Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet canvas prints & artprints

A major figure in the history of art and considered to be one of the great painters of French and Western painting, Gustave Courbet contributed to the creation of a new realist style that shook up the codes and shocked the art critics of the 19th century. A social painter who mastered the techniques of portraiture, landscapes and still lifes, he was determined to depict his environment as he saw it, without the idealism of academicism and romanticism.


Discover some of Gustave Courbet's finest works, including his oil on canvas "Les Casseurs de pierres", a large-scale realistic painting showing two men working stone without any filter, disregarding the noble subjects normally dedicated to compositions of this size, his famous painting "Le Désespéré", a self-portrait representing his difficulty in finding his identity, and his no less famous work "L'origine du Monde", an oil painting that is still the subject of debate in society today.


Treat yourself to the finest reproductions of Gustave Courbet available in the catalogue, and discover his biography.


Biography of Gustave Courbet.


Gustave Courbet's youth: from the Doubs to Paris.


Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was born in 1819 in Ornans, in the Doubs region of France, into a family of farmers and landowners who were relatively well-off for their time. It was during his youth that he came into daily contact with the rural inhabitants who would inspire him throughout his career. From an early age, the young man developed a passion for drawing, to the detriment of his studies, first in his home town, where he was seen painting his first pictures, then in Besançon, where he took lessons from Charles-Antoine Flajoulot, director of the town's École des Beaux Arts, in which Courbet was not enrolled, but where he liked to go to take more and more lessons. 


In 1839, he moved to Paris to study law, which he soon abandoned in favour of art. Financially supported by his father, it was in the capital that he regularly went to the Louvre to copy the great French and foreign painters, and was introduced to both the academicism of the Dutch and Spanish painters and French Romantic painting, admiring the compositions painted by Romantic painters such as Delacroix. It was at this time, during his first stays in Normandy and Fontainebleau, that he painted his first Romantic landscapes.


It was also the time of Gustave Courbet's first exhibitions.


After a few years honing his technique, Gustave Courbet decided to enter his first exhibition, presenting his "Portraits of Urbain Cuenot and Adolphe Marlet" at the Salon of 1841. Unfortunately for the artist from the Franche-Comté region, the jury at the Salon Officiel rejected his painting. Courbet attended classes at Charles Suisse's academy, which he soon abandoned, fed up with the academicism taught there, and now had his own studio. He tried his luck again at the 1842 Salon, with two modest-sized canvases, which were also rejected. At the Salon of 1843, the portraits he produced and presented were again rejected. It was only in 1844, after three unsuccessful attempts, that one of the paintings he submitted, his "Self-portrait with a black dog", was finally accepted by the Salon Officiel. 


In a constant search for inspiration, Courbet drew on both earlier painters and his contemporaries, from the academicism of Ingres, to the romanticism of Delacroix, via the colour palette of Dutch artists, among others, in a series of self-portraits and portraits showing his artistic evolution. This research culminated in the self-portrait Le Désespéré, a composition representing his difficulty in finding his own identity. At the 1845 Salon, it was his work in the troubadour style, "The Guitarrero", that was selected by the jury, followed by his portrait "Man with a Leather Belt", a new painting that was also selected for the 1846 Salon. Still little recognised by the public and the art world in the mid-1840s, all his paintings were rejected at the official exhibition of 1847. During this period, Courbet travelled to the Netherlands and Belgium, where he rediscovered the Flemish influence in his work, and the working-class life he experienced in the many cafés of the Low Countries.


Gustave Courbet's turn towards realism.


Back in Paris in 1848, Gustave Courbet moved into a new studio in the 6th arrondissement, a district where he rubbed shoulders with the bohemian population of the time, along with a number of painters, writers, sculptors, journalists and other thinkers, including Charles Baudelaire, Alexandre Schanne, Alfred Delvau and Jules Champfleury. Among his friends, Gustave Courbet, inspired by the revolutionary overtones of 1848, changed his way of painting, wishing to offer a new path to the pictorial tradition of academicism and romanticism. Far from the pictorial idealism of academic canvases, Courbet began to depict reality, in an art of realism that aimed to represent the "real thing".


On his return to his native town to attend his grandfather's funeral, he produced his first canvases in this new style of realistic painting. He then entrusted his friends Beaudelaire and Jules Champfleury with the task of presenting his paintings and drawings at the Salon of 1849. With six compositions and one drawing selected, mainly landscapes and portraits, it was above all his large-format genre scene "Une après-dînée à Ornans" that stood out from the rest, winning him a gold medal, which meant that he no longer needed to be accepted by the jury to present his work, and a purchase by the newly-established Republic. This distinction did not, however, bring him to the attention of the general public, as none of the other compositions presented were bought by collectors.


First successes and scandals for Gustave Courbet.


