Gustave Courbet 1819-1877: Realist Painter Communard Revolutionary and the Revolutions of 1848

By Laurence Humphries, March 4, 2015


View the article including a number of pictures at https://humphries346.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/gustave-courbet-1819-1877-realist-painter-communard-revolutionary-and-the-revolutions-of-1848-by-laurence-humphries/


Gustave Courbet ,the founder of Realism lived and painted during the great revolutionary uphevals in 1848 in Europe. Born in the small rural village of Ornans ,Courbet would come to represent the great realist tradition of drawing and representing what he saw. Later he would join the French Commune and be instrumental in showing and describing revolutionary art in France. His scope was wider and more important than the Impressionism of Degas, Monet and others.

During in his early period Courbet concentrated on Self portraits as a means to establish the status of the artist. “Courbet’s self portraits reveal a Romantic painterliness combined with a compositional informality or even awkwardness “. [1].

As many commentators have remarked Courbet sought to represent the emerging world about him. “Amid the social transformations of the mid 19th century Courbet produced the most powerful artistic expression of the emerging modern world .Single mindedly    committed to his own experiences and thus disdainful of outworn traditions, the ambitious painter from  rural Ornans challenged Parisien authority with raw voice of honesty and authenticity”.  [2].

This new art of realism coincided with the industrial and political conflicts emerging in French society that Karl Marx was to write about in his book ‘The civil war in France’ and ‘the 18th Brumaire’.  “Thus the argument made below will be that the innovative technique of Gustave  Courbet -more than other artist of the day propelled political change by challenging the existing institutional changes between art and public. Like Jacques Louis David before him Courbet employed a technique alien to the established traditions and audiences for art”. [3].

In 1851 Courbet produced for the Salon three great pictures which would catapult Courbet into the limelight of Revolutionary art. “In the salon of 1851 he showed three huge pictures, the Stonebreakers, the Burial at Ornans and the Peasants of Flagey returning from the fair. He configured out of privacy out of the obscurity of a small town funeral an imagery which was public and political but images which undermined the Bourgeoise sense of what art was. If any artist came close to creating the conditions for Revolutionary art it was Courbet in 1851″. [4].

The burial at Ornans shows a cross section of class society by splitting the picture with the dog in the centre. “The burial at Ornans , it is the best image of the 1848 Revolution, the most complex picture of the Bourgeoise.no wonder when artists looked back to 1848 they could not escape from its spell”.  [5].

Courbet himself described his realism and how it related completely to his art. “I  have studied the art of the ancients and moderns, without any dogmatic or preconceived ideas , all I have tried to do is to derive from complete knowledge of tradition a reasoned sense of my own independence and individuality to record the manners , ideas and aspects of an age as I saw them”.  [6].

Courbet followed these great paintings with further allegorys. The Meeting Mr Courbet I presume and the Painters studio which is extremely allegorical. “Their status as artisans alluded to Courbet’s self image as worker artist or master painter”. [7].

Courbet’s Painters studio is a clear cross section of class Society. These were huge canvasses and what upset the bourgeoise so much is that they tried to represent History paints but history of the Poor and not of Rich grand aristocrats. ” In 1855 he composed the ‘The Painters studio a real allegory of seven years of my artistic life-Courbet’s painting seems to be a coded representation , possibly Fourerist possibly influenced by his anarchist friend the Philosopher Proudhon which depicts two sides of society”. [8].

Class differences are reflected in all of Courbet’s work ” The salient features of society Courbet wished to represent now included exacerbated economic differences between rich and poor and a heightened sense of class distinction”. [9].

Courbet many times asserted his sympathies lay with the working class and the rural poor. “Courbet turned to politics to the simple statement in his 1850 letter to Wey that my sympathies are with the people, I must speak to it directly draw my knowledge from it live by it”. [10].

Tim Clark in his Book on Courbet Image of the people shows how popular art and imagery is interwoven into the Burial at Ornans. “In other words the Burial at Ornans is carefully and subtly constructed.the repititive forms of popular art are imitated.” [11].

Referring to the Peasants of Flagey returning from the fair Clark asserts and demonstrates the class differences and how they are accentuated. “The peasant of Flagey returning from the fair in many ways it is a pendant to the rural proletariat of the stonebreakers and the Bourgeoise of the Burial”. [12].

In the meeting Courbet is treating everyone on an equal basis. “The greatness of the meeting is that it gives form to those hopes and their miseries the affection and the absurdity of their relationship .Courbet’s  picture is close to a parody of the whole iconography in it artists, patron and servant stand apart and equal”. [13].

Popular art which had been used in woodcuts and amongst artisans is reflected in Courbet’s art. “In embracing popular art and culture-its audience its subjects Courbet was explicitly rejecting the Hierarchism and personality cult fostered by the regime of President and then Emperor Louis Napoleon”. [14].

Camille Pissaro an artist friend of both Courbet and Cezanne painted a picture of Cezanne with a caricature of Courbet in the Background. Clark believes that this is a significant picture for the whole of French Art.  “The portrait stands at the end of an epoch in French art the time when political and popular art seemed feasible .For a moment in the years around 1848 it seemed as if the art of the ruling classes was threatened with collapse”. [15].

Courbet from the 1860’s onwards continued to travel and took pictures mainly landscapes and also was involved in painting  provocative pictures of nudes as well as paintings of his family.

In the 1870’s political unrest led to the Paris  Commune of 1871, Like David before him Courbet became an active participant in the Commune. At the Paris Commune of March 1871 Courbet said “Today when democracy must direct everything it would be illogical for art which heads the World to lag behind in the Revolution that is taking place in France at this moment”. [16].

The Commune was  defeated and Troops occupied the area where the commune had directed operations. Courbet who with others had advocated the smashing of the Vendome column which represented Imperial France. “Like many others who had not fled Paris Courbet was arrested on the 17th June”. [17]. Courbet eventually left France after his imprisonment and crossed the border into Switzerland. As one of his Biographers noted  “He is obviously the father of various brands of realism that have his own exemplify Lucien Freud  “and the Bridegroom”. [18].

Courbet died in 1877 . He was a Revolutionary painter who like Jacques Louis David changed the face of French Art. A participant in the Paris Commune he put his art into practice unlike many of the Impressionists who literally followed a petit bourgeoise middle class view of Art, only Courbet was able to truly represent the image of the people.

NOTES

1) 19TH CENTURY ART A CRITICAL HISTORY PG 228

2) COURBET JAMES RUBIN PG 4

3)  19TH CENTURY ART A CRITICAL HISTORY  PG 227

4)  THE ABSOLUTE BOURGEOIS ARTISTS AND POLITICS IN FRANCE 1848-1851PG180

5)  DITTO  PG 181

6)  ART IN THEORY 1800-1900 PG 372

7) COURBET JAMES RUBIN PG 130

8) THE CHALLENGE OF THE AVANT GARDE  PG 51

9)  DITTO PG 74

10) IMAGE OF THE PEOPLE TIM CLARK PG 113

11)  DITTO  PG 82

12)     DITTO PG 83

13)   DITTO PG 157

14) 19TH CENTURY ART  A CRITICAL HISTORY PG  233

15) IMAGE OF THE PEOPLE PG 160

16)  COURBET JAMES RUBIN PG 276

17)    DITTO  PG 280

18)  DITTO  PG 326