Gustave Courbet was born on 10 June 1819 in Ornans, the son of a rich landowner. In 1837 he started at the Collège Royal de Besançon where he attended the courses held by Charles-Antoine Flajoulot, one of David’s pupils. He moved to Paris at the end of 1839. Although he entered the law faculty in 1841, he spent most of his time in the Louvre, mainly copying Velázquez and Rembrandt. In 1844, following three years of rejections, Courbet was accepted by the Salon with Courbet with a Black Dog, and the following year the “Guitarrero” was accepted. In 1847, he had a child with Virginie Binet. He supported the 1848 revolts that led to the proclamation of the Second Republic. Taking advantage of the suppression of the jury, he exhibited ten works at the Salon, including Valpurga Night. During this period he went regularly to the Café Andler, a meeting place for artists and intellectuals, where he struck up friendships with Champfleury, Proudhon and Baudelaire. Of the eleven paintings he exhibited at the Salon of 1849, the State acquired After Dinner at Ornans, which was also awarded a medal. He submitted the large scale Burial at Ornans to the 1850-1851 Salon, the painting arousing much criticism. Each year the paintings Courbet sent to the Salon led to debate, for example, The Young Ladies of the Village, acquired by the Count de Momy (Napoleon III’s step-brother). In 1853, he met the banker Alfred Bruyas, who bought two paintings sent to the Salon (The Bathers, openly criticised by the Empress, and The Sleeping Spinner). The following year he began work on the Painter’s Studio for the Exposition Universelle of 1855; however, the jury rejected the work and Courbet decided to organise a one-man show in the Realism Pavilion, built near the Salon. The catalogue contains a veritable Manifesto of realism. He again exhibited in 1857, and once again one of his paintings, The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine, caused great debate. He gained recognition and fame in 1861 when he exhibited five works at the Salon, including The Season of Love in Spring (or Deer Fight). He spent the summers of 1865 and 1866 on the Normandy coast painting many seascapes and portraits, among which is Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl. During these years, Courbet speculated in ventures such as the construction of the Alma Pavilion (1867), to house his second one-man show exhibiting one hundred and fifty paintings, drawings and sculptures. He spent the summer of 1869 in Etretat in Normandy, where he painted the “Wave” series, exhibited to critical acclaim at the 1870 Salon. Following Napoleon III’s defeat at Sedan in September, he was elected president of the Federation of Artists. Due to his participation in the Commune (from April 16 to May 11 1870) and his speech in favour of destroying the Vendôme Column, he was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail. Freed in March 1872, he was sentenced again in 1873, following which he decided to become an exile: on 23 July he travelled to Switzerland with the help of Lydie Jolicler. He died on 31 December 1877 in La Tour-de-Peiliz. His remains were not moved to the Ornans cemetery until 1919.
The Dream (or: The Hammock)
The work was presented at the Salon in 1845 under the title The Dream, but, as often occurred with young artists, it was not accepted by the jury. It is thought to represent Zélie, one of Courbet’s four younger sisters, who was painted many times by Courbet. The choice of theme, representing a sleeping girl on a hammock in a luxuriant wood, can be linked to the romantic taste of the period, although some details, such as the accurate study of light and the naturalistic depiction of the vegetation, bear witness to the young artist’s personal style.
Near Ornans, Morning
Courbet was born in Ornans, in the region of Franche-Comté on the Swiss border. The region is fertile, filled with vineyards and mills. The young Courbet loved the countryside and often went hunting. He was often to represent the valleys of his birthplace in his painting. He began by painting pictures in which nature is the sole protagonist: a silent, yet potent and wild, landscape with its imposing rocky formations.
A Burial in Ornans
The painting belonged to Juliette Courbet, who gave it to the State in 1881. The composition, exhibited at the Salon in 1850-1851, was conceived and executed in Ornans. This masterpiece by Courbet is highly important since it depicts a religious rite within the social reality of its time. The figures are portrayed as they celebrate a Christian rite, a funeral, not in the sacredness of a church, but far away from it. In the painting, approximately fifty fellow townspeople are represented, some of whom can be identified, such as the painter’s mother, sisters, grandfather, a friend and the curate of the town. Some critics have interpreted the painting as an anti-clerical attack by the artist, however, the painting is in harmony with the circle frequented by the artist at that time in Paris, the group linked to the paper, “Le salut publique”, swayed by Lamennais’s religious thinking.
This work, the first of a series of paintings depicting women’s life, was executed during the winter of 1851-1852. The three girls are Courbet’s sisters, who interrupt their walk to give alms to a young shepherdess. The scene is set around Ornans, although the exact place cannot be identified with certainty. The painting was exhibited at the 1852 Salon, where it was criticised and satirised. The critics were disturbed by the common appearance of the girls, by their poor, almost country, dress and by the ridiculous dog. They also disapproved of the presence of livestock and the lack of unity in, or respect for, perspective. The painting was bought by the powerful Count de Morny, the step-brother of Napoleon III, who was Courbet’s secret protector for many years
The painting was bought by the Nantes Commune in 1861, following its showing at the Salon in 1855. The girl sifting the grain is recognisably Zoé, one of Courbet’s sisters; Toussaint (1977) identifies the seated girl as Juliette and the boy opening the kneading trough as Desiré Binet, Courbet’s illegitimate son. This scene of peasant life shows the artist at his closest to Millet. Against a straw-yellow background, the sifter with her back to the viewer becomes the fulcrum around which the whole composition turns. Courbet has invested her with a surprising rhythm and vitality, almost transforming her into dancer with a tambourine. The painting was caricatured by Cham in “Le Chiarivari”.
