From the “Salon des Refusés” - The French painter Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet

1 June 1819, the French painter Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans in eastern France.

“I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.'“ (Gustave Courbet)



Gustave Courbet's self portrait "Le Désespéré" - the desperate man - from 1843 


The idea of depicting reality as faithful and veridical as possible was not exactly new back in the 1850s. More than 2,000 years ago during the Hellenistic period, wonderful works of art had been created that mirrored reality to the highest degree, especially in sculpture, and many Renaissance and Baroque masters painted the hard facts of life realistic to a point where sensitivities get hurt to this day. Their realities, however, were usually embedded in a mythological, religious or historically remote context. But that was about to change when some artists had their fill of the other-worldliness of Romanticism and the choice of remote subjects deemed suitable for Academic Art. A spectre was haunting Europe, Marx, Proudhon and Bakunin already had written some of their important manifestos and red flags had been seen flying among the national colours hoisted during the revolutions of 1848 while the harsh realities of the Industrial Age were already in full swing. At first, during the earlies of the Realist movement, it was a far cry from what was to become the kitsch of Socialist Realism a couple of generations later though. The Realists painted rural scenes, landscapes and the conditions of the poor and other subjects that were considered rather vulgar – and their prime mover was Gustave Courbet.


Gustave Courbet: "A Burial at Ornans" (1849-50)


Supported by his family, young Gustave was at leisure to study the Spanish and Dutch masters exhibited at the Louvre, making his first steps as an independent artist and meeting his arty friends, Proudhon and Baudelaire among them, at the Brasserie Andler in Rue Hautefeuille and develop a new approach on art. And when the “Citizen King” Louis Philippe received his marching orders during the Revolution of 1848 and the renowned Salon de Paris took place without an official jury, Courbet managed to exhibit ten of his paintings. The audience and art critics were enthusiastic, but the excitement quickly ebbed away as soon as Napoleon III established orderly conditions again during the Second Empire and non-Academic art was refused almost as a rule. Thus, the avant-garde organised its own exhibition – by order of the emperor who either had a spontaneous bout of artistic sense or, more probably, sought public approval for his fustian jury’s refusal by publicly exhibiting the works not only of Courbet, but Manet, Whistler and Fantin-Latour as well. The “Salon des Refusés” became a smashing success, though, and for a while, Courbet was right at the forefront of the celebrated artists of Paris and thus of the world. Until the Prussians came.


Courbet’s L'Atelier du peintre (the Painter’s Studio), subtitled with the line: “A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic (and Moral) Life“ from 1855

Before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 -71 and the end of Napoleon III, Courbet’s realistic sujets broadened into nudes. In Normandy he dallied with Whistler’s Irish ex-muse Joanna Hiffernan, painted her in rather racy poses by order of a Turkish art connoisseur, Halil Şerif Paşa, who lived in Paris since 1860 and promptly brought him into conflict with the police. Then the short spring of anarchy of the Paris Commune began, Courbet became something of an art apparatchik, was responsible for tearing down the admittedly rather tasteless Column of the Place Vendome because it perpetuated “the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty“ and when the 3rd Republic was firmly established, President (and former Marshal of France) MacMahon fined Courbet to bear the costs of rebuilding the thing and the artist fled to Switzerland, painted and exhibited until his death of the dropsy, caused by heavy drinking, at the age of 58 in La Tour-de-Peilz, half way between Lausanne and Montreux.



Gustave Courbet: "Le Sommeil" (The Sleepers, 1866)




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