Still in his home village, Gustave Courbet began a series of realistic paintings inspired by the landscapes and people of the region. The realist painter's works were exhibited in his home region, in Besançon and Dijon, and then at the Salon Officiel at the very end of 1850. It was on this occasion that the "Burial at Ornans", a gigantic genre scene depicting the notables and his family, caused a scandal. Its large format, usually dedicated to history painting and religious and mythological scenes, shocked the bourgeois and reactionary milieu with its realism, which was out of place in works of this size. For the critics, the choice of subjects - peasants, workers and rural men and women - and the emphasis on their flaws, as seen in "Les baigneuses" (The Bathers), which also caused a scandal at the 1953 Salon with its nude woman, painted as Courbet saw the women of his native countryside, should not have allowed him to exhibit in the lofty formats that are supposed to idealise the subjects with almost surgical meticulousness. Nevertheless, these pictorial coups d'éclats brought Gustave Courbet a certain notoriety, and the painter's name came back insistently in the circle of collectors. It was in this way that he found his first major patron, Alfred Bruyas, also a patron of Delacroix, who enabled him to make a living from his work and to detach himself from the indispensable but meagre support his father had given him up until then.


Gustave Courbet's travels and recognition.


Courbet was now recognised by his peers, but he was not in the sanctity of the Salon, where his compositions were rejected after several years of exhibiting without constraint. He did, however, obtain the right to open his own pavilion of realism on the fringes of the official exhibition, which opened its doors in 1855. Even Delacroix, the undisputed master of Romanticism at the time, recognised his talent and expressed his incomprehension at his non-selection for the official Salon. With his "Demoiselles des bords de la Seine", Courbet heralded the future Impressionist movement. This large-format genre scene was to inspire the Impressionist painters of the late 19th century, particularly Manet. Commissions began to pour in for the painter from the Franche-Comté region, and it was also during this period of his life that he began to travel, to Germany, Belgium and the Normandy and Atlantic coasts, where he exhibited and painted a number of plein-air landscapes and still lifes.


Moving away from the capital, Courbet returned to Ornans, where the painter's studio was set up. Considered a socialist artist by his friend Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and seen as such by the government of Napoleon III, with his popular and realistic subjects, although Gustave Courbet nevertheless obtained a post on the National Committee of Fine Arts, he was shunned by the State, which initially refused him the Legion of Honour. However, his artistic exploits enabled him to make a name for himself outside Europe, with his painting "Le retour de la conférence" (The Return of the Conference), an anti-clerical depiction of drunken priests that was totally unthinkable at the time. Rejected at the Salon, and even at the Salon des refusés, because of its immorality, Courbet succeeded in exhibiting this work throughout Europe, and as far away as New York in the United States. Paris, Ghent, Le Havre, Deauville, Etretat, Courbet travelled until the 1870s, painting and exhibiting again and again, until Napoleon III finally offered him the Legion of Honour, which he refused in the name of his freedom and his non-affiliation with any institution, school, regime or church.


The Commune and Gustave Courbet's exile.


After the end of the Empire in 1870 and the destitution of Napoleon III, and faced with the advance of Prussian troops into France, Courbet was appointed president of the general supervision of French museums by the national defence government. Following the armistice of 28 January 1871, Courbet, increasingly at odds with the national defence government, took an active part in the Commune, which had been shaking the capital for several months. Elected to the council of the Commune, he became delegate for Fine Arts. Always independent in his decisions, he spoke out against the creation of a Comité de salut public, rejecting all authoritarianism. Having wanted to move the Vendôme column just a year earlier, and partially destroy it to recover the metal for making coins before the siege of the capital, the French painter was recognised, when the Communards were defeated, as a revolutionary and the instigator of the destruction of the Vendôme column. For this, Courbet was sentenced to six months' imprisonment in 1871, and ordered by Marshal Mac Mahon to pay for his reconstruction in 1873. Ruined and unable to pay such a sum, Courbet, who had returned to Ornans, decided to go into exile in Switzerland, near Montreux, in order to escape another prison sentence in 1874. During his exile, he painted, receiving friends, family and some of the leading French artists of the day, who enabled him to live by selling his paintings for him. He even opened a shop in Geneva from where he could sell his work, and travelled all over the country, as well as to Austria, where he took part in the Universal Exhibition of 1873. In 1877, he began painting "Grand Panorama des Alpes" for the 1878 Universal Exhibition. However, he refused to return to France out of solidarity with the exiles, and as his health weakened, he died on 31 December 1877, 2 years before the general amnesty for the Communards.


The legacy of Gustave Courbet.

Rightly regarded as one of the most important painters of 19th-century Western art, if not the most important, Courbet's work changed the way people approached art, with his paintings highlighting reality as it is, without idealising his subjects. A leader of the realist movement, his paintings inspired both realist painters such as Jean-François Millet and Édouard Manet, and those who came to be known as the Impressionists in the late 19th century. His paintings can be found all over the world, from Europe to the United States and Japan, with "The Origin of the World" at the Musée d'Orsay, "Wrestlers" at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts and "Panorama of the Alps" at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva among the hundreds of works on display.
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