Humanities – Visual Art

Realism: Primary Sources (mostly related to Gustave Courbet)

The following passages are culled from primary sources. The first two passages are statements by
Gustave Courbet, the French painter most strongly associated with a “realist” school or movement. In
the third passage, the anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an important friend of Courbet’s,
asserts some of his views on the place of art in society, with some specific reference to Courbet. The
penultimate passage is from one of several responses by the French novelist Emile Zola to the works of
Edouard Manet, another important painter sometimes labelled a realist. Finally, the poet Charles
Baudelaire, who responded to works by both Courbet and Manet, is represented in the form of a diatribe
on the advent of photography.
Note: Both Proudhon and Baudelaire are included, among many other contemporaries, in one of
Courbet’s major works, The Painter’s Atelier: A Real Allegory Determining Seven Years of My Life as
an Artist. In addition, Manet painted more than one image of Zola. The interchange between
writers/critics, painters, and social theorists was very lively in this period.

Italicized passages are introductory material written by Linda Nochlin to give background for the
primary sources.

GUSTAVE COURBET: 1819-1877
The Realist Manifesto

Gustave Courbet, leader and artistic embodiment of the Realist movement, had attracted scandal and
controversy since exhibiting his gigantic Burial at Ornans and Stone-Breakers at the Salon of 1850-1851.
Courbet's determination to paint unelevated, familiar subjects (preferably those from around his native village
of Ornans in the Franche-Comte) in a broad straightforward manner, on the grand scale hitherto reserved for
historical or religious painting, was immediately equated with social anarchy and political revolution by public
and critics during the period of conservative reaction following the downfall of the 1848 Revolutionary
Government.
When Courbet's major works, the Burial at Ornans and the newly painted Artist's Studio, were rejected by the
jury of the Universal Exposition of 1855, an infuriated Courbet withdrew the eleven pictures that they had
accepted and had his own exhibition building constructed on the Avenue Montaigne, where, with customary
bravado, he held a one-man show in competition with the official international exhibition.
The so-called "Realist Manifesto," reminiscent of the political manifestoes of this stormy period both in its
aggressive tone and in its concise setting-forth of a program, was actually the introduction to the Catalogue of
Courbet's private exhibition. According to some authorities, Courbet's ideas were put into coherent form by the
realist writer and critic Champfleury (see pp.36 to 45), Courbet's staunchest supporter and initiator of the
"bataille réaliste."

The title of Realist was thrust upon me just as the title of Romantic was imposed upon the men of 1830. Titles
have never given a true idea of things: if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary.
Without expanding on the greater or lesser accuracy of a name which nobody, I should hope, can really be
expected to understand, I will limit myself to a few words of elucidation in order to cut short the
misunderstandings.
I have studied, outside of any system and without prejudice, the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns. I
no more wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the
trivial goal of art for art's sake. No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition
the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality.
To know in order to be able to create, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas,
the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in
short, to create living art-this is my goal.

Courbet explained his position in art open letter to his students. To go backward is to do nothing. as artists without restraint. for each artist. the critic Castagnary. in my opinion. starting off from acquired results. has been. a horse. it is pure loss. I cannot teach my art. An age which has not been capable of expressing itself through its own artists has no right to be represented by subsequent artists. The history of an era is finished with that era itself and with those of its representatives who have expressed it. dated December 25. DECEMBER 25. The real artists are those who pick up their age exactly at the point to which it has been carried by preceding times. who was also in charge of running the studio and who later re-printed the letter under the title "Courbet: His Studio His Theories" in Les Libres Propos. I hold the artists of one century basically incapable of reproducing the aspect of a past or future century-in other words. his insistence on each individual's personal assimilation of tradition and unique interpretation of his own epoch. cannot dream of setting myself up as a professor. in other words. nothing but the talent issuing from his own inspiration and his own studies of tradition. What has been. The human spirit must always begin work afresh in the present. from conclusion to conclusion. I say in addition that. Historical art is by nature contemporary. which appeared in the Courrier du dimanche. or. I have to get things straight with you about that word direction. This would be a falsification of history. I cannot have. and you were eager to suggest that it be placed under my direction. who had always rejected academic training himself. I can't lay myself open to making it a question of teacher and students between us. the artist. nor the art of any school whatever. 1861 GENTLEMEN AND COLLEAGUES: You were anxious to open a studio of painting where you would be able to continue your education. 1861. it means that one has neither understood nor profited by the lessons of the past. the art of painting can only consist of the representation of objects which are visible and tangible for the artist. democratic atelier. 1864. was at first reluctant. and a deer (presumably stuffed) as well. Before making any reply. Above all. and upon the essentially concrete nature of painting itself make this letter Courbet's most important and far reaching contribution to art theory. It is not the task of modern times to add anything to the expression of former times to ennoble or embellish the past. I maintain that art is completely individual. His ideas about the impossibility of teaching art. for an artist art or talent can only be a way of applying his own personal abilities to the ideas and objects of the time in which he lives. the artist was probably assisted in putting his thoughts into words by his friend and supporter. who believe that every artist should be his own teacher. Each epoch must have its artists who express it and reproduce it for the future. where an atmosphere of mutual aid and equality would reign among the students arid their teacher and where the models were to include not only the usual nudes. pupils. But he then decided to open an unorthodox. An epoch can only be reproduced by its own artists. I. It is in this sense that I deny the possibility of historical art applied to the past. I must explain to you what I recently had the occasion to tell the congress at Antwerp: I do not have. Courbet received a petition from a group of dissatisfied Ecole des Beaux-Arts students requesting him to open a studio and teach them the theory and practice of Realism. PARIS. One must never start out from foregone conclusions proceeding from synthesis to synthesis. but an ox.Art Cannot Be Taught When in 1861. and is. since I deny that art can be taught. This explains why the archaic schools of all kinds are brought down to the most barren compilations . of painting the past or the future. I mean by the artists who lived in it.

