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Gustave Courbet – French Modernist Painter

Gustave Courbet – French Modernist Painter –  personified the fiery energetic creator with an original vision. One who would not compromise his art or his beliefs. He even thumbed his nose at the French Government. Refusing  to accept the Legion of Honor. France’s highest award.

As you can see, Gustave  Courbet was very much “his own man.”  And, as a result, his artistic career was not “smooth sailing” by any means. During his lifetime, Courbet was greatly, shall we say, “underappreciated.”  But then every artist throughout History who threatens  the aristic “staus quo” receives the same treatment.

And Courbet was a big threat. He created the style we now call “Realism.” Coming from a rural area in the Jura mountains (an enormous influence on his landscape work) Courbet chose to portray his subjects “as they were.”  Without enveloping them in the classical cliches and motifs that were then considered “Art.”

You can guess the reaction of the art establishment. Can you not? One critic labelled Courbet’s realistic depictions:  “Peasants in their Sunday best.” But then, in fairness, the object of the critic is to criticize. Regardless of whether the opinion is constructive or not.  After all, critics, since they don’t paint, have to do something to earn a living!

Happily the critics had no effect on the art of Gustave Courbet.

Katryn Galitz of the Metropolitan Musem of Art shares  the fascinating details of Gustave Courbet’s life and work


“The self-proclaimed “proudest and most arrogant man in France,” Gustave Courbet created a sensation at the Paris Salon of 1850–51 when he exhibited a group of paintings set in his native Ornans, a village in the Franche-Comté in eastern France. These works, including The Stonebreakers (1849–50; now lost) and A Burial at Ornans  (1849–50; Musèe d’Orsay, Paris) challenged convention by rendering scenes from daily life on the large scale previously reserved for history painting and in an emphatically realistic style. Confronted with the unvarnished realism of Courbet’s imagery, critics derided the ugliness of his figures and dismissed them as “peasants in their Sunday best.”

Through his powerful realism, Courbet became a pioneering figure in the history of modernism.

Courbet’s career was punctuated by scandal, often deliberately courted by the artist himself. Young Women from the Village , set in the outskirts of Ornans, generated further controversy at the  of 1852. Critics were nearly unanimous in reproaching Courbet for the “ugliness” of the three young women, for whom the artist’s sisters modeled, and for the disproportionately small scale of the cattle. Moreover, Courbet’s suggestive use of the term demoiselles (young ladies) to denote this trio of young village women further provoked his critics, who took issue with the blurring of class boundaries that the term implied. In the aftermath of the democratic uprisings in the countryside in 1848, Courbet’s depictions of a rural middle-class in his Ornans subjects unsettled his Parisian audience at the Salons.

In 1855, Courbet’s monumental canvas, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life  (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), was rejected by the jury of the Exposition Universelle. Courbet retaliated by mounting his own exhibition in his Pavilion of Realism, built within sight of the official venue, where he displayed, among more than forty other works, The Painter’s Studio. The meaning of Courbet’s unfinished painting remains enigmatic: the figures on the left suggest the various social types that appear in Courbet’s canvases, while on the right Courbet portrays his friends and supporters. The artist painted himself at the center of this universe, paradoxically painting a landscape within the confines of his studio. The accompanying exhibition catalogue included Courbet’s seminal “Realist Manifesto,” in which he proclaimed his fidelity to subjects drawn from modern life.

During the 1850s, Courbet’s embrace of modernity led him beyond the Ornans subjects that had established his reputation. He captured the café culture of bohemian Paris, painting portraits of its denizens and works inspired by popular café chansons (songs). An avid hunter, Courbet also enjoyed critical and popular success with his hunting scenes , the first of which he exhibited at the Salon of 1857 alongside his portrait of the actor Louis Gueymard . Summering at the fashionable seaside resort of Trouville in 1865, he produced society portraits on commission as well as the more intimate Jo, La Belle Irlandaise , which fuses and . The following year, Courbet submitted Woman with a Parrot to the Salon, having vowed to paint a nude that its conservative jury would accept. Like  Manet’s Olympia of 1865 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Courbet’s nude was unmistakably modern as opposed to the idealized nude “Venuses” and “Eves” by Academic artists that proliferated at the Salons. His supporters lauded him for painting “the real, living French woman.”

Landscape  played a central role in Courbet’s imagery. From the beginning of his career, he identified himself with the topography of his native Ornans . The distinctive limestone cliffs of the surrounding Jura Mountains provide the backdrop for one of his early self-portraits and recur in Young Women from the Village . He developed a repertoire of landscape motifs rooted in his native Franche-Comté, including the Puits-Noir, or Black Well, which inspired a series of paintings that span more than a decade, and the source of the Loue River, a geological curiosity and popular tourist site. In the summer of 1864, he painted at least four variations, on canvases of the same size, of the Loue River as it surges forth from the mouth of the cave in which it originates . He used both palette knife and brush to render the rock formations and foaming surface of the rushing water. Visiting the south of France in 1854, Courbet produced a group of luminous, seemingly infinite views of the Mediterranean. He did not immerse himself fully in painting “landscapes of the sea,” as he preferred to call his seascapes, until subsequent trips to the Normandy coast, undertaken between 1859 and 1869, where he encountered Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler in 1865 . In 1870, Courbet exhibited only seascapes at the Salon—a calculated assertion of his command of the genre.

Read more HERE  about French Realist Painter Gustav Courbet.