23rd, 1873 Courbet, through the assistance of a few friends, fled France for Switzerland as he could not, nor did not want to pay his fines. On December 31st 1877, in La Tour de Peilz in Switzerland where he was living in exile, a day before the payment of the first installment was due, Courbet died, aged 58, of a liver disease probably due to his bouts of heavy drinking,
In My Daily Art Display today I have featured one of Courbet’s greatest painting entitled The Artist’s Studio which he completed in 1855 and which had a secondary title: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life. It was an enormous painting, 3.61 metres tall and almost 5.98 metres wide and can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Courbet submitted this painting with thirteen others to the Exposition Universelle of 1855. The Exposition Universelle was an International Exhibition held on the Champs Elysées in Paris from May to November in that year. This Paris exhibition came four years after London had held their Great Exhibition of 1851. To Courbet’s horror, three of his paintings were rejected on the grounds that they were far too big for the exhibition as space was restricted. One of these was today’s featured painting and one of the others was his mammoth work, A Burial at Ornans, which was 3.14metres tall and 6.63 metres wide. However Courbet was not to be denied and decided to withdraw all his paintings and with the help of his patron Alfred Bruyas set up a rival exhibition with forty of his works in a rented hall next door to the official exhibition, which he called The Pavilion of Realism. It did not prove to be a great success as attendances and sales were poor and many just came out of curiosity, but for fellow artists, Courbet’s gesture was inspirational and his standing in the artistic community rose. He was now acclaimed as a hero of the French avant-garde and an inspiration to the young up and coming artists. In some ways this alternate exhibition running alongside the official exhibition was a forerunner of the Salon de Refusés, which came into being as an alternative to the Salon exhibitions in Paris in 1863 and again in 1874 during the Imressionist era.
The work before us today was looked upon as an allegory of Courbet’s life as a painter and the various figures depicted are allegorical representations of various influences on his life. So who are all the people? In some ways the work is a kind of triptych with three distinct sections. On the left hand side of the painting are various figures from the different levels of French society. To my mind the left hand side includes things and people Courbet disliked and sums up what he believes was wrong with society, such as religion and poverty, while on the right of the painting he has presented us with things and people he holds dear.
Let us first look at the grouping on the left hand side of the painting. On the ground sprawled beside the canvas sits the figure of a starving peasant. More than likely Courbet is depicting an Irish peasant, as the Great Irish Famine had taken place only a few years earlier. To the left of the peasant there are several other figures. This strange grouping appears to include a priest, a prostitute, a grave digger and a merchant. In the far left of the painting we see the standing figure of a Jewish Rabbi and seated on a chair before him is a hunter with several dogs. This depiction of this man is quite interesting as it is thought by use of x-ray analysis that the figure of the man was added later and was not mentioned in Courbet’s letter to Champfleury when he wrote about the details of the work. So what was so important to cause this late addition. Art historians would have us believe that he is an allegory of the then current French Emperor, Napoleon III. He has been identified as such because of his famous hunting dogs and also by his twirled moustache which he was famous for. So why place the French ruler on the left side of the painting? The answer probably lies in Courbet’s early upbringing in an anti-monarchist household and Courbet’s inherent dislike of the emperor. It was Courbet’s belief that Napoleon III was no better than a thief having stolen the country from its people. In the centre of the work, behind Courbet’s landscape canvas we see a nude male model, on the floor we see a guitar, dagger and hat, and on the table a skull. These were all accoutrements of traditional academic art which Courbet loathed.
In the middle, taking centre stage and thus the centre of our attention, we see the realist artist himself sitting before his easel working on a landscape. He has placed himself as the main focus of the painting and maybe it was his way of projecting himself as the leader of the Realist movement. Behind Courbet, and being ignored by him, is a nude model, which symbolises academic art tradition which Courbet disliked so much. Standing in front of Courbet, looking totally mesmerised by what Courbet is doing, is a small boy. It is believed that Courbet included the boy as a symbol of the innocent eye of the artist but of course the mesmeric admiration of the boy for what Courbet has painted may just be something artists crave. By the boys feet there is a white cat.
On the right of the painting is another group of people. This grouping is a selection of his friends, associates and admirers. It is possible to identify some of these figures. The man standing and looking across to the left hand side, with a beard, is Alfred Bruyas a long-time patron of Courbet. Standing behind him, facing us, is Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, politician and socialist philosopher and another friend of the artist. Moving away from those two and towards the foreground we see a man seated. This is the French novelist Jules Husson, whose non de plume was Champfleury and who was a greater supporter of Courbet’s realist art. The man at the extreme right of the painting, reading a book, is the French poet Beaudelaire and we know that Courbet’s depiction of him is from a portrait he did of him seven years earlier. Beaudelaire at the time had a quadroon (mixed race) mistress and Courbet had included her in the painting just to the left of Beaudelaire (as we look at him) but Beaudelaire was not happy with her inclusion and persuaded Courbet to paint her out of the scene. The presence of Beaudelaire’s mistress was only discovered recently when the painting was cleaned and x-rayed. Standing quite prominently in the group, in front of Beaudelaire, is a well dressed bourgeoisie lady with a brown-patterned shawl and her companion. Art historians have not come to a definitive agreement as to who they are but one theory is that it is Christine Ungher and her husband François Sabatier, another of Courbet’s patrons. Notwithstanding what art historians believed to be the message of the painting Courbet expressed his thought process behind what he had achieved with this magnificent work in a letter to Champfleury. He wrote:
“….It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted, on the right are all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers and art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life: the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death…”.