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Gustave Courbet
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Ornans, France
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
LaTour-de-Peilz, Switzerland
A Realist painter who described himself as a socialist and a democrat, Gustave Courbet had an immense influence on the 19th-century artists who followed him, both in his native France and elsewhere in Europe. In addition to landscapes, seascapes, hunting scenes and nudes, he broke convention by painting genre scenes in the style of academic history painting. Born in 1819 to a prosperous family in Ornans, near Switzerland, Courbet showed artistic talent while in school; his earliest surviving painting is from 1834 and he illustrated a book of poems with four lithographs in 1838. Sent to Paris in 1839 to study law, Courbet instead studied art and copied Old Master paintings in the Louvre. After failed attempts a self portrait was accepted for display at the official Salon exhibition in 1844. Courbet expressed his pleasure in a letter to his parents, justifying his decision to pursue painting rather than the legal career his father had desired. He remained close to his family and his native region, however, usually spending part of each year in Ornans. Courbet traveled to the Low Countries in 1846 and 1847, where he studied the works of 17th-century Northern artists. The Salon’s rules changed in 1848, allowing Courbet to exhibit ten paintings at the 1848 Salon. In 1849 his painting After Dinner at Ornans (1848-49, Lille: Palais des Beaux-Arts) won a gold medal at the Salon and was purchased by the French state; the medal exempted him from the need to submit future Salon entries to the Salon’s jury. Beginning with his 1850 painting Burial at Ornans (Paris: Musée d’Orsay), Courbet painted a series of provocative works that earned him the fame he had sought. Exhibited at the 1850-51 Salon, the Burial broke with tradition by showing an internment ceremony with villagers and bored clergy, arranged in the form of a history painting. It engendered ferocious criticism from conservative critics. Other works flouting convention followed. The wealthy art collector Alfred Bruyas (1821-1877) began buying works by Courbet in 1853, a relationship that eventually led to a visit to Bruyas’s home in Montpellier (near the Mediterranean) in 1854, Courbet's first seascapes and the well-known painting The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854, Montpellier: Musée Fabre), showing the two friends. While several of his works were accepted for display in the Palais des Beaux-Arts of the 1855 Exposition Universelle, others were not. Courbet retaliated by displaying forty paintings and four drawings in a pavilion facing the Palais, a display that again was attacked by conservative critics. Courbet traveled to Belgium and Germany in 1856 and 1857, and Germany again in 1858, as well as to Ornans. He began painting hunting scenes, and in Germany was introduced to stag hunting. The jury system was restored to the Salon in 1857, but nevertheless his submissions were accepted, with some works provoking praise and others criticism. By the 1860s Courbet’s reputation was established and his paintings are in demand by an increasing clientele. He began frequently spending summers on the Normandy coast, often in the company of other artists, leading to more seascapes. Largely excluded from the 1867 Exposition Universelle, Courbet constructed a nearby building where he showed 115 works. Nominated for membership in the Legion of Honor in 1870, Courbet declined, publishing an open letter stating his opposition to the imperial government. After the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Courbet was named president of a commission charged with protecting artworks and held a similar position under the Commune of 1871. Blamed for the toppling of the Vendôme column, a monument depicting the victories of Napoleon Bonaparte (1789-1821), by the Commune in 1871, after the Commune’s defeat later that year Courbet was arrested, tried, fined and sentenced to six months in prison. The jury rejected his submissions to the Salon of 1872 and by 1873 many of his former supporters had turned against him. The National Assembly ordered the reconstruction of the Vendôme column partially at Courbet’s expense. After the finance minister ordered the seizure of all of Courbet’s assets in France, the artist fled into exile in Switzerland on June 23, 1873. To raise funds for the reconstruction, Courbet enlisted several second-rate painters to paint pictures in his style, a project that met with failure. In 1877 the French government determined that Courbet pay nearly 324,000 francs to rebuild the column. Depressed and driven to drink, Courbet died on December 31, 1877. (TNB 7/2013). Selected bibliography: Font-Réaulx, Dominique, et al. Gustave Courbet. Exhibition catalog. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008. Herding, Klaus and Max Hollein, ed. Courbet: A Dream of Modern Art. Exhibition catalog. Frankfurt am Main: Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, and Ostfildem: Haatje Cantz, 2010.