Gustave Courbet

‘To record the manners, ideas and aspects of the age as I myself saw them… to create living art — that is my aim,’ wrote the famously temperamental pioneer of 19th-century Realism, Gustave Courbet.

In the France of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, Courbet’s ‘aim’ was nothing less than revolutionary. A committed socialistic republican, he employed the monumental scale of Eugène Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David’s classical realism but replaced its gods and historical figures with everyday scenes of peasant culture or the unidealised human body. It was an artistic revolution that produced some of the most important works of 19th-century painting and paved the way for the birth of modern art.

Courbet was born in 1819 into the farming community of Franche-Comté on France’s border with Switzerland. Though he moved to Paris at the age of 20, the people of Franche-Comté would appear in many of his works.

His breakthrough came with three depictions of the people of his homeland. A Burial at Ornans (1849–50), Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair (1850) and The Stone-Breakers (1849) were exhibited at the 1851 Salon, where they caused a scandal with what was considered Courbet’s vulgar aggrandisement of humble, everyday subject matter.

Courbet’s work would always court the contempt of the bourgeois establishment of Napoleon III’s France. Much of his work in the 1850s was vilified by the French Academy, including his allegorical masterpiece, Painter’s Studio (1854–55), which was rejected from the Exposition Universelle in 1855. But over his lifetime he attracted as many admirers as detractors. Though his politics remained fiercely revolutionary and some of his work, such as Origin of the World (1866), pushed realism to new levels of candour, by 1870 he had become an establishment figure himself.

After the fall of Napoleon III, Courbet spent six months in prison for his role in the 1871 Paris Commune. Released with a huge fine to pay, he fled to Switzerland where, despite ill health and the shoddy influence of his many assistants, he produced late masterpieces such as Winter Landscape: The Dents du Midi (1876) and Panorama of the Alps (1877).

In 2015, Courbet’s Femme nue couchée (1862), a celebrated work from his series of pivotal paintings of nudes spanning the early 1850s to the late 1860s, sold for $15.3 million at Christie’s New York — a world record price for the artist at auction.

GUSTAVE COURBET (FRENCH, 1819–1877)

Le Ruisseau de Puits Noir

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Femme nue couchée

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Le Chasseur à l’affût

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Les Récits de la Grand-Mère Salvan (Les trois soeurs de Courbet)

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Bords de la Loue avec rochers à gauche

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Paysage près d'Ornans

GUSTAVE COURBET (FRENCH, 1819-1877)

Le Château de Chillon, Lake Geneva

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Bords de la Mer, Palavas

GUSTAVE COURBET (French, 1819-1877)

Les cribleuses de blé, esquisse

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Les dunes de Deauville

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Le Château de Chillon

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Chasseurs dans le neige

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

La manche, environs d'Étretat

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Côte normande près de Trouville, voiliers vu de la grève

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Portrait du général Cluseret

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Les rochers de Bonnevaux

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Le château de Chillon

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Le jardin de la Mère Toutain à Honfleur

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Path through the Forest

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

The Beach at Trouville

GUSTAVE COURBET (FRENCH, 1819-1877)

Le Château de Chillon, Lake Geneva

GUSTAVE COURBET (FRENCH, 1819-1877)

Deux vaches a la robe marron

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Château au bord de la rivière

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Le Château de Beaulieu; près de Lausanne

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Grands Chênes, bords de l’eau, Port-Berteau

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Le Ruisseau de Plaisir-Fontaine

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Le violoncelliste, autoportrait de l'artiste

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Nature morte aux trois pommes

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Lac Léman avant la tempête

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Le Lac Léman (La Dent du midi)

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Les Gorges de Saillon

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

La femme et l'âne dans un paysage de neige

Gustave Courbet (Ornans 1819-1877 La-Tour-De-Peilz)

Nature morte aux pommes et aux poires