Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (10 June 1819–31 December 1877) was a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting. The Realist movement bridged the Romantic movement (characterized by the paintings of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix), with the Barbizon School and the Impressionists. Courbet occupies an important place in 19th century French painting as an innovator and as an artist willing to make bold social commentary in his work.
“ I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty. ”
Plage de Normandie. (c. 1872/1875). Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art.Courbet was a painter of figurative compositions, landscapes, seascapes, and still-lifes. He courted controversy by addressing social issues in his work, and by painting subjects that were considered vulgar: the rural bourgeoisie and peasantry, and the working conditions of the poor. His work belonged neither to the predominant Romantic nor Neoclassical schools. History painting, which the Paris Salon esteemed as a painter's highest calling, did not interest Courbet, who stated that "the artists of one century basically incapable of reproducing the aspect of a past or future century ..." Instead, he believed that the only possible source for a living art is the artist's own experience.
His work, along with the work of Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet, became known as Realism. For Courbet realism dealt not with the perfection of line and form, but entailed spontaneous and rough handling of paint, suggesting direct observation by the artist while portraying the irregularities in nature. He depicted the harshness in life, and in so doing, challenged contemporary academic ideas of art.
Courbet was born in 1819 to Régis and Sylvie Oudot Courbet in Ornans (Doubs). Though a prosperous farming family, anti-monarchical feelings prevailed in the household. (His maternal grandfather fought in the French Revolution.) Courbet's sisters, Zoé, Zélie and Juliette, were his first models for drawing and painting. After moving to Paris he returned home to Ornans often to hunt, fish and find inspiration.
He went to Paris in 1839, and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse. An independent spirit, he soon left, preferring to develop his own style by studying Spanish, Flemish and French painters and painting copies of their work.
Self-portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843–1845 (Private collection)His first works were an Odalisque, suggested by the writing of Victor Hugo, and a Lélia, illustrating George Sand, but he soon abandoned literary influences for the study of real life. Among his paintings of the early 1840s are several self-portraits, Romantic in conception, in which the artist portrayed himself in various roles. These include the Self-Portrait with Black Dog (c. 1842–1844, accepted for exhibition at the Paris Salon of 1844), the theatrical Self-Portrait, also known as Desperate Man (c. 1843–45), Lovers in the Countryside (1844, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), The Sculptor (1845), The Wounded Man (1844–1854, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), The Cellist, Self-Portrait (1847, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, shown at the Salon of 1848), and The Man with a Pipe (c. 1848–1849, Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
Trips to the Netherlands and Belgium in 1846–1847 strengthened Courbet's belief that painters should portray the life around them, as Rembrandt, Hals, and the other Dutch masters had done. By 1848, he had gained supporters among the younger critics, the Neo-romantics and Realists, notably Champfleury. Courbet achieved greater recognition after the success of his painting After Dinner at Ornans at the Salon of 1849. This work, reminiscent of Chardin and Le Nain, earned Courbet a gold medal and was purchased by the state. The gold medal meant that his works would no longer require jury approval for exhibition at the Salon (an exemption Courbet enjoyed until 1857, when this rule was changed).
In 1849 Courbet painted Stone-Breakers (destroyed in the British bombing of Dresden in 1945), which was admired by Proudhon as an icon of peasant life, and has been called "the first of his great works". Courbet was inspired by a scene witnessed on the roadside, as he explained to Champfleury and the writer Francis Wey: "It is not often that one encounters so complete an expression of poverty and so, right then and there I got the idea for a painting. I told them to come to my studio the next morning."