French painter Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, best known for his landscapes and seascapes, led the Realist movement in 19th-century French art. He was considered a rebel and bohemian for not conforming to the popular art styles of his time. Instead of painting romantic pictures of his era, he used art as a vessel for social awareness by painting everyday people in realistic settings.
Gustave Courbet was born on June 10, 1819, to a prosperous farming family in Ornans, France. He studied law in Paris in 1841, but dropped out of the program to pursue a career in painting. He started by studying Spanish, Flemish and French painters and painting copies of their work.
The artist’s early works were portrayed in a typically romantic style that depicted sleeping girls. In 1844, his self-portrait ‘Courbet with a Black Dog’ was accepted by the Salon, an annual public exhibition of art sponsored by the influential Royal Academy.
Courbet seemed to mature as an artist during the Revolution of 1848, when he began to paint his subjects on a larger scale. One of the artist’s most important works was ‘The Burial at Ornans’ (1849-50). It represented the funeral of his grand uncle and the townspeople who atttended. This enormous painting of ten by twenty-two feet shocked the public and was deemed “vulgar” by critics because a portrayal of this nature had previously been reserved for the religious and royal subjects. This first masterpiece in the Realist style continued to cause uproar when exhibited at the Salon of 1850.
When Courbet’s painting ‘The Artist's Studio’ was refused for an important exhibition, he took it upon himself to display his own works near the exhibition hall. During the world fairs in the 1850s and '60s, Courbet continued to display his paintings in pavilions he had constructed at his own expense. While the grandiose paintings were not so popular, his smaller landscapes, hunting scenes, still lifes, and nude portraits helped to carry him through.
Gustave Courbet’s association with the Paris Commune (a failed revolutionary movement of 1871) led to a brief imprisonment. An attempt to escape from the charges for his involvement in the destruction of the Vendôme column (a Paris monument) by fleeing to Switzerland in 1873 was unsuccessful; he was found in 1877 and charged yearly instalments of 10.000 francs that would have lasted until his ninety-first birthday.
Gustave Courbet emphasized the purely formal values in painting. He paid tribute to everyday people in a monumental way. His example had a great influence on the 20th-century impressionists. He continued to paint until the last years of his life. He died on December 31, 1877, at the age of fifty-eight of liver disease aggravated by heavy drinking. Shortly after his death, his sister donated the controversial 20-foot-long masterwork ‘A Burial at Ornans’ to the French Ministry of Fine Arts.