Gustave Courbet was born in in 1819 in Ornans, a farming town in eastern France, into a closeknit family of the rural middle class. His happy childhood, spent in the woods and fields around Ornans, gave him a taste for the hunt and sport, a dislike for school, and a lifelong love of his native region. While at a boarding school in nearly Besançon, he was briefly taught by a local painter, Charles-Antoine Flajoulot (1774-1840), who called himself a disciple of Jacques-Louis David.
Having gone to Paris in 1839, ostensibly to study law but already determined to become an artist, Courbet entered the studio of Charles Steuben (1788-1856), an academic teacher, from whom, as he later claimed, he learned nothing. Determined to be his own teacher, he launched himself on a course of independent study painting the nude at the teacherless Académie Suisse and copying the Spanish, Venetian, and Dutch masters at the Louvre. The course of his self-education in six years of strenuous work is difficult to chart; much of his early work has been lost. An early attempt at a narrative composition, Lot and His Daughters (private collection, Paris), painted in 1840 and submitted unsuccessfully to the Salon of 1844, seems, in its hearty crudity, like a caricature of Salon painting. But there is energy in its awkwardness, and its nudes give a foretaste of the carnality that was to infuriate his future critics. Famously handsome, Courbet was attractive to women. One of his mistresses bore him a son in 1847. But self-absorption made him unsuited for matrimony, which he regarded, horrified, as slavery.
His imagination needed the stimulus of physical presence and was most deeply stirred by the tangible reality of things and beings. Portraits posed by members of his family gave early proof of his talent, but his favorite subject was himself, and it was in self-portraits that he gave the strongest evidence of a personal style. Theatrical performances as much as likenesses, they show him in dramatic roles-as a man on the verge of madness (The Desperate Man, 1847), as infatuated lover (Lovers in the Countryside, 1844), inspired artist (The Sculptor, 1844), or wounded duelist (The Wounded Man, 1844, Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Romantic in sentiment, these youthful works have painterly qualities that reflect his study of the masters, particularly the baroque painters of dramatic light-and-shadow modeling, Caravaggio, Ribera, and Rembrandt. The 1840s were a time of struggle during which Salon juries often refused his submissions. Self-portrait with Black Spaniel (1844, PetitPal), a work of very confident execution and the first of his paintings to be accepted for the Salon, continued the long series of his self-portraits, followed by Self-Portrait with Leather Belt (c. 1846, Louvre), Self-Portrait as Cellist (c. 1847, National Museum, Stockholm), and the masterly Self-Portrait with Pipe (c. 1849, Musée Fabre, Montpellier). The Guitar Player (c. 1844, private collection, Bedford, New York), a romantic costume piece, was admitted to the Salon of 1845 that rejected The Hammock (1844-1845, Oskar Reinhart Stiftung, Winterthur), an early instance of what was to be a recurrent motif ín Courbet's work: a sexually attractive woman observed while asleep. As an outsider by choice, he cheerfully defied the official establishment, certain of winning his public by the sheer strength of native genius: a "student of nature" who owed no debt to any teacher. But the "nature" that nourished his art was an irresistible appetite for painting which initially led him to the museum, where, aided by prodigious technical facility, he plundered the masters of whatever appealed to his instinct--his nature.
The Revolution of 1848 brought his work to a wider audience. Compulsively gregarious, he shone nightly in high-spirited gatherings at Andler's beer hall, where his companions included the painter François Bonvin (1877-1887), the musician Alphonse Promayet, the poet Charles Baudelaire, and the critic Jules Champfleury. To the Salon of 1849, which, unlike the revolutionary Salon of 1848, was no longer non-juried, he submitted eleven paintings. Among those accepted was After Dinner at Ornans (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille), an intimately domestic scene boldly treated in dimensions normally reserved for historical subjects. Its grave realism, reminiscent of Louis Le Nain's (1593-1648) Peasant Repast (1642, Louvre), was admired by artists (Eugène Delacroix) and critics (Champfleury) and earned him a gold medal, which rendered him hors concours for life at the Salons.
