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Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet

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Gustave Courbet

323 pages
3 hours
Sep 15, 2015


Ornans, Courbet’s birthplace, is near the beautiful valley of the Doubs River, and it was here as a boy, and later as a man, that he absorbed the love of landscape.
He was by nature a revolutionary, a man born to oppose existing order and to assert his independence; he had that quality of bluster and brutality which makes the revolutionary count in art as well as in politics. In both directions his spirit of revolt manifested itself. He went to Paris to study art, yet he did not attach himself to the studio of any of the prominent masters. Already in his country home he had had a little instruction in painting, and preferred to study the masterpieces of the Louvre. At first his pictures were not sufficiently distinctive to arouse any opposition, and were admitted to the Salon. Then followed the Funeral at Ornans, which the critics violently assailed: “A masquerade funeral, six metres long, in which there is more to laugh at than to weep over.” Indeed, the real offence of Courbet’s pictures was that they represented live flesh and blood. They depicted men and women as they really are and realistically doing the business in which they are engaged. His figures were not men and women deprived of personality and idealised into a type, posed in positions that will decorate the canvas. He advocated painting things as they are, and proclaimed that la vérité vraie must be the aim of the artist. So at the Universal Exposition of 1855 he withdrew his pictures from the exhibition grounds and set them in a wooden booth, just outside the entrance. Over the booth he posted a sign with large lettering. It read, simply: “Courbet – Realist.” Like every revolutionary, he was an extremist. He ignored the fact that to every artist the truth of nature appears under a different guise according to his way of seeing and experiencing. Instead, he adhered to the notion that art is only a copying of nature and not a matter also of selection and arrangement. In his contempt for prettiness Courbet often chose subjects which may fairly be called ugly. But that he also had a sense of beauty may be seen in his landscapes. That sense, mingled with his capacity for deep emotion, appears in his marines – these last being his most impressive work. Moreover, in all his works, whether attractive or not to the observer, he proved himself a powerful painter, painting in a broad, free manner, with a fine feeling for colour, and with a firmness of pigment that made all his representations very real and stirring.
Sep 15, 2015

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Gustave Courbet - Georges Riat


1. Self-Portrait, c. 1850-1853.

Oil on canvas, 71.5 x 59 cm.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Introduction: Childhood and

Youth in Ornans and Besançon

The artist Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet was born in Ornans on the 10th of June 1819. Most of Courbet’s biographers say that he was of farming stock, and was a farmer himself. The latter statement is wrong, while the former should be clarified. His father, Régis Courbet, was an important landowner. He owned an estate on a plateau, which although fragmented, as was often the case in Franche-Comté, spread over the communities of Flagey, Silley and Chantrans.

A letter from Max Buchon to Champfleury depicts Régis Courbet in a lively, picturesque way: "The father is much more idealistic, a constant talker and nature-lover, sober as an Arab, tall, long-legged, quite handsome in his youth, immensely affectionate, never knowing what time it is, never wearing out his clothes, a seeker of ideas and agricultural innovations, who invented his own special harrow, and who, in spite of the fact that he had a wife and daughters to support, farmed in a way that made him little profit. The old folks in the area still recall that improved" harrow, which destroyed the crops, as well as a certain carriage, with a fifth wheel on the back which held the food baskets for the hunt. These inventions and a few others in the same vein earned him the nickname, cudot, which in the local dialect described someone possessed by pipe-dreams. He was on the whole an excellent fellow who, had he been more practical, would have let out his lands to sharecroppers and lived the life of a country squire.

Courbet’s mother, Sylvie Oudot, was a relative of the jurist Oudot, a professor of law in Paris, and was quite different. A hard-working woman, constantly busy patching up the damage from her husband’s blunders and hare-brained schemes, she was the one who actually ran the farm, while still found the time to bring up her children and relax in the evenings by playing the flute.

Gustave was the firstborn. After him came three daughters, whom the artist quite often included within his paintings, most notably in Young Women from the Village. They were the somewhat sickly Zélie, who played the guitar; the overly sentimental Zoé, who had a fiery imagination; and Juliette, the youngest, lively and devout, and who at an early age fell in love with the piano. Added to this family circle were Grandfather and Grandmother Oudot, objects of Courbet’s constant affection, so the artist grew up in an atmosphere which was much more bourgeois than peasant, though not so bourgeois that the young man was deprived of the wonders of nature, and not so peasant that there was any question of his becoming anything but an educated professional.

