Courbet's art training began
at the age of 14, with lessons from "Pere" Baud, a
former pupil of the Neo-Classical painter Baron Gros. His parents
were hoping that Gustave would study law when he moved to the
nearby university town of Besanconin 1837, but he swiftly enrolled
at the Academy, taking life classes under M. Flajoulot, another
exponent of Classicism.
Two years later, Courbet left Besancon for Paris, which in the
mid 19th century had become the European center not only for
art, but also for radicals and political activists of all kinds.
A tall and strikingly handsome young man, the 20-year-old artist
was supremely self-confident and gregarious, but his time in
Paris started quietly enough. He began studying at the studio
of a now obscure painter, M. Steuben, copied widely from the
pictures in the Louvre and channeled his energies into seeking
success at the Salon.
Courbet's early attempts at recognition were none too successful.
Between 1841 and 1847, only three of the 25 works he submitted
were passed by the selection committee. And for the first 10
years he sold almost nothing, remaining almost entirely dependent
on his family sending him money. During this period he also met
Virginia Binet, about whom little is known except that she became
his mistress and bore him a son in 1847.
One of the works Courbet exhibited at the Salon caught the eye
of a Dutch dealer, who invited him to Holland and commissioned
a portrait. In addition, he had the support of the new friends
he had made in Paris. In January 1848 he wrote enthusiastically
to his parents that he was very close to making a breakthrough.
Influential people, he assured them, were impressed by his work
and were forming a new school, with him at the head.
Courbet's Realist Friends
The friends in question came
from the circle which gathered at the Brasserie Andler (or the
"Temple of Realism" as it was soon to be nicknamed).
Among them were the poet Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Proudhon,
and the anarchist; Jules Champfleury, the Realist author and
critic; and his cousin and childhood friend Max Buchon.
It was at the Brasserie that the term "Realism" was
first coined to describe not only a style of art and literature
which presented life as it was, but also a philosophy committed
to contemporary social issues. The Brasserie Andler was just
down the road from Courbet's studio, and he was often to be seen
in the crowed cafe. His larger-than-life personality soon made
him the center of the animated discussions which went on there
nightly. He preserved his provincial Jura accent and smoked old-fashioned
pipes; he was a great eater, a great drinker and above all a
great talker. But he had adopted his role of semi-literate peasant
for a reason - both to distance himself from the bourgeois world
of Paris and to gain acceptance in avant-garde society. It also
concealed an inner loneliness. He later wrote: "Behind this
laughing mask of mine which you know, I conceal grief and bitterness,
and a sadness which clings to my heart like a vampire. In the
society in which we live, it doesn't take much to reach the void".
In February 1848 that society was violently shaken, when rioting
broke out on the streets of Paris. Louis Philippe abdicated and
a provisional Republican government took control. Courbet sided
with the popular insurrection, although he took little part in
the fighting. In the uneasy political atmosphere, the Salon still
opened, but this time without a selection committee. Courbet,
who had suffered so many rejections in the past, now had ten
Although the Second Republic
survived for less than four years until Louis-Napoleon's coup
d'etat, Courbet's name was made. His Salon entries of 1848 were
greeted enthusiastically by the critics and the following year
his large painting After Dinner at Ornans won a gold medal
and was purchased by the government. The medal was particularly
important, since it exempted Courbet from the selection procedure
at future Salons.
The timing of this privilege was most fortuitous, as the storm
of protest against the Realist movement was about to break. Probably
on the advice of Champfleury, Courbet had been steadily abandoning
his early Romantic subject-matter in favor of scenes of his beloved
Ornans - which he visited regularly - containing portraits of
his family, friends and neighbors. The most striking example
of this was Burial at Ornans which went on show at the
1850-1851 Salon. Courbet had embarked on this huge painting in
the summer of 1849, with virtually everyone in the district clamoring
to be included. The result was a vast, frieze-like composition,
designed to catch the eye. The critics hated it. It was too big;
the figures were too ugly; the beadles looked drunk; it was too
individual. From now on every picture Courbet exhibited provoked
Not all the hostility which Courbet aroused can be attributed
to purely artistic factors, however. In the aftermath of the
Revolution, pictures of unidealized and uncompromising peasants,
portrayed on a heroic scale, must have seemed deeply threatening
to the new regime and its supporters. These fears were increased
by friends such as Proudhon, who interpreted the works as political
statements in a way that the artist had probably never intended.