In the autumn of 1849 he returned to Ornans, where his father had prepared a studio for him. With the coming Salon in view, he rapidly completed a group of nine paintings, including several of monumental dimensions. The funeral of his maternal grandfather, Antoine Oudot, gave him the idea for the enormous Funeral at Ornans (Louvre), posed by members of his family and citizens of Ornans gathered around the priest officiating at the open grave. A second entry, the life-size Stonebreakers (formerly Dresden Museum, destroyed in 1945), recalled an encounter with road menders in the vicinity of Ornans. Exhibited at the time when a reaction against the recent revolution was gathering force, these unadorned scenes from common life were vehemently denounced for their supposedly socialist tendency and for what critics regarded as their offensive ugliness.
The coup d'état of December 1851, which made Louis-Napoleon the dictator of France and led to his "election" as emperor in 1852, drastically changed the climate in the world of art. The government of Napoleon III, though liberal to a degree, did not tolerate genuine dissent. Appeased by lavish patronage, many artists submitted. Courbet gave himself truculent oppositional airs, but thereafter avoided subjects that could be seen as hostile to the regime. Shortly before Napoleon's seizure of power, Courbet undertook a composition meant to disarm his critics, Young Ladies of the Village Giving Alms to a Cow Girl (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which was bought, even before its exhibition at the Salon of 1852, by one of the most powerful men of the new regime, Napoleon's half brother, comte de Morny. For the Salon of 1853, Courbet once again made an effort at a spectacular presentation. The political situation urged caution in the choice of subjects, for which he sought to compensate by a show of artistic daring. The Bathers (1853, Musée Fabre, Montpellier), his first exhibited nude of large dimensions, caused a lively scandal by the exuberant fleshiness of the main bather's back and posterior. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Courbet's socialist friend, read an indictment of bourgeois society into these fesses colossales, while Delacroix, who admired the nude's vigorous execution, deplored the ponderous insignificance of its gesture. Courbet's best-liked picture at the Salon, The Sleeping Spinner (1853, Musée Fabre, Montpellier), the portrait of a buxom girl in a drowse beside her spinning wheel, was bought by Alfred Bruyas, an art patron of Montpellier, who also acquired the controversial Bathers, beginning a long association with the artist who was soon to be in need of a financial backer. His Portrait of Bruyas (1853, Musée Fabre, Montpellier), which shows the sitter holding a volume entitled La Solution, hints at the role Courbet had in mind for his patron. Insisting on total artistic freedom, and aware that, as a result, he could not rely on state subsidies, he envisioned support freely given by private patrons as a desirable alternative. The mutual accommodation of independent artist and private patron was the "solution" that he proposed and that Bruyas cautiously accepted as the basis of a free art-economy of the future. The need for such an arrangement was impressed on Courbet by his dealings with the government's director of the Beaux-Arts, comte Nieuwerkerke, who had invited him to paint a large picture "in his most vigorous style" for the Universal Exposition of 1855. There were only two conditions: the submission of a preliminary sketch and approval of the finished painting by a jury of his own choice. This moved Courbet to declare that he would not have his work judged by any jury: rather than making the slightest sacrifice of his freedom, he would withdraw from the official exhibition and show his works in a rival exhibition of his own.
On a visit to Bruyas, in May 1854, he sought to persuade his patron to underwrite the cost of a one-man show. The main result of the voyage was a large picture, The Meeting (1854, Musée Fabre, Montpellier), which shows the artist, proudly erect, encountering his respectful patron--"Fortune bowing to Genius," according to a contemporary reviewer. Bruyas proved to be unable to finance a private venue, and Courbet resigned himself to submitting his paintings to the official exhibition. Their centerpiece was to be an immense personal statement, The Studio: A Realist Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Artist's Life (Louvre), showing him at work, surrounded by "all the people who serve my cause, sustain me in my idea, and support my action." Besides its personal self-celebration, the painting had the more general purpose of presenting the Artist as the exemplar of human creativity. When Courbet learned in the spring of 1855 that the jurors had rejected two of his fourteen entries, The Studio and Funeral at Ornans, he renewed his plan for an exhibition of his own and within a short time managed to have a temporary gallery built near the official exhibition, placing over its entrance the sign Le Réalisme. He did not, however, boycott the official exhibition but contributed eleven of his most important works to it. His own show, opened a month later, included thirty-nine paintings and four drawings. To Courbet's surprise, attendance was sparse.