With deepest sincerity. As soon as it is found there. Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing. a republican veteran of '93. consequently. It is the world come to be painted at my place. who support me in my idea. I shall try to give you a more exact idea of it through a dry description. is not within the realm of painting. composition. To the right are all the shareholders. . bottom and middle. No school is capable of pressing on to a synthesis in isolation. You see that the picture has no title [ie. like truth. dressed in old white linen made . to the artist who knows how to see it there. to teach this or that partial tradition of art. It is not possible to have schools for painting. there are those who serve me. without falling into abstraction. Schools have no use except for discerning the analytic procedures of art. the method by which. Painting can not. to form pupils. since Realism is a fact. received notions which have everywhere directed modern art up to this point.. or any other one of the extraordinary multiplicity of means the totality of which alone constitutes this art. let a partial aspect of art dominate. therefore. non-existent. I am in the middle. one only runs the risk of perverting and. the exploiters. religiously carrying a money-box on his right arm. There are those who live on life and who live on death. it has its artistic expression from these very qualities. is a thing which is relative to the time in which one lives and to the individual capable of understanding it. In a word. poverty. misery. wealth... and nor is Realism. color. Behind him is a priest with a triumphant look and a bloated red face. The scene takes place in my atelier in Paris. It is the moral and physical history of my workshop. To achieve this aim. painting. while covering it with his left hand he seemed to be saying. The beautiful exists in nature and may be encountered in the midst of reality under the most diverse aspects. With such ideas. it belongs to art. . The painting is divided into two parts. not visible. . and I would eagerly give myself to everything you want of me in order to attain this goal. first stage. who would be my collaborators and not my pupils. there are only painters.. could certainly be useful and contribute to the opening of the era of modern painting. the full liberty of his own expression in the application of this method. the people. unable to open a school. one becomes a painter. The expression of the beautiful bears a precise relation to the power of perception acquired by the artist. in addition. I will list the characters beginning at the extreme left. which will show that I am not dead yet. In front of them is a poor withered old man. It is society at its top. recalling those extremely fruitful collaborations of the studios of the Renaissance. that is to say friends. ... people who live on death . 'It is I who am on the right track' . GUSTAVE COURBET From a letter from Courbet to a friend. I can only explain to some artists. a man of ninety years. To the left is the other world of the trivial life. holding his ammunition bag. As soon as beauty is real and visible. an object which is abstract. there is no story or explicit subject matter]. by which I myself have tried to become one since my earliest days. The beauty provided by nature is superior to all the inventions of the artist.I maintain. in my opinion. Beauty. the writer Champfleury (who is one of the seated characters on the right- hand side of The Painter’s Studio) in explanation of the painting: [The Studio is] perhaps even larger than the Burial. I am. the words of which consist of all visible objects. Artifice has no right to amplify this expression. the organization of a communal studio. At the edge is a Jew I saw in England making his way through the febrile activity of the London streets. or rather. fellow workers and amateurs from the art world. that painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things It is a completely physical language. of weakening it. who participate in my action. Here are my basic ideas about art. whether it be drawing. but never in inventing or creating that thing itself. the exploited. it is my way of seeing society in its interests and its passions. leaving to each person the complete control of his individuality. by meddling with it. to think of the possibility of opening a school for the teaching of conventional principles would be going back to the incomplete.