A Rebellious Stand
Courbet did not bother to deny
such claims. He was rarely averse to provoking those in authority
and took great pleasure in the vicarious radicalism of his reputation.
So in 1853, when the government offered him an olive branch,
Courbet was swift to rebuff it. This attempt at appeasement came
when the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, the Director of Fine Arts, proposed
to Courbet that he should produce a major painting for the forthcoming
World Exhibition, provided only that he submit a sketch in advance.
Courbet rejected the overture indignantly, as a breach of his
intellectual liberty. Needless to say, three of his most significant
contributions to the exhibition were eventually rejected. The
artist was disappointed, but not disheartened. And in 1855, in
an unprecedented show of artistic independence, he staged his
own one-man exhibition alongside the official displays.
The show was advertised under the banner of REALISM and contained
a representative selection of Courbet's work dating back to the
early 1840's. The centerpiece was his most original and ambitious
canvas, The Painter's Studio - a monumental depiction
of the artist's studio, peopled with a mixture of close friends
and symbolic figures.
A Break with the Past
This private exhibition marked
a watershed in Courbet's life, separating him from many of his
most formative influences. Proudhon had been jailed and Buchon
exiled for their activities during the Revolution, while Champfleury
gradually dissociated himself from his friend's socialist leanings.
There were upheavals in Courbet's personal life, too. His longstanding
mistress, Virginia Binet, left him in the early 1850s, taking
their young son with her. Courbet was surprisingly philosophical
about this, writing to a friend that his art was keeping him
busy and that in any case a married man was a reactionary.
Increasing recognition outside Paris made Courbet less reliant
on success at the Salon and he traveled extensively after 1855.
In Frankfurt, he was treated as a celebrity, with the local Academy
placing a studio at his disposal. In Trouville, on the Normandy
coast, he met up with James Whistler and plied a profitable trade
in seascapes and portraits of the local beauties; in Etretat
he painted with the youthful Monet. He exhibited in Germany,
Holland, Belgium and England, and decorations were showered on
him, culminating in a gold medal from Leopold II of Belgium and
the Order of St. Michael from Ludwig II of Bavaria, both awarded
Undoubtedly, part of the reason that Courbet traveled so widely
during the late 1850s and 1860s was to enjoy such accolades,
but it was also partly to distance himself from a government
that he still believed was hostile to him. When he was finally
offered the Legion of Honor in 1870, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian
War, it was already too late. Courbet declined the decoration
grandly, as an example of state interference in art.
The gesture was remembered when the government fell, and Courbet
was elected chairman of the republican Arts Commission. The following
year, he narrowly missed election to the National Assembly, but
was accepted as a counselor, which in turn made him a member
of the Commune. Tenure of these posts implicated Courbet in the
destruction of the column in the Place Vendome, a monument to
Napoleon's victories, and when the Commune failed, he was arrested
and condemned to six months' imprisonment and a fine of 500 francs.
A Series of Misfortunes
Courbet began his sentence at
Sainte-Pelagie prison in September 1871. But illness cut short
his stay, and he soon was removed to a clinic at Neuilly. Misfortune
dogged him: his son died in 1872, and throughout the following
winter Courbet was plagued with rheumatism and liver problems.
Worse was to follow. In May 1873, the new government ordered
him to pay for the reconstruction of the Vendome Column. The
cost of this - later confirmed at over 300,000 francs - was prohibitive,
and Courbet was obliged to flee from France. He chose Switzerland,
where he felt at home among the French-speaking community and
the familiar Jura mountains. The exiled artist settled at La
Tour de Peilz, where he remained in touch with French dissidents
and - despite heavy drinking - was able to continue painting.
He never gave up hope of returning to France, but the chance
of a reprieve never came. Courbet contracted dropsy and died
on the last day of 1877. He was buried locally but it was not
until 1919, that his remains were finally transferred to the
cemetery at Ornans.