Disappointed and in poor health, he emerged from this phase of his career with a lessened zest for controversy. From 1855 onward he largely abandoned social subjects and avoided, except in a few instances, complex compositions, instead devoting himself mainly to landscapes, scenes of the hunt, nudes, and portraits. At the Salon of 1857, he showed Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (PetitPal), an opulent human still life posed by two fashionably dressed women, drowsing in the summer heat at the river's edge. This Salon also contained two of the hunting pictures that were becoming one of his specialities, Exhausted Doe in the Snow (private collection, New York) and The Quarry (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in the latter of which he appears standing beside the carcass of a slain buck. Successful exhibitions in 1858 and 1859 took him to Brussels and to Frankfurt, where he made a lengthy stay and received commissions for portraits and hunting subjects. Back in Paris, his dramatic forest scenes (Battle of Stags, 1861, Louvre) won him a popular success. From the mid-1850s onward landscapes played an increasing part in his work. He found his motifs in his native Franche-Comté whose hillsides, forests, and streams had deeply impressed him in his youth. In his dark-toned landscapes he concentrated on the tangible matter of stone, turf, and foliage rather than on fugitive effects of light and atmosphere. Setting up his easel wherever the view pleased him, he painted directly in oils, making use of rich paints that he spread on the canvas with the palette knife. About 1863-1865 he painted the series Source of the Loue. Close views of a rock face opening into a cavern from whose depths the river flows, they invert norms of landscape painting by replacing sky and space with solid matter.
Nudes dominate his late figure painting. The Awakening (Venus Pursuing Psyche with Her Jealousy), destroyed in World War II, was refused by the Salon of 1864 because of its hint at lesbianism. Courbet profited from this rejection by converting the naked Psyche into Woman with Parrot (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a suave nude that was admired at the Salon of 1866. The Awakening's true sequel was his frankly lesbian Sleep (Les Dormeuses) (1866, PetitPal), painted for a collector of erotica. A still life of passive bodies, it expresses Courbet's materialist aesthetic and his pleasure at the sight of women reduced by sleep to purely physical existence. At the Universal Exposition of 1867, he again had a pavilion, built at his own expense at the Pont d'Alma, in which he presented more than a hundred paintings in a retrospective that won favorable reviews. Lionized by society in the empire's final years, he loudly refused the Legion of Honor offered him in 1870. After a summer at the seaside village of Etretat, he prepared a selection of seascapes for the Salon of 1870, among them The Wave (Louvre). Having heretofore shown nature mainly in a state of rest, he now produced, in paintings of the agitated sea, images of the elements in powerful motion.
The collapse of the empire after its defeat by Prussia in 1870 rekindled Courbet's political activism. As member of the Arts Commission of the Paris Commune, then defending the city against the forces of the national government quartered in Versailles, he recommended the destruction of the Vendôme Column, a symbol of Bonapartism. When the Commune fell, he suffered arrest, a trial, and six months in prison. Only fifty-one years old, he was in poor health, his body bloated from overindulgence in food and drink. Freed in early 1872, he returned to Ornans, where he found his studio looted. His submissions to the Salon were refused, but his work continued to have steady and profitable sales. In the spring of 1873 he was condemned to bear the cost of the reerection of the Vendôme Column. Fearing renewed imprisonment, he fled to Switzerland, where he settled in the town of La Tour de Peilz on the Lake of Geneva. In Paris, meanwhile, his property was confiscated and a fine of 323,000 francs imposed on him.
In his last years, he worked feverishly to produce paintings for sale to meet the State's exorbitant demand. Helped by assistants, he began a mass production, chiefly of landscapes, hasty parodies of his style, and in their repetitiousness a mockery of realism. But his talent was not extinguished yet. Flashes of it still appeared in personal work, in portraits, animal studies, and still lifes. The Trout (1872, Kunsthaus, Zurich), the picture of a superb, glistening fish suspended by its gills and expiring, is a poignant image of captivity and death, and perhaps a final self-portrait.
Cared for by friends, still hoping to return to France, he gradually succumbed to heart and liver disease. After undergoing painful medical treatment, he died on 31 December 1877.
[This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]