Best known as an innovator in
Courbet was a
painter of figurative compositions, landscapes and
seascapes. He also worked with social issues, and
addressed peasantry and the grave working conditions of
the poor. Courbet believed the Realist artist's mission
was the pursuit of truth, which would help erase social
contradictions and imbalances.
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. He depicted the harshness in
life, and in so doing, challenged contemporary academic ideas of art, which
brought the criticism that he deliberately adopted a cult of ugliness.
One of Courbet's most important works is
Burial at Ornans
, a canvas recording
an event which he witnessed in September 1848. Courbet's painting of the
funeral of his grand uncle became the first masterpiece in the Realist style.
People who had attended the funeral were used as models for the painting.
Previously, models had been used as actors in historical narratives; here Courbet
said that he "painted the very people who had been present at the interment, all
the townspeople". The result is a realistic presentation of them, and of life, in
Ornans. The painting caused a fuss with critics and the public. It is an enormous
work, measuring 10 by 22 feet depicting a prosaic ritual on a scale which
previously would have been reserved for a religious or royal subject.
the public grew more interested in the new Realist
approach, and the
lavish, decadent fantasy of Romanticism lost popularity. The artist well
understood the importance of this painting; as Courbet said: "The Burial at
Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism."
, destroyed during World War II,
the Salon-goers of 1850. Inspired by the "complete expression of
human misery" in an encounter with an old road worker in tattered
clothes and his young assistant, Courbet asked them to pose for him
in his studio. Painting the road workers life size on a large canvas,
Courbet showed them absorbed in their task, faceless and
anonymous, dulled by the relentless, numbingly repetitive task of
breaking stone to build a road. Unflaggingly honest, Courbet, much
like Caravaggio in the seventeenth century, violated rules of artistic
propriety by setting every detail his lowborn workers' wretched state
before the viewer.
In 1870 Courbet was placed in charge of all art museums under the
revolutionary Commune of Paris - Courbet saved the city's collections
from looting mobs, but was later imprisoned when the (socialist)
Commune he supported fell. The following year he was released, and
he moved to Switzerland, spending the remainder of his life in exile
and painting the rough Swiss terrain in new, experimental ways.
"Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland" (1874).