The work, rejected by the salon in 1855, was exhibited at the show organised by the artist in the realism pavilion constructed for the occasion. The meaning of the painting is made clear by the long title: “Painter’s studio, real allegory illustrating a seven-year phase in my artistic life”. In a letter written by Courbet to his friend Champfleury, he describes the figures and the meaning of the composition. The artist is in the centre of the painting, intent upon painting a landscape of his birthplace while he is benevolently helped by a female figure – his muse – symbolising creative energy; on the right “the people who live from life”, or rather, “the people who help me and support my ideas and participate in my actions”: these are the artist’s friends (Bruyas, Proudhon and Buchon, among the standing figures, Champfleury sitting and Baudelaire reading); on the left “the people who live from death”, that is from passions and material needs: among others are a poorly dressed woman breast-feeding her child, a Jew offering a cloth, and a poacher sitting in the foreground with his dogs at his feet.
Nude with Dog
1861-1862 (later dated 1868)
The painting, which depicts a young girl in an affectionate pose beside her poodle, evokes, almost as in an epic parody, a fantastical ascendancy. Titian’s female nudes are here re-evoked in the rusty shades and idyllic landscape glimpsed through the curtain. Courbet, however, contradicts his illustrious predecessor by underlining more prosaic material facts: the face and naked body of the woman do not belong to any Venus, but to a young friend of the artist’s, represented here with uncombed hair and a squatly-proportioned body: details which are far removed from any old or new convention of ideal beauty.
Girl Arranging Flowers
The painting was executed by Courbet during his stay in Saintes, where he completed numerous floral-theme works. It is thought to represent a young Parisian actress, Mlle Violet, whose stage company was in the Saintogne region in 1862, and with whom the painter fell in love while staying in Rochemont castle. The presence of both flowers and a female figure is reminiscent of the genre in which Dutch and Flemish painters of the Seventeenth century specialised. These masters used the symbolical theme to express homage to love, whereas the flowers of different seasons represented the various phases of love. In the Toledo painting, Courbet represents a similar symbology, and it is thought he was helped by his friends and expert botanists, Baudry and the lawyer Gaudin.
Between 1865 and 1869 Courbet, like many other artists before him, stayed in the picturesque Normandy village of Etretat, living in a house with a view over the Channel. It was as if he discovered the sea for the first time: the terrifying and grandiose spectacle of its fury and successive calm. The landscape, untouched by any human or anecdotal presence, has a limpid, light atmosphere and explains the Impressionist’s admiration for Courbet’s light and clarity, achieved by the use of large areas of uniform colour applied with a spatula, and by damped tonalities against a dark background.
The Sleepers (or Sleep)
The painting was executed in 1866 for Khali-Bey, the ex Turkish ambassador to St Petersburg, who held a salon in that period on the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens. The ex-ambassador, as a result of Sainte-Beuve’s enthusiastic description of Venus and Psyche, had asked Courbet to copy it. With this large-scale painting, Courbet established himself on the artistic scene as one of the major painters of female beauty. Although it represents Sapphic love with exceptional truthfulness, the painting has a chromatic richness worthy of the Old Masters. The diplomat also owned The Origin of the World, which he kept hidden behind a screen painting representing the gate of a snow-covered fortress.
Woman with Wave
The painting is one of the most famous nudes painted by the artist in the 1860’s. Many of his nudes include water, represented as a spring, a river or an ocean. This florid young girl forms an integral part of the landscape surrounding her. The sensuality of the figure is heightened by the realistic representation of detail, such as the soft hairs under her arm. However, the painter, an apostle of realism, the desecrator of the heroic female nudes of classical tradition, cannot resist attributing an allegorical meaning through the title. This magnificent girl thus represents flow, the wave, the undulating movement of which is indicated by the gesture of the arm.
The Cliff at Etretat after the Storm
The painting was executed in the summer of 1869 at Etretat, at the same time as The Wave (or The Stormy Sea), and both were sent to the Salon the following year. The paintings almost form a pair, representing, in two acts, the dramatic force of nature; both are images of majestic and colossal energy. In the serenity after the storm, Courbet changes the proportion of land to sea and sky, including here the best-known geological sight of Etretat, the so-called Porte d’Aval. All the fury of nature is now calm. For the first time he uses a large-scale canvas for a landscape, in which there is no trace of human or animal life. The work is a masterpiece on account of the limpid atmosphere, the balance and rhythm.