Gustave Courbet

Eumenis Megalopoulos | May 9, 2023

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Gustave Courbet, born June 10, 1819 in Ornans (Doubs, France) and died December 31, 1877 in La Tour-de-Peilz (Vaud, Switzerland), was a French painter and sculptor, leader of the realistic movement.

Author of an important body of paintings - more than a thousand works -, Courbet is one of the most powerful and complex artists of the 19th century. From 1848-1849, his paintings opposed the criteria of academism, idealism, and romantic excesses; transgressing the hierarchy of genres, he provoked scandal among his contemporaries, and the attraction of some private collectors, disrupting the boundaries of art.

Supported by some critics, such as Charles Baudelaire and Jules-Antoine Castagnary, his work, which cannot be reduced to the episode of pictorial realism, contains the seeds of most of the modernist trends of the end of his century.

An individualist, asserting his autodidacticism and his terroir, Courbet was a lover of the forces of nature and of women. If he led some battles, notably against religiosity, bad faith and contempt for peasants and manual workers, the end of his life shows him entirely facing the elements of the landscape. Rarely had a painter, during his lifetime, suffered so many insults.

Elected as a republican and a participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, he was accused of having the Vendôme column knocked down and condemned to have it raised at his own expense. Exiled to Switzerland, he maintained regular correspondence with his family and friends in Paris, and continued to exhibit and sell his works. Ill, he died exhausted, three years before the general amnesty, aged 58.

Reconsidered since the 1970s, notably by Anglo-Saxon critics who gave him his first real biographers, his vigorous and uncompromising work, enlightened by the exploration of his private writings which reveals a lucid, subtle and sensitive being, never ceases to maintain intimate and often surprising relations with our modernity.

The Musée Départemental Gustave Courbet (Doubs, Ornans) is dedicated to his work.

"I have studied, without any system and without bias, the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns. I did not want to imitate one more than to copy the other. I simply wanted to draw from the entire knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent feeling of my own individuality."

- Gustave Courbet, Le Réalisme, 1855.

Origins and youth

Gustave Courbet came from a relatively wealthy family of landowners; his father, Éléonor Régis Courbet (1798-1882), wealthy enough to become an elector on the basis of censal suffrage (1831), owned a farm and land in the village of Flagey, located in the Doubs department at the gateway to the Haut-Jura Mountains, where he raised cattle and practiced agriculture; by his father-in-law, Jean-Antoine Oudot (1768-1848), he manages a vineyard of more than six hectares located on the land of Ornans: there Jean Désiré Gustave was born on June 10, 1819; his mother, Suzanne Sylvie Oudot (1794-1871), also gave birth to five other children, of whom only three daughters would survive: Thérèse (1824-1925), Zélie (1828-1875) and Juliette (1831-1915). Gustave was both the eldest and the only boy of this landed sibling, very much a part of the Franc-Comté region, where mountain dwellers, hunters, fishermen and lumberjacks met in the midst of a strong, omnipresent nature.

In 1831, Gustave the elder entered the minor seminary of Ornans as a day pupil where he received, among others, his first artistic education from a drawing teacher, Claude-Antoine Beau, a former student of Antoine-Jean Gros; Gustave became passionate about this discipline and distinguished himself in it, neglecting his classical studies. His first painting, a Self-portrait, at the age of 14 (1833, Paris, Musée Carnavalet), is still in existence. He then entered the royal college of Besançon as a boarder, where, in the fine arts class, he took drawing lessons from Charles-Antoine Flajoulot (1774-1840), a former student of Jacques-Louis David. At that time, Flajoulot was also the director of the Besançon School of Fine Arts, but Courbet was not enrolled there. However, while Courbet complained about his life confined to the walls of the college, his parents had him stay with a private individual. Then, the teenager, less and less assiduous in his classical studies, enjoyed attending Flajoulot's classes directly in the school of fine arts: there, he met a whole youth composed of art students, including Édouard Baille, more mature, dreaming only of going to Paris; Baille painted Courbet's portrait in 1840. The schoolboy certainly produced small paintings, but his parents intended him above all to study engineering; the father dreamed of the École Polytechnique for his son, but, with his wife, given their son's mediocre results in mathematics, they fell back on studying law in Paris. In the capital, a certain François-Julien Oudot (1804-1868), a jurisconsult and philosopher of law, the most eminent member of the family, became famous. Gustave's mother therefore asked this relative to take in her son in Paris.