At first glance, it is easy to see the imprint of both nature and nurture upon Courbet’s personality. His Grandfather Jean-Antoine Oudot, a raging revolutionary of 1793 and fervent follower of Voltaire, taught him by example to espouse republican, anticlerical ideas; his father’s outrageous behaviour explains some of his own, as well as his pride, vanity, and pursuit of glory; from his mother he received, in spite of appearances, a refinement and thoughtfulness, examples of which are plentiful throughout his life, but which he kept carefully hidden from all but those closest to him. His long ancestry of wine growers and farmers also made him a man of the soil, a terrien, with all that this word implies in terms of health, robustness, perseverance, determined possessiveness and occasionally a certain vulgarity, along with an uncompromising frankness and a roughness of character. In short, he inherited that rare flame of genius that made it possible for him to become one of the greatest artists who ever lived.

In 1831, his parents sent him to the lower seminary in Ornans, which prepared pupils not only for the upper seminary, but also for secular careers. Courbet did not do well there, being unable to take an interest in Latin, Greek or mathematics and frequently playing hooky. He was known for his skill in chasing butterflies and his knowledge of the surrounding trails, so much so that he was picked to be the guide on Sunday outings.

If Courbet paid little attention to classical studies, it was a different story when it came to drawing, and even painting, which soon began to interest him. From that moment on his art teacher, Father Beau, had no pupil who was more attentive or serious. It was not long before the pupil knew as much as his teacher. Mademoiselle Juliette Courbet religiously kept albums filled with his drawings; studies of flowers, profiles, heads, sketches of landscapes, fantasies, all of which bear witness to his fervour for drawing. Such a calling was not at all to the liking of Courbet’s father, who wanted his son to study at the École Polytechnique. Therefore in October 1837 he sent him to study philosophy at the royal secondary school in Besançon, thinking that boarding school would straighten him out. But in fact the opposite occurred, and the many letters from the son to his parents show how poorly he adjusted to this existence which was so new to him.

He found the daily schedule too busy. If only the living conditions had been decent! In the morning they gave him just one piece of bread. At noon, it was a tiny ladleful of soup, a plate of fried potatoes or cabbage or some other vegetable always boiled, and an apple or a pear, with a little glass of wine, without much colour to it, the whole lot poorly presented, and with more often than not a strange taste or odour about it. In the evening, he was given a main dish, salad, and an apple, and he was so rushed that it was not unusual for him to leave with half his meal in his pocket. The beds were small and hard; it did no good to pile all his clothes over him, he was still cold, and he begged them to send him a blanket. Such was the unflattering picture that he painted of the school. He ended with these sad yet hopeful words; I can’t wait to see Ornans and all of you; that’s understandable as it’s the first time I’ve left home!

His resignation was only on the surface, and the letters that followed soon showed him to be in a state of rebellion. The father remained intractable, and, despairing of ever convincing him, Courbet temporarily ceased putting his recriminations into writing. To console himself, he drew scenes of Ornans like those he had sent to his older cousin Oudot in Paris, which the latter’s wife had put into her album, resolving to later check whether the likeness was true.

After the Easter holiday, they set Courbet up in a little room on the main street of Besançon, in the house where Victor Hugo happened to have been born in 1802. This was during the same year (1838) that the great poet presented Ruy Blas, and one can only imagine how his glory haunted the dreams of the young student. Glad of his refound freedom, Courbet began to work on his mathematics with a talented teacher by the name of Meusy, and to attend courses at the Academy where Messieurs Perron, in philosophy, and Pérennès, in literature, were attracting crowds. Unfortunately, while he had good intentions when they were not backed up by inclination; the passion for drawing had seized him once again heart and soul.

2. The Bridge at Nahin, c. 1837.

Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 17 x 26 cm.

Institut Gustave-Courbet, Ornans.

3. The Loue Valley in Stormy Weather, c. 1849.

Oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm.

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg.

There were too many opportunities drawing him back to his former predilections. A painter named Jourdain lived in the same house, and, as mediocre as he was, Courbet quickly became very interested in his work. In addition, the landlord’s son, Arthaud, a student of Monsieur Flajoulot, director of the School of Fine Arts of Besançon, often took him along to his classes. Courbet didn’t hide this; Lately, he wrote to his parents, I have taken up a kind of drawing which I could do very well at, if my financial means allowed me to do it more regularly. It is lithography.

Among his first lithographs was The Bridge at Nahin, which he was to paint later with a skill neither apparent nor foreseen in his earlier work. Others were illustrations for Essais poétiques, par Max B…, vignettes par Gust. C... (Poetic Essays, by Max B…, with illustrations by Gust. C…) published in Besançon in 1839. The poet Max Buchon, who came from Salins, thus launched his first book, with the assistance of the person who was to become one of his best friends. Buchon was later the author of Matachin, a collection of poetry and stories from Franche-Comté written with a saucy realism, who had the good fortune to impress Buloz, the editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes.

