Art Dictionary

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet, Courbet au chien noir (Portrait de l’artiste) (Portrait of the Artist with a Black Dog), 1842, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, © bpk / RMN – Grand Palais / Jacques L'Hoir / Jean Popovich

Biography

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (*June 10, 1819, in Ornans; †December 31, 1877, in La Tour-de-Peilz) moved to Paris in 1839 to study law. Once there, however, he instead turned to the study of art, educating himself in the Musée du Louvre, taking lessons from Carl von Steuben and Nicolas-Auguste Hesse, and attending the private academies operated by Charles Suisse and Père Lapin. After several false starts, he debuted at the Salon in 1844, and was subsequently awarded a gold medal. Several of his paintings were bought by the state. In 1855 and 1867, after some of his pictures were rejected, Courbet organized his own exhibitions parallel to the Exposition universelle. He undertook several journeys to such places as Normandy and Germany, where he visited Munich and Frankfurt am Main. During the reign of Napoleon III he was prosecuted for allegedly inciting the demolition of the Vendôme Column; he was found guilty, and consequently imprisoned and heavily fined. After his release in 1873 he emigrated to La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland.

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Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

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Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

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Gustave Courbet
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Gustave Courbet

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From Tradition to Breaking Taboos

The French painter Gustave Courbet is regarded as a master of Realism and provocation. What is probably his most famous painting, L’Origine du monde, was long considered the epitome of an artistic scandal, although recently the French newspaper Le Monde described it as “a kind of second Mona Lisa.”

“The pedagogues, such as Phidias and Raphael, have nothing more to tell us. What do they teach us? Nothing. Only one thing is of any value: originality. One has to work through tradition, in the way that a good swimmer cuts across a current: the academics drown in it.” (Gustave Courbet)

“… above all, I am a realist. Realist means: an upright lover of honest truth.” (Gustave Courbet)

No other artist, especially in the prudish nineteenth century, dared to produce such drastically realist paintings, and hence break the taboos surrounding Realism: with his 1866 work, L’Origine du monde—an unprecedented, bold close up of a woman’s genital area—Gustave Courbet created what became his most famous, yet most infamous, work of art. It was commissioned by the Turkish-Egyptian art collector and diplomat Halil Bey, who kept the painting in his collection of mostly erotic art. Concealed behind a curtain, which he only drew aside for selected guests, the painting was hidden for more than a century from the eyes of a wider public. After several stops in private collections, it was first exhibited in public in 1988, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, where it still provoked indignation. At the time it was executed, when the scandalous painting was on everyone’s lips, a critic wrote: One was astonished to see a life-sized, frontal view of a woman, aroused and twisted, remarkably painted—reproduced, as the Italians say, con amore—and providing the last word in Realism. Inexplicably, the artist, who copied his model from nature, has neglected to reproduce the feet, the legs, the thighs, the stomach, the hips, the breast, the hands, arms, and shoulders, the neck and the head.
What remains unsaid in this meandering description of the painting is obvious: the origin of the world. Courbet went beyond merely voyeuristic exhibitionism to present the female genitals as the place where life begins—and thus produced one of the key paintings in art history. Whereas many artists before and after Courbet captured nude women on canvas, depicting them as allegorical figures complete with moralizing interpretations, or else using inventive metaphors like shells or grottoes to represent the female genitals, Courbet revolted against academic conventions and the prudery of his contemporaries.

Courbet’s love of provocation had become obvious eleven years prior, even before he painted this female nude. In 1855 three of the fourteen paintings he submitted to the Exposition universelle in Paris were rejected. So, instead, the artist produced his own exhibition, in a building he himself erected outside the gates of the world exposition, which he christened the Pavillon du Réalisme. There, he presented forty of his works of art—a testimony to his new understanding of reality: “Painting should only consist of the production of things that the artist can see and feel.” The artist’s sole obligation, as Courbet also proclaimed in his “Realist Manifesto,” is to himself and his individuality, in full acknowledgement of tradition, yet independent of it. No “higher powers,” no firmly applied rules should limit his freely chosen path. Earlier paintings, such as The Stone Breakers (1849/50) and A Burial at Ornans (1849/50), heralded Courbet’s protest against academic norms and triggered indignation, as their monumental size was considered appropriate only for historical paintings, not for the depiction of simple, everyday scenes of the common people.

Courbet’s passionate, rebellious commitment to artistic individualism and truth can be seen throughout his entire oeuvre. In a letter to the collector and patron Alfred Bruyas, he remarked that he had painted his own life in his impressive self-portraits; this commitment can also be seen in his depictions of his homeland with all of its autochthonic qualities—Franche-Comté and its dark, spring grottoes, thick forests, and steep chalk cliffs, which revolutionized landscape paintings; or in the seascapes of the Norman coast, his paintings of a sea in upheaval, which make it possible to experience the beauty and ferocity of nature, and are often interpreted as codes for the artist’s hope for political renewal.

In many of Courbet’s paintings—such as his snowy landscapes or pictures of waves—the paint achieves a nearly tangible, sculptural presence. The artist often produced his pictures with a brush, a knife, a rag, with his thumb even, or frequently with the help of a palette knife. Paul Cézanne called him a “paint stamper” who worked like a master mason, ultimately referring to his revolutionary treatment of paint as a material that became distinct from the object being painted, thus pointing the way to abstraction. Cézanne enthusiastically described the immediate effect of Courbet’s freehanded dealing with paint in a seascape: “It is as if they [the waves] were coming straight at one; one shrinks back. The whole salon smells of sea spray.” From Pablo Picasso to Gerhard Richter, generations of artists have been inspired by Courbet’s painting; this “living art,” as Courbet called it, was enticing—and continues to beckon to us today.

13.10.2014 Stefanie Gommel

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