Childhood & Early Life
Courbet was born Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet on June 10, 1819, in Ornans, eastern France, to affluent farmer parents Eléonor-Régis and Sylvie Oudot Courbet. He was the only son with three younger sisters. Initially, he made paintings of his sisters, Zoé, Zélie, and Juliette, and regularly portrayed his native, Ornans, in his paintings. After moving to Paris, he often returned home for inspiration.
At 14, Courbet received art lessons from a neo-classical art teacher ‘pére’ Baud. He went to Besançon in 1837 to study at the studio of a follower of painter David.
As per his father’s wish, Courbet went to Paris in 1840/1841 to study law, but he soon left the law school and joined the studio of Steuben and Hesse/Suisse. Soon he left the studio, and studied the art by himself by copying the work of masters, including Peter Paul Rubens and Caravaggio at the Louvre. He studied the Dutch and Venetian paintings of Hals, Titian, and Rembrandt. He admired his contemporary French artists Delacroix and Géricault.
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As an Artist
Initially Courbet painted figures (Odalisque) inspired from the literary works of Victor Hugo and George Sand. But soon after, he stopped doing imaginary paintings, opting for art based on reality. During the starting years, he made several self-portraits, including ‘Man in Despair’ (1841), ‘Courbet with a Black Dog’ (1842), ‘The Wounded Man’ (1844), ‘The Man with the Leather Belt’ (1845-1846), and ‘Man with a Pipe’ (1848-1849).
During 1846-1847, Courbet toured around Belgium and Netherlands; he was inspired by Dutch artists Hals and Rembrandt, and the art that presented daily life events. He also toured France after 1850.
Courbet tried submitting his work at the ‘Salon,’ the annual art exhibition in France, but was not accepted initially. His self-portrait, ‘Courbet with a Black Dog,’ was taken in 1844, after which he again faced rejections. His art found support from Neo-romantics and Realists, and critics, such as Chamfleury.
With his ‘After Dinner at Ornans,’ Courbet received appreciation and success at the ‘Salon’ in 1849. The state bought the painting, awarding him a second-class gold medal. This allowed him exemption from selection procedure till 1857 (The rules changed that year).
His next paintings that fetched a lot of attention were ‘The Stone Breakers’ (1849), and ‘A Burial at Ornans’ (1849- 1850). During that period, conventionally only the historic, biblical or mythological paintings had large scale canvases. Going against the tradition, Courbet portrayed everyday domestic life into large paintings. Though historic paintings were considered important for an artist, he believed that the artist’s own experience is the best source for art.
Courbet’s paintings of peasants, working-class people, and rural middle-class scenes were thought as vulgar, so his work often created controversy. The art of Courbet, Jean-François Miller, and Honoré Daumier was recognized as ‘Realism.’ ‘A Burial at Ornans’ invited admiration as well as criticism, as it was a large painting showing over 40 human figures with mundane rituals as the subject.
An art-collector, Alfred Bruyas, became Courbet’s patron and his art found recognition in Berlin and Vienna. He received fame during this period.
In the early 1850s, Courbet painted more common subjects, such as ‘Village Damsels’ (1852), ‘The Wrestlers’ (1853), ‘The Bathers’ (1853), ‘The Wheat Sifters’ (1854), among others. The best-known work of Courbet was ‘The Artist’s Studio’ (1854-1855), a vast painting of nearly 4metersX6meters. He gave it the sub-title ‘A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life.’ It showed Courbet in the center, working on a painting, surrounded by people.
Courbet submitted a total 14 paintings at the 1855 ‘Exposition Universelle,’ of which 10 were selected. ‘A Burial at Ornans’ and ‘The Artist’s Studio’ were rejected because of their huge size. This rejection drove Courbet to arrange his personal exhibition gallery, ‘The Pavilion of Realism,’ alongside the ‘Exposition Universelle.’ He displayed 40 of his paintings, including the rejected huge canvases. ‘The Artist’s Studio’ was not appreciated much by the people of that time, but critics and artists, including Delacroix, Champfleury, Baudelaire hailed it as a masterpiece. It became an inspiration for the impressionists.
In 1857, Courbet earned praise with paintings such as ‘Young Ladies by the Seine,’ which was exhibited at ‘Salon.’ He also created landscapes, hunting scenes, still lifes, etc. He faced controversy with ‘Return from the Conference’ (1863 – about a drunken priest) and ‘Venus and Psyche,’ which was rejected at ‘Salon.’
In the 1860s, Courbet created several erotic canvases, including ‘Femme nue Couchée’ and ‘Sleep.’ The most provocative and controversial one was ‘The Origin of the World’ (1866) – a painting of female genitals, which was not made public till 1988.
In 1869, while spending a summer at Etretat, Courbet created ‘The Wave,’ and ‘The Cliff at Etretat after the Storm.’ These two art pieces earned him accolades.
In 1870, Courbet was awarded the ‘Legion of Honor’ by the government of Napoleon III, but he refused it. After the French were defeated in the Franco-Prussian war, the ‘Paris Commune’/‘Commune de Paris’ came into power on March 18, 1871, though only for a short while. Courbet was made the president of the ‘Federation of Artists,’ and was asked to re-open art museums, and organize the ‘Salon.’ He was a member of the Commune, but didn’t participate in any activity.
Earlier, in 1870, Courbet had proposed (to Govt. of National Defense) to remove the column in ‘Place Vendôme’ that was built by Napoleon I to commemorate French victories, but no action was taken then (Courbet probably meant only to move it). The Commune destroyed the column on May 16, 1871. Later the Commune government was overthrown by the Army of Versailles, which took charge from June 1. Courbet was arrested on June 7, for instigating the destruction of the column. He was fined 500 Francs and 6 months imprisonment. Later, he took ill in the prison and taken to a clinic.
Courbet was charged a fine of 300,000 Francs (1873) as the cost of reconstructing the column. As he couldn’t pay it, he went into exile to Switzerland, where he lived in 3) La Tour-de-Peilz till his death. He continued to paint, and also created sculptures, but took to heavy drinking. He died of liver problems on December 31, 1877.
Many artists, including Claude Monet, were inspired by Courbet’s style of painting.
Presently, the collections of his paintings are displayed at Musée d’Orsey (Paris), National Gallery (London), Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and other galleries.