BIOGRAPHY - Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877)
Gustave Courbet once said that “the art of painting can only consist of the representation of objects which are visible and tangible for the artist” (as quoted in Linda Nochlin’s 1971 Realism, New York: Penguin Books, pg. 25) While a seemingly simple view on the nature of artistic representation, Courbet’s statement highlights the increasing disjunction between the established artistic patterns of historicism as championed by the École des Beaux-Arts and the innovators of this new form of art identified by critics of the time as Realism. This movement sought to represent life contemporaneously, including scenes from the gritty streets of Paris, images of the desperation of the poor, the rugged nature of certain landscapes, and the hard-working nature of the peasant. Through major proponents such as Courbet and the writers Champfleury, Max Buchon, and later Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, Realism’s doctrines expounded a new approach, a new way of looking at life. In this period, Courbet, whose works disgusted many with their frank interpretation and whose brash and proud personality positioned him against many of the major political and artistic figures of the period, became one of the most significant innovators in this artistic shift towards a more vibrant and honest representation.
Gustave Courbet (Jean-Desiré-Gustave Courbet) was born on June 10, 1819, in Ornans, France, a rugged area in the Franche-Comté region near the Swiss border. His father, Eléonor-Régis-Jean-Joseph-Stanislas Courbet, referred to simply as Régis, was a landowner with vineyards in Flagey, a small village about eight miles from Ornans. In 1831 Courbet began attending the Seminary in Ornans. His tempestuous personality was clear early on, described by Jules-Antoine Castagnary, a progressive art critic and friend of the artist who wrote widely on Courbet, that when Courbet went before the clergy to have his sins expunged, that (quoted in Jack Lindsay’s Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, pg. 6):
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 is a humorous anecdote about a young Courbet. Perhaps it was because of the unfavorable conditions he was forced to endure at this time, or simply that Courbet rejected any type of schooling, that he struggled. In the autumn of 1837, Courbet was sent to the Collège Royal at Besançon, where his father hoped he would complete his preparatory training for a law degree. While in Besançon he also attended courses at the Académie under Charles-Antoine Flageoulot, a former pupil of Jacques-Louis David, a major neo-classical painter. Of this time, Courbet wrote that “I went to the Collège de Besançon where I learned to despise teaching…I learned the least I could so as not to burden my head with things useless to me.” (Lindsay, pg.8) Courbet clearly had other goals; attending courses was not among them. In 1839, and only under the assumption that Courbet would follow law studies, he moved to Paris where he befriended Francois Bonvin, another young Realist artist, who showed him around the Louvre and introduced him to the “little masters” of Dutch painting, and Spanish painters like Murillo, Velazquez, and Zurburan, whose dark palettes influenced the early period of Courbet’s work. Instead of enrolling in law course, he began working in ateliers such as those of Charles-Auguste-Guillaume Steuben and Nicolas-Auguste. He also worked in Suisse’s atelier on the Île de La Cité. No instruction or criticism was given at the latter’s atelier. Nude models were the only didactic provisions, allowing students to follow their own stylistic predilections with an unmitigated sense of freedom. The atelier was suitable to Courbet’s learning style as he did not prefer to work under a teacher, feeling that art could not be taught.
Due in part to this figural training, or due to lack of funds for other models, Courbet’s beginning work in the 1840’s included a large number of self-portraits. He completed many self portraits throughout his life, but a majority of them were done in the 1840s. These self-reflective works, either pensive or playful, showed Courbet acting or performing a role. He submitted one o f these portraits his Autoportrait au Chien (Self Portrait with the Black Dog) to the 1844 Salon, where it was accepted while his other work was rejected. It cannot be said, however, that the fact that one of Courbet’s work was accepted was a triumph since, in response to the overly intolerant Salon juries beginning with 1841 where even Jean-Dominique Ingres was rejected, the jury of 1844 was somewhat dispirited and accepted virtually every piece. Regardless, Courbet took advantage of this as later in his career he would find that the selectiveness of the Salon jury would continually plague his establishment of a career creating an intense feeling of resentment and bitterness.
During the next three years Courbet traveled several times between Ornans and Paris and also Belgium and Holland. He had recently established a niche for his work in Holland after coming into contact with J. van Wisselingh, a young art dealer in Amsterdam, who visited Paris and bought two of Courbet’s works and commissioned a self-portrait. It was also through van Wisselingh’s dealings in Amsterdam that Courbet was introduced to an audience outside of France, one that was from the outset appreciative of his work. Van Wisselingh showed Courbet’s work to a rich collector in The Hague by the name of Hendrik Willem Mesdag, who purchased seven works. Mesdag was also the leader of The Hague School which was the most important artistic movement in Holland during the nineteenth century. Courbet’s work comprised an important part of what became the Mesdag Museum, currently in The Hague. Courbet’s travels and affairs with international dealers spread his reputation far outside of France.