He left for Paris in November 1839, not without having made a few weeks earlier, with his friend Max Buchon, four drawings intended for the lithographic illustration of the latter's Essays on Poetics: published by a printer in Besançon, this was the first public exercise of the young artist, barely twenty years old.

At first he lived with François-Julien Oudot in Versailles, where he rubbed shoulders with other open-minded bourgeois. He began his law studies, living on a pension paid by his parents. The year 1839-1840 was decisive: Courbet abandoned his law studies in favor of painting. He spent more time in the Parisian studio of the painter Charles de Steuben. On the other hand, he found his childhood friends in Paris, such as Urbain Cuenot and Adolphe Marlet, who introduced him to the studio of Nicolas-Auguste Hesse, a history painter who encouraged him in his artistic path. Courbet, who had always denied having had such masters, wrote to his parents that he was giving up law and wanted to become a painter: his parents accepted his decision and continued to pay him his pension. Moreover, on June 21, 1840, Gustave Courbet managed to be discharged from military service.

As a free student, Courbet went to the Louvre Museum, as did every art student of his time, to copy the masters, an activity he continued throughout the 1840s. He admired Dutch chiaroscuro, Venetian sensuality and Spanish realism. Courbet is an eye, he has a unique sense of visual alchemy. He was also influenced by the works of Géricault, of whom he copied a horse's head.

In the spring of 1841, he discovered the shores of Normandy: it was his first stay by the sea, in the company of Urbain Cuenot. The two friends sailed down the Seine from Paris to Le Havre, exploring the banks. He wrote to his father:

"I am delighted with this trip that has developed a lot of ideas about different things I need for my art. We finally saw the sea, the sea without a horizon (how funny for a valley dweller). We saw the beautiful buildings that run along it. It is too attractive, one feels drawn, one would like to leave to see the whole world. We crossed Normandy, a charming country, as much for the richness of its vegetation as for its picturesque sites and its gothic monuments which can be compared to all that is best in this kind."

On the other hand, and despite the poor documentation, he probably made his first stay in the forest of Fontainebleau at this time. He left Versailles to stay in a room at 4, rue Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and then another at 28, rue de Buci. Many of his early paintings have disappeared. Some have titles such as Ruins along a Lake and Man Delivered from Love by Death, of romantic inspiration.

The 1840s: a difficult start

At the beginning of 1841, Courbet felt sufficiently ready to dare to present a large painting, Portraits of Urbain Cuenot and Adolphe Marlet, to the jury of the Salon, which was refused. In 1842, he moved to the Latin Quarter and occupied his first studio at "89" rue de la Harpe, in the former premises of the Narbonne College, which he rented for 280 francs a year. He attended, still as a free student, the academy of Charles Suisse, at the corner of the Boulevard du Palais and the Quai des Orfèvres, but quickly gave up, judging the exercises (anatomy, modeling, etc.) to be of no interest. He presented to the jury of the 1842 Salon Halte de chasseurs and Un intérieur, two small paintings, which were refused.

He continued to train himself by drawing and copying in the Louvre the masters of the past that he liked, such as Diego Vélasquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, José de Ribera, in the company of a new comrade, François Bonvin, whom he had met at the academy during the evening classes, and who served as his guide. At the 1843 Salon jury, he presented Portrait of Mr. Ansout and a Portrait of the Author (Pontarlier Museum), both of which were rejected.

In 1844, on Hesse's recommendation, the Salon received from Courbet first Loth and his daughters, a religious genre painting with an academic theme, a landscape study, and then the Portrait of the author known as Self-portrait with a black dog (1842), and finally agreed to exhibit only the latter. It was the first time, the young painter was very proud, and he announced it to his parents: "I have finally been accepted at the exhibition, which gives me great pleasure. It is not the painting that I most desired which was received but it is equal, it is all that I ask because the painting that they refused me was not finished. They did me the honor of giving me a very nice place in the exhibition which compensates me. The painting that is received is my portrait with landscape. Everyone compliments me on it. A very funny thing. It was done two or three years ago because my black dog is near me. This dog is a spaniel that he described two years earlier as follows: "I now have a superb little black English dog, a purebred spaniel that was given to me by a friend of mine, he is admired by everyone and is much more celebrated than I am at my cousin's. Urbain will bring him to you one of these days," he wrote from Paris to his parents in May 1842. However, while he was counting on Loth and his daughters, his face became public, for here he was forced to exhibit an intimate painting, which he kept to himself, a motif very much marked by Géricault but also by the "serpentine line" of a Hogarth, inscribed in the Franc-Comtois landscape. Other self-portraits have preceded and others will follow, in which he represents himself as a man in love with a woman, or in front of her, or smoking, etc.: there is something about him, but it is not enough.  Other self-portraits preceded, others will follow, where he represents himself as a man in love next to a woman, or in front, or smoking, etc.: there is in him, but only in appearance, a form of egocentrism which testifies, not to a navel-gazing, but to an identity quest. The painting that best symbolizes this malaise is Le Désespéré (1844-1854), which took him nearly ten years to complete and which he never exhibited: in retrospect, it looks as if the Parisian Romantic bohemia is represented here, which was also going through an identity crisis at the end of the Louis-Philippe years. From one portrait to the next, "the personality of the young artist asserts itself, building his self through autobiographical quest as much as through travels, vacations in Ornans, and the Parisian training that he imposes on himself in the work of the studio and visits to museums.

