Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet (güstäv´ kōōrbā´), 1819–77, French painter, b. Ornans. He moved to Paris in 1839 and studied there, learning chiefly by copying masterpieces in the Louvre. An avowed realist, Courbet was always at odds with vested authority, aesthetic or political. In 1847 his Wounded Man (Louvre) was rejected by the Salon, although two of his earlier pictures had been accepted. He first won wide attention with his After Dinner at Ornans (Lille) in 1849. The next year he exhibited his famous Funeral at Ornans (1849–50) and Stonebreakers (1849, both: Louvre). For his choice of subjects from ordinary life, and more especially for his obstinacy and audacity, his work was reviled as offensive to prevailing politics and aesthetic taste. Enjoying the drama, Courbet rose to defend his work as the expression of his newfound political radicalism. His statements did nothing to recommend the work to his enemies.

In 1855, Courbet exhibited the vast Painter's Studio (Louvre). Attacked by academic painters, he set up his own pavilion where he exhibited 40 of his paintings and issued a manifesto on realism. While he continued to provoke the establishment by submitting works to the Salon that were twice rejected in the mid-1860s, within that decade he triumphed as the leader of the realist school. His influence became enormous, reaching its height with his rejection of the cross of the Legion of Honor offered him by Napoleon III in 1870. Under the Commune of Paris (1871), Courbet was president of the artists' federation and initially active in the Commune; he was later unfairly held responsible, fined, and imprisoned for the destruction of the Vendôme column. In 1873 he fled to Switzerland, where he spent his few remaining years in poverty. Although his aesthetic theories were not destined to prevail, his painting is greatly admired for its frankness, vigor, and solid construction.

See his letters, ed. by ten-Doesschate Chu (1992); J. Lindsay, Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art (1973) and P. ten-Doesschate Chu, The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture (2007); studies by T. J. Clark (1973), S. Faunce and L. Nochlin (1988), M. Fried (1990), and J. H. Rubin (1997).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

An Outline of 19th Century European Painting: From David through Cézanne
Lorenz Eitner.
Westview Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Realism"
The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society
Linda Nochlin.
Harper & Row, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Courbet, Oller, and a Sense of Place: The Regional, the Provincial, and the Picturesque in 19th Century Art"
FREE! How to Study Pictures
Charles H. Caffin.
Century, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Chap. XXIII "Gustave Courbet 1819-1878: Realistic School of France"
Looking at Pictures
Kenneth Clark.
Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1960
Librarian’s tip: "Courbet: L'Atelier du Peintre" begins on p. 167
FREE! Modern Art: Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics
Julius Meier-Graefe; Florence Simmonds; George W. Chrystal.
G. P. Putnam's Sons, vol.1, 1908
Librarian’s tip: "Gustave Courbet" begins on p. 219
Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1780 to 1880
Fritz Novotny.
Penguin Books, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Realism in France"
Art in the Age of Mass Media
John A. Walker.
Westview Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Art Uses Mass Culture"
The Earthly Paradise: Art in the Nineteenth Century
Werner Hofmann.
G. Braziller, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. I "The Artist's Studio"
Courbet
Danto, Arthur Coleman.
The Nation, Vol. 248, No. 3, January 23, 1989
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