It was also during this period that Courbet began to solidify his realist works and personal artistic doctrines through his association with other artists and writers. Courbet was a frequenter of the Brasserie Andler, where the main players in the Realist circle congregated including: Champfleury, Max Buchon (whom Courbet met at Seminary in Ornans), Charles Baudelaire, and painters such as Honoré Daumier and Alexandre Décamps. The brasserie was about two doors from Courbet’s studio at 28 rue Hautefeuille providing fertile ground for the dissection of new ideas and philosophies. Alfred Delvau notes the segregation of this arena: “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.” (Lindsay, pg. 42) The Brasserie Andler seemed then to represent the general dichotomy running through the art world between those in the Realist and non-realist camp. It, nevertheless, offered a fertile refuge for Courbet and the other Realists.
While Realism had its band of devoted followers, it had yet to fully break into the Salon. In 1847 Courbet sent a portrait and two other works but they were all rejected. For some time Courbet had experienced his share of rejections, understanding that it was his artistic credo that challenged the established traditions. He recognized that as much as he only felt contempt for the jury and the Salon, he came upon the problem that all progressive artists of the nineteenth century faced. In order to establish their careers with the public, they needed the Salon exhibitions. Courbet said of the judges that “Their judgment doesn’t matter; but one must ex hibit to become known, and unfortunately there’s no other exhibition. In former years, when my own style was less fully developed and I still painted a little as they do, they accepted me; but now that I‘ve become myself, I must henceforth abandon hope.” (Lindsay, pg. 32) By rejecting such a vast number of artists, the jurors had enraged so many artists that they formed an association in protest and wanted to put on an independent show in a private gallery. These artists included Eugène Delacroix, Honoré Daumier, Alexandre Décamps, Theodore Rousseau, Ary Scheffer, and Antoine-Louis Barye. Despite the furor, the plan was thwarted by the 1848 Revolution.
The Revolution of 1848 and the reaction to the previous year’s Salon rejections caused the same phenomenon as that of 1844, but under different circumstances. The Revolution caused a slight and short-lived liberalization of the Salon and again, under the new director Charles Blanc, virtually every work was accepted. Courbet sent seven works comprised of portraits, landscapes, and drawings. Despite his strong showing and high praises, Courbet sold nothing. This was yet another disappointment for Courbet.
Of Courbet’s work in this period, Jack Lindsay in Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1973, pg. 87) noted that several factors in 1849 and 1850 influenced his art, among them were:
…his general rebellion against the bourgeois world of Paris which matured politically in 1848,… his growing conviction that he could not adequately express his personality within the bounds laid down by the prevailing art authorities, and that he must somehow break through the classical romantic impasse…Out of the fusion of these factors he achieved his new sense of the objects as something to which he was powerfully drawn, but which he also held at arm’s length, admitting both its inherent forces and its right to exist in its unique nature. The result was his Realism.
This new sense of Realism as promoted by Courbet was chastised by the critics. Courbet ignited his first major controversy at the Salon of 1850/51, which also raised the question of Realism to a higher level of debate. The Salon was also called the Salon of Realism since in addition to Courbet, there were many other artists showing work with a strong Realist inflection. Courbet exhibited Un Enterrement a Ornans (The Burial at Ornans), Les Paysans de Flagey (The Peasants of Flagey), and Les Casseurs de Pierre (The Stonebreakers). This controversy was rekindled in 1853 when he showed Les Baigneuses (The Bathers), La Fileuse Endormie (The Sleeping Spinner), and Les Lutteurs (The Wrestlers). The Bathers is a clear rejection of the academic nude tradition, showing women in all of their voluptuousness, shying away from nothing, and offending the middle class Salon viewers and critics. As the story goes, Napoleon was so disgusted with The Bathers that he hit the canvas with his riding crop and that Guichard, in Les Doctrines de G. Courbet of 1862 said that “The irritation got to the point that the police commissioner of the quarter wanted to drive it out of the Exhibition, as injuring proprieties and manners. Ladies turned away in disgust, grave men shrugged their shoulders, young fellows laughed and were captivated by the young girls’ embarrassment; there was a chorus of condemnation.” (Lindsay, pg. 103) The Salon did prove useful in that it put Courbet in contact with Jacques-Louis-Alfred Bruyas from Montpellier. Bruyas took a liking to Courbet’s work and bought The Sleeping Spinner and The Bathers from the Salon, along with a few other works and commissioned a portrait by Courbet. In the following years he bought several more works from Courbet. Bruyas’s support would be instrumental in the coming years, after Courbet’s intense pride drove him to unprecedented feats of self-promotion.