a textile peddler. for everything sticks together. music. it is not true that the only aim of art is pleasure. . the painting of Courbet is more serious and higher in its aim than almost anything that the Dutch school has left.) Next come a hunter. for pleasure is not an end. are a guitar and a plumed hat. This does not exclude. Art has the objective of leading us to the knowledge of ourselves by the revelation of all our thoughts. ask if I can count on him). . to deceive ourselves and lead ourselves into evil with mirages as the classicists and romantics would have it. . in the accomplishment of their civic and domestic functions. I would be pleased if he would pose. You are seated on a stool. aside from the finish of the execution. It is against this degrading theory of art for art's sake that Courbet and. Proudhon (I would like to have the philosopher Proudhon who is of our way of seeing. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon The Aim of Art To paint men in the sincerity of their natures and their habits.. Then comes the canvas at my easel with me painting it seen from the Assyrian side of my head. since it is thus that the ideal is understood. I should have begun with Baudelaire. but rather. of all our tendencies. Then it is your turn towards the foreground of the composition. a death's head on a newspaper. . The people who want to judge will have their work cut out for them. 'No. a worker.. to the perfecting of our being. but it would take too long to start again. Following this woman come Promayet with his violin . In all these respects. .. so to speak. Work will accomplish. to surprise them. with their present-day appearance. everything has an aim in humanity and in nature: the idea of a faculty without aim.out of patches and a visored cap. more idealized.. it is not true that it has no other aim but itself. Then behind him are Bruyas. and in this way it contributes to the development of our dignity. Then towards the extreme right. Behind my chair is a nude female model. in the distant future beauty will be revealed by the worker. Cuenot. of a cause without effect is as absurd as that of an effect without a cause. an artist's dummy. of our vices. on work [a central concept for Courbet and Realism] What neither gymnastics. and all show the greatest interest. [But] I have explained it all to you quite badly. to intoxicate ourselves with illusions. Let us humble ourselves beneath the weight of our unworthiness. I dare say that. . everything is conjoined. It was not given to us to feed ourselves with myths. The cloth peddler presides over all of this: he displays his finery to everyone. the whole school called realist up until the present. (He is pitied by the Jew. lying in the foreground.. It is really not such a trifling thing to be able to show us as we are.” From Philosophie du progrès. an undertaker. is Baudelaire reading a large book. exhibitions more flattering to our vanity. a strong-man. by the veritable ascetic. nor all combined have been able to do. Buchon. boldly arise and energetically protest. a workman's wife. You'll have to understand it as best you can. If you see him. Next to you and closer to the foreground is a woman of the world and her husband. of a principle without consequence. each in his own way Behind him. and it is in the innumerable forms of industry that beauty will . a reaper. I do not think that nowadays either Courbet or anyone else will succeed in it. to deliver ourselves from these harmful illusions by denouncing them . Just as in ancient times beauty was brought by the gods. philosophy. a buffoon. with him.. in the future. as well as all the sectarians of a vain ideal. an Irishwoman suckling a child. rather than citing them from his speeches): "no. legs crossed and a hat on your lap. . in their work. above all without pose. of our virtues." says he (I translate here Courbet's ideas as embodied in his works. of our ridiculousness. But-and I don't hide it-I do not expect to see anything of the sort. I started on the wrong side. politics. they will manage as best they can. not simply for the pleasure of jeering. He looks down at the romantic cast-offs at his feet. She is leaning on the back of my chair to watch me paint for a moment. both luxuriously dressed. in the dishabille of their consciousness. sitting on the edge of a table. everything is connected. but as the aim of general education and by way of aesthetic information: such would seem to me to be the true point of departure for modern art. Second part. even the most secret ones.