In 1845, Courbet was still trying to find his way. He proposed five paintings - including Coup de dames and, inspired by Ingres, Le Hamac ou le Rêve (The Hammock or the Dream) - for the Salon, but the jury retained only one, the Guitarrero, which was in the troubadour style: was it him? He was not to be seen again - his other painting, Le Sculpteur (1845), was of the same style - because, when he tried to sell it for 500 francs, he did not find a buyer. Dejected but ambitious, he wrote to his parents on April 11, that "when one does not yet have a reputation, one does not sell easily and all these small paintings do not make a reputation. That is why in the coming year I have to do a big painting that will make me known in my true light, because I want everything or nothing.

At the beginning of 1846, his style evolved, his palette darkened and the Salon, out of eight paintings presented in March, retained only the Portrait of the Artist, known today as The Man with the Leather Belt: under this anonymity, some jurors and critics were going to recognize the painter and sanction him by placing his painting away from the public eye. Courbet felt deeply hurt. During the summer, he left to explore Belgium and the Netherlands, invited by the Dutch dealer H. J. van Wisselingh (1816-1884), whom he had met in Paris a year earlier, buying two paintings from him, including The Sculptor. He commissioned his portrait, which was influenced by the Flemish and Dutch masters admired in the museums of Amsterdam and The Hague.

The following year, all his paintings were refused. Furious, on March 21, 1847, he wrote to his father:

"I have been refused completely from my three paintings. It is a bias of these gentlemen of the jury, they refuse all those who are not of their school, except for one or two against whom they can no longer fight - Messrs Delacroix, Decamps, Diaz - but all those who are not also known by the public are sent back without reply. This does not upset me in the least from the point of view of their judgment, but to make oneself known one must exhibit and unfortunately there is only this exhibition. In the past years, when I had less of a way of my own, when I was still doing something like them, they received me, but now that I have become myself, I no longer have to hope for that. We are moving more than ever to destroy that power."

To console himself, he left to explore Belgium "from top to bottom", first in the company of Jules Champfleury, then on his own, and he spent a lot of time in the breweries.

The 1840s also saw the birth of Courbet's first great love in the person of Virginie Binet (1808-1865), about whom little information is available. Their relationship seems to have lasted about ten years and to have ended very badly. According to art historians Jack Lindsay, Virginie was hired as a model by Courbet, posing on rue de la Harpe. Les Amants ou Valse (1845, presented at the Salon of 1846, refused) is a representation of their relationship that became amorous. The morality of the time forbids Courbet to talk about it in his family correspondence, especially since he is still helped by his parents: the painter therefore remains evasive about these paintings. On the other hand, in September 1847, Virginie gave birth to Désiré Alfred Émile, whom she had to declare a "natural child". It is known that Courbet never officially recognized him - the child died in 1872 under his mother's name in Dieppe, where Virginie had settled after the break with Courbet in the early 1850s. Another disturbing fact is what is revealed by the X-ray of a painting entitled The Wounded Man: never exhibited during the painter's lifetime, it shows two repentances, one of which shows a young couple tenderly embracing, where the experts see Virginie and Gustave, the painting ultimately presenting the image of a dying man.

Shortly before the end of 1848, leaving the rue de la Harpe, he moved to a studio at 32, rue Hautefeuille, not far from a place he had been frequenting for several years, the Andler-Keller brewery, located at no. 28 of this street, one of the first of its kind in Paris, run by "Mère Grégoire" whose portrait he painted in 1855.

