French, 1819-1877

Overview

The leading figure in the mid-19th-century Realist movement, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) changed the course of European art irreparably. A brash and self-confident individual, Courbet was awakened by the revolutions of 1848 to leave behind the Classical and literary subject matter of Academic art, turning his attention to contemporary life and issues of social justice. At the Salon of 1850, his two paintings, The Stone Breakers (1849, destroyed in World War II) and Burial at Ornans (1849, Musée d’Orsay) shocked audiences by depicting laborers and middle-class villagers in large-scale canvases previously reserved for important historical subjects. When his works, including The Painter’s Studio (1855, Musée D’Orsay), were rejected from the International Exposition of 1855, he constructed a temporary building for his own “Pavilion of Realism,” asserting an independence from the Salon that later artists (including Manet and later the Impressionists) would emulate. Courbet also broke conventions in painterly landscapes and seascapes rendered with the use of a palette knife, unidealized nudes, views of café culture, and hunting scenes. In 1871, he was imprisoned for his involvement in the Paris Commune when his actions led to the destruction of the Vendôme Column, a symbol of Napoleonic authority. Charged with paying for its replacement, he went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in December 1877.