The beginning of this need for self-promotion came with his work entitled L'Atelier du Peintre, Allégorie Réelle (The Painter’s Studio, Real Allegory), painted for the 1855 Exposition Universelle. The full title was The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Determining a Phase of Seven Years of My Artistic Life. Eleven of his works were accepted to the Exposition but The Painter’s Studio was not among them. In protest against this and the general artistic establishment, Courbet pleaded with Bruyas to assist him in building his own exhibition hall, staged against and in protest to the Exposition. Courbet found the necessary funds, but the show was a failure; only a handful of visitors wandered in, already tired by the massive amount of pictures shown at the Exposition. That Courbet was ready and willing to stage an independent exhibition marks a turning point in the methods of artistic marketing, as single artist retrospective exhibitions were virtually unheard of. His method of self-promotion, done against all odds, would later encourage other influential but reviled artists such as James McNeill Whistler, who, determined to orchestrate an exhibition all their own, began to establish careers through the controversy and attention created from these bold showings.
At this point Courbet’s works focused attention on recording aspects of contemporary life. His works had incited criticism sometimes for the execution, other times for the subject matter. As his work and style progressed, he turned to somewhat less controversial subjects such as landscapes and portraits, though not necessarily in response to his unfavorable showings. In 1857 he was awarded a medal and the next year he spent his time arranging shows and traveling. He also made a very important trip to Germany which introduced animal imagery into his oeuvre and in 1859 he journeyed to the Normandy coast where he painted several seascapes. Both of these journeys introduced Courbet to a new and less controversial subject for his work; it allowed his creative faculties to more fully expand beyond the boundaries of his usual imagery.
With the shift to these new images it seemed that Courbet’s popularity and acceptance was on the rise. To the Salon of 1860 he sent La Roche Oraguay (Oraguay Rock) and four hunting scenes. Courbet received a second class medal, his third medal overall that he had received from the Salon jury. But, as Lindsay notes, “…what had been an honor in 1849 was now an insult” (pg. 169). Courbet no longer sought such great admiration from a jury that he disrespected.
Courbet began a more subversive piece entitled Le Retour de la Conference (Return from the Conference), which showed a group of drunken priests returning from an assembly. It was rejected at the Salon and even rejected at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. With his savvy sense of self-promotion, he decided to display it in his own studio where many came to see it. He most likely hid his true motives behind the execution of the work when he said that “I made the work to get it refused. I’ve succeeded. That’s the way it’ll bring me in money” (Lindsay, pg. 182). To further capitalize on this rejection, an American entrepreneur showed the work in England in August of 1863, in the same vein as the scandalous showing of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa earlier in the nineteenth century. Additionally, Courbet set out to organize yet another personal exhibition to compete with the upcoming 1867 Exposition Universelle. It was more ambitious than the previous one, though it was just as much of a failure. Such little attention was paid to the show that few visitors came. Courbet’s methods of self-promotions were valiant efforts, but disappointing in the end.
Three years later France was again thrown into a political crisis with the Franco-Prussian war and the emergence of the Paris Commune. At this time, Courbet refused the Cross of the Legion of Honor, just as Daumier, another Realist artist, had. Despite Courbet’s refusal of the honor, the Commune government did appoint Courbet Chairman of the Arts Commission, whose sole duty was to protect the works of art in Paris from the siege. But what was to be done with monuments that represented imperialism and pillage, such as that symbolized by the hated Vendôme Column? It was decided that the column would be taken down, not by force, but by dismantlement. The Commune was short-lived, however, and in May of 1871 mass executions began and all Commune leaders, such as Courbet, were either executed or jailed. Courbet managed to escape by keeping a low profile; his personality was not one to flee from controve rsy or danger, even if it meant going to prison. On May 30th the police seized a trunk of his papers and took 106 moldy canvases, searched the studio, and sealed the door. On the June 7th he was arrested and interrogated, later thrown in the Conciergerie, where many were imprisoned during the French Revolution. His trial was in August, and in September he was sentenced to six months in prison. It was also determined that Courbet was required to pay for the reconstruction of the Column, but at a price of over two hundred thousand francs, it was impossible. 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. With the atmosphere repellent in France, Courbet stayed in Switzerland for four years, growing weaker each year, afflicted with hemorrhoids and dropsy and unwilling to submit himself to continual doctor’s visits and medicines. He died, without ever returning to France, as an exile on December 31st, 1877.
Throughout his career Gustave Courbet attacked the establishment with his candid, unvarnished versions of reality. His oeuvre extended to self-portraits, commissioned portraits, landscapes, seascapes, nudes, animals, flower paintings, views of peasants, and more. Courbet revealed such a range of imagery that it is surprising he projected his sense of Realism so fluidly. He responded with courage to the insolent attacks against his work, choosing not to accept rejection, but instead to find new means of promotion. He was an innovator in every sense and though unappreciated during the majority of his lifetime, Courbet helped initiate one of the most significant movements of the nineteenth century which has had continuing resonance in the years after his death.