Yet it was painting which called out to Courbet. Little by little, he forsook the path to the Academy for that leading to Art School. There he continued to meet, with increasing pleasure, the excellent Flajoulot who, although less modest than Father Beau, treated him with as much kindness. He was a follower of David, and called himself the king of drawing. It was not long before he nicknamed his pupil the king of colour. He gave Courbet a solid foundation in drawing; the artist’s stroke is clean, precise, delicate and expressive, and it was with great skill that his pencil, occasionally highlighted with firmly applied colours, analysed the life models at Flajoulot’s studio. Courbet’s drawings of eyes, legs, hands, feet, muscles, noses, ears, women’s torsos and breasts, soft and full, leave no doubt in this regard.

At about the same time Courbet did some small primitive paintings that do not show the same originality. These are landscapes from Ornans or the surrounding area; lively, grey, with blue skies, small in size and minute in detail, with a touching degree of good intentions, effort, and childishness. These include The Grape Harvest under the Roche du Mont, Chalimand Fields, Grandfather Oudot’s House, The Mill Road, The Entrance to Ornans, The Loue Valley in Stormy Weather and Montgesoye Islands, with poplars, willows on a hillock, and the artist, observing the scene, with his gun under his arm …

The inventory of all these works makes it obvious that the study of philosophy was gradually being abandoned. Did Courbet pass or fail the examination that he was studying for with so little interest? It would seem that he did not even sit it. He went home to Ornans for the summer holidays, and brought his father round to the idea of letting him go to Paris under the pretext of studying law.

Before he left, he delighted in exploring his beloved countryside, engraving its image forever on his memory. He gazed upon it once again with a filial affection, his sense of observation and his emotions quickened by the knowledge that he was soon to leave it. He carried these scenes of nature away with him, both the sweet and rough elements drawn and painted on his heart; as yet unaware of the immense importance they would have in his future artistic life.

4. Portrait of the Artist, known as

Mad with Fear, 1848 (?).Oil on paper

mounted on canvas, 60.5 x 50.5 cm.

Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst Arkitektur og Design, Oslo.

I. The Beginnings

Paris and the First Salons

The First Exhibitions in Paris

However excited Courbet must have been on his arrival in Paris, one can easily imagine that it was not long before pangs of homesickness set in. He tried to improve his spirits by visiting compatriots from Franche-Comté, either relatives or friends, who consoled him as best they could. Relations with his cousin Oudot, the professor at the School of Law, soon became strained; he was no doubt disappointed that the young man should so quickly give up a career in the law for painting. Courbet’s life was humble and uncomplicated. He seems to have taken lodgings for quite some time in a hotel, located at number 28 in the rue de Bucy, but the place was short on creature comforts, and Courbet wrote urgently to ask that sheets, a blanket, a pad and a mattress be sent from Ornans.

Soon, in a letter of the 24th of December 1842, he announced to his parents that he had finally found a studio, at 89, rue de la Harpe; It is a fine room with a wooden floor and a high ceiling, which will be warm in winter; the studio is upstairs, on the courtyard, and has two windows, one looking out on the courtyard, and the other in the roof.

From then on he spent long and fruitful hours visiting the galleries of the Louvre. Francis Wey relates in his Mémoires inédits (Unpublished Memoirs) that the fine fellow of a painter, François Bonvin, whose conscientious talent has not yet been properly appreciated, acted as a guide for his young friend.

Courbet was instinctively drawn to the masters who best exemplified the as yet unfocused ideas developing within him. He had no use for the Italian school. Later, Théophile Silvestre, recording a conversation that he had just had with the master, said that Courbet called Titian and Leonardo da Vinci frauds. As for Raphael, he conceded that he might have done a few portraits that were interesting, the works nevertheless show no thought, and that is why, no doubt, continued Courbet, our so-called idealists adore them. It is quite likely that he did actually say these things. But one must not give too much importance to these witticisms, which smack of an artist out to shock the critics, who were always the painter’s bête noir, and the bourgeoisie for whom he showed a profound scorn, as did many artists of his time.

In his disapproval of the Italian school, he made an exception for the Venetians; Veronese, and among others, Domenico Feti and Canaletto. Did he study the techniques of the Bolognese artists: the Carracci, Caravaggio or Guercino? Everything points to their influence on him having been exaggerated. He particularly admired, and studied, the great realists such as Ribera, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Van Ostade, Holbein, and, first and foremost, Rembrandt, who beguiles the intelligent, but bewilders and overwhelms the slow-witted.

5. Portrait of the Artist, known as

The Desperate Man, 1844-1845.

Oil on canvas, 45 x 54 cm. Private collection.

From this period and these preoccupations date Head of a Young Girl, Florentine Pastiche, executed in the Florentine manner; a Fantastical Landscape with Anthropomorphic Rocks, after the Flemish; a Portrait of the Artist, in the manner of the Venetians and copies of the works of Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Van Dyck, and Velázquez.

When not at the Louvre, Courbet was hard at work in his studio, painting studies or portraits. He also went frequently to the atelier de Suisse, where he drew from life models without supervision, and where he

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