he is a simple analyst. Perhaps you thought of the sufferings of the people in representing two members of the great family of manual laborers exercising a profession so difficult and so poorly remunerated?" "You are right. cathedrals. palaces. with no magistrates or priests. Edouard Manet applies the same method to each of his works. more beautiful and more free than the Greeks had ever been. The past forgotten. he calmly places a few objects and people in a corner of his studio and begins to paint the whole thing. will form all together on the cul-tivated Earth a familv of heroes. all human efforts are directed toward the search for sure and definitive principles in nature. Emile Zola Characteristics of Manet’s Style He is a child of our times. Perhaps the truth is that the public. including all of their furnishings. ." "What? Nothing more? . all the disciplines. seeing him paint Spanish scenes and costumes. He has been reproached for imitating the Spanish masters. Paris. . . But it is good to know that if Edouard Manet painted espadas or majos. . . . From this it is not far to go on to an accusation of plagiarism. carefully analyzing nature all the while. And this movement has been taking place not only in the realm of science. his labor is much more interesting than the plagiarisms of his colleagues. 1892. Wrong. Citizen Master Painter. we might be able to accomplish something. Then. p. I cannot accept that such a subject be treated without a preconceived idea. Then forbid artists to practice their art for fifty years. "I found the motif picturesque and suitable for me. finally. one is always someone's son. Our modern landscapists have gone far beyond our painters of history and genre because they have studied our countryside. . decided that he took his models from across the Pyrenees. what brought you to do your Stonebreaker&?" "But. It is up to you to find it." -Account of a conversation between Courbet and Proudhon in the early 1850s. it was because in his studio he had Spanish . salons. which has just barely begun. to which Greece gave the highest expression. and artists. Souvenirs de Schaunard. . But since his Dejeuner sur l'herbe he seems to me to have confirmed clearly that personality which I have tried to explain and briefly comment upon. and without ever having meditated my subject. and his works have for me the enormous charm of a precise description made in a human and original language. (Note: In art there are really only two periods: the religious or idolatrous epoch. . and boudoirs. with no nobles or slaves. from Alexandre Schanne. my friends! There is always in my painting a humanistic philosophical idea more or less hidden. I will agree that there may be some resemblance between his early works and those of these masters. For our swiftest regeneration I would like to burn all the museums. content to translate the first spot of forest they come upon. art itself thus leads toward certitude. . The artist is an interpreter of that which is. . . Citizen Philosopher. both ancient and modern.301. each one original and true." From that time on it was not unusual to hear Courbet say: "One would think I paint for the pleasure of it. I see him as an analytic painter. I repeat.) A supposed conversation between Courbet and Proudhon about Courbet’s painting The Stonebreakers: "Tell me now.find diverse forms of expression. I must have thought of that. sages. All the problems have once more been called into question: science wanted a firm basis and therefore returned to a precise observation of facts. . While others rack their brains to invent a new Death of Caesar or a new Socrates Drinking the Hemlock." answered the Citizen Master Painter. laborious mankind. . and the industrial or humanitarian epoch.

such as skeletons or chamber-pots]. then it will be so much the worse for us! It is an incontestable. like all other purely material developments of progress. and his canvases have too individual an accent for anyone to find him nothing but a bastard of Velasquez and Goya . Charles Baudelaire [poet and friend of Courbet: he spoke of the “heroism of everyday life. . Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality. And now the faithful says to himself: "Since Photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire [they really believe that. those terrible witnesses. and I believe only in Nature [there are good reasons for that]. I believe that Art is. the facts. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary. then. an imbecility. upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man's soul. In matters of painting and sculpture. thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally. . which have neither created nor supplemented literature. like printing or shorthand. I am convinced that the ill-applied developments of photography. is this: "I believe in Nature. then Photography and Art are the same thing. which is already so scarce. which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts-but the very humble servant. this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness. in short. a new industry arose which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind. Nevertheless it is a happiness to dream. it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether. above all in France (and I do not think that anyone at all would dare to state the contrary)." From that moment our squalid society rushed. the present-day Credo of the sophisticated. . As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter. . but had also the air of a vengeance. an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun- worshippers. . the disaster is verifiable. and that the public should react upon the artist. and cannot be other than. an irresistible law that the artist should act upon the public. let it even provide information to corroborate the astronomer's hypotheses. and besides. each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees. let it be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exactitude in his profession-up to that point nothing could be better. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions. thus committing a double sacrilege and insulting at one and the same time the divine art of painting and the noble art of the actor. to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. Let it hasten to enrich the tourist's album and restore to his eye the precision which his memory may lack. Strange abominations took form. Daguerre was his Messiah. It is time. and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt. . By bringing together a group of male and female clowns. the mad fools!]. A madness. have contributed much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius.costumes which he thought beautiful in color. He visited Spain only in 1866. and by begging these heroes to be so kind as to hold their chance grimaces for the time necessary for the performance. But I ask you! does the painter still know this happiness? . got up like butchers and laundry-maids at a carnival. and enlarge microscopic animals. Narcissus to a man. for it to return to its true duty. let it adorn the naturalist's library. . . Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people.”] The Modern Public and Photography (Salon of 1859) During this lamentable period. the exact reproduction of Nature [a timid and dissident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent objects of nature. The idolatrous mob demanded an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature-that is perfectly understood. the operator flattered himself that he was reproducing tragic or elegant scenes from ancient history. ." A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. . every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies. are easy to study. Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of art.