Courbet made this brewery his annex: great theories were elaborated there, among friends. Charles Baudelaire came as a neighbor, and the sculptor Auguste Clésinger, who came from the rue Bréda, felt at home there. One can also meet the Ornans gang, including Max Buchon and the musician Alphonse Promayet, Henry Murger, Alexandre Schanne and a whole fauna from the Parisian bohemia, whose attitude (hair, beard, pipe), fashion and ideals Courbet takes on. Alfred Delvau (1862) reports that he spoke loudly, and his imposing stature, his taste for beer and music, made him a "leader of the gang". He also left a few slates, because times were hard, Courbet was still not selling anything.

On January 9, 1848, the mayor of the village of Saules, near Ornans, offered him 900 francs for a large religious painting for the village church, a Saint Nicolas resurrecting the little children (dated 1847, exhibited in the Courbet Museum, it seems to date from 1844-45). This money came at the right time, because he could not even pay his rent. And then in February, the revolution surprised them, the republic was proclaimed. Immediate effect: the Salon, maintained on March 15, 1848, which accepted three drawings and seven paintings in one go. Except that none of them found a buyer, despite an honorable mention. However, the critics woke up: in Le National, Prosper Haussard (1802-1866) especially praised Le Violoncelliste, a new self-portrait, which the critic said was inspired by Rembrandt, while Champfleury in Le Pamphlet admired La Nuit de Walpurgis (later painted over).

Champfleury, one of Courbet's most faithful friends, talks about the rue Hautefeuille gang. The versatile writer would later call the Andler brewery "the temple of realism". Another witness and friend of Courbet's was Jules-Antoine Castagnary, who reported that, outside his studio, in the 1860s "it was at the brewery that he made contact with the outside world. With the revolution in full swing, Courbet was at the heart of the artistic and political effervescence. He played the violin and met artists who wanted to propose a third way, an antagonism to romanticism and academic tastes: the declared enemy was Paul Delaroche. Some creators like Charles Baudelaire or Hector Berlioz, whose portraits he made, are the brightest spirits of this change. Under the impulse of Champfleury, Courbet laid the foundations of his own style, what he himself would call "realism", taking up a term that his gang had coined, realizing de facto that this painting already existed before their eyes.

In June, things get out of hand in Paris. Gustave participates in the events from a relative distance. His friends Champfleury, Baudelaire and Charles Toubin set up in a few days a newspaper, Le Salut public, whose second issue bears an engraved vignette after Courbet. On the 24th, worried, a relatively cautious Courbet, determined not to risk his life, seeks to reassure his parents:

"We are in a terrible civil war, all for lack of understanding and uncertainty. The insurgents are fighting like lions because they are shot when they are caught. They have already done the greatest harm to the National Guard. The provinces surrounding Paris arrive every hour. The success is not doubtful because they are not in number. So far the shooting and the cannon has not stopped for a minute. It is the most desolate spectacle that one can imagine. I believe that nothing like this has ever happened in France, not even Saint Bartholomew's Day. All those who do not fight cannot leave their homes because they are brought back to them. The National Guard and the suburbs are guarding all the streets. I don't fight for two reasons: first, because I don't believe in war with guns and cannons, and it's not in my principles. I have been fighting the war of intelligence for ten years, I would not be consistent with myself if I did otherwise. The second reason is that I have no weapons and cannot be tempted. Thus, you have nothing to fear on my account. I will write to you in a few days, perhaps at greater length. I don't know if this letter will leave Paris.

He returned to Ornans, first to attend the funeral of his grandfather Oudot, who had died on August 13, and also to regain his health: he prepared his first paintings in the spirit of this new way of seeing. In his studio, he received visits from Francis Wey. In March 1849, Champfleury, who had become a mentor, drew up a list of eleven works proposed for the Salon and Baudelaire wrote the notes accompanying the submission. Six paintings and one drawing were selected by a jury now elected by the artists themselves, and by analyzing them, we know that Courbet became, at the cradle of the Second Republic, the singular painter that we know today. In this work, we find La Vallée de la Loue, taken from the Roche du Mont; the village seen from the banks of the Loue is Montgesoye, La Vendange à Ornans, sous la Roche du Mont, Les Communaux de Chassagne ; soleil couchant as well as two portraits entitled Le Peintre et M. N... T... examinant un livre d'estampes, and especially Une après-dinée à Ornans, which earned him a gold medal and his first purchase by the State. This large canvas - 250 × 200 cm - assured him fame, a format that Courbet would adopt in the future.

The elections of December 1848 had brought Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to power, and the following months were to be turbulent. Among the newcomers in Courbet's entourage, there is still a Franc-comtois, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and a friendship in gesine, born no doubt from the painter's visit to the prison Sainte-Pélagie where the philosopher is incarcerated for "offense to the president of the Republic". Violent demonstrations took place in the capital and on June 17, 1849, Courbet, who had just turned 30, decided to return to Ornans, after the exhibition, which had finally been authorized, but which had only announced the fury of reactionary critics, and while more than 30,000 soldiers had settled in the city and maintained the curfew. However, this departure was not effective until August 31, and when he arrived in Ornans, Courbet was celebrated as a hero. His father moved him into a new studio. On September 26 he had already begun The Stone Breakers, and in December he was known to have begun A Burial in Ornans.

The 1850s: first masterpieces

After the exhibition at the Salon held only in June 1849 because of the revolts, Courbet returned to Ornans for a longer period of time where his father Régis set up a makeshift studio for him in the attic of his grandparents' family home: although modest in size, he nevertheless composed his first monumental works there, which Michael Fried called "the breakthrough paintings". He has time, the next Salon is scheduled only between December 1850 and January 1851.

This return to his roots, to his native country, was to change his way of painting: he definitively abandoned the "romantic" style of some of his early paintings. Inspired by his native land, the first work of this period was L'Après-dînée à Ornans, which earned him a second-class medal, the approval of some critics, such as his friend Francis Wey, and painters, including Ingres and Delacroix, and his first purchase by the State, to the tune of 1500 francs. This status exempts him from the approval of the jury and he is free to bring to the Salon what he wants. He was to use it to shake up the academic codes. His landscapes, still relatively rare at the time, will be gradually dominated by the identity of withdrawal and solitude, and the affirmation of the power of nature, when at the same time the beginnings of the future schools of Barbizon and Crozant strongly marked by John Constable are set up.

In 1850, after a late winter spent hunting and reconnecting with the inhabitants of his valley, he painted The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, followed by A Funeral in Ornans, an ambitious, very large-format painting (315 × 668 cm) featuring several Ornans notables and members of his family. In a letter to Champfleury, the painter suggests that "everyone in the village would like to be on the canvas. Wanting to satisfy the province before the capital, Courbet even organized a small exhibition of his paintings in the chapel of the seminary next to his studio in April, then an exhibition of the same paintings in Besançon in May, and finally in Dijon in June, but in rather deplorable conditions. At the beginning of August, he returned to Paris and noticed that the critics were talking about his paintings, becoming impatient, getting hot...

At the Salon, from the opening on December 30, the exhibition of L'Enterrement caused scandal and astonishment among the critics (including the first caricatures), as did his Casseurs de pierres (Stone Breakers), because for the first time a subject of everyday life was painted in the dimensions hitherto reserved for themes considered "noble" (religious, historical, mythological scenes), a canvas that was retrospectively hailed as the first socialist work by Proudhon. Seven other paintings accompanied these, including The Peasants of Flagey, the Portrait of M. Jean Journet, View and Ruins of the Castle of Scey-en-Varais, The Banks of the Loue on the Road to Mazières, the portraits of M. Hector Berlioz and M. Francis Wey, and finally a Portrait of the Author (known as The Man with the Pipe), the latter curiously becoming the only painting presented that received unanimous praise. The evening of the awards arrives on May 3rd and no painting of Courbet is cited. Théophile Gautier, who had become measured, ended up being astonished by such an oversight: "Courbet made the event at the Salon; he mixed his defects, on which we openly criticized him, with superior qualities and undeniable originality; he stirred up the public and the artists. We should have given him a first class medal...". On May 18, the list of public purchases was published and once again, Courbet was excluded, on the pretext of budgetary restrictions (the painter did not want to give up his Portrait with a pipe for less than 2,000 francs).

The summer of 1851 was a time of travel and rest for Courbet. He spent some time in Berry with the chansonnier Pierre Dupont at the home of the lawyer Clément Laurier, then left for Brussels and from there arrived in Munich, participating in an exhibition each time. In November he returned to Ornans, while political unrest resumed in Paris. The painter was even accused of being a "socialist agitator, a red". In December, he began to paint Les Demoiselles, featuring his three sisters.

"It is difficult for me to tell you what I did this year for the exhibition, I am afraid of expressing myself badly. You would judge better than I would if you saw my painting. First of all, I have deviated from my judges, I put them on a new ground: I have done something graceful. All that they could say until now is useless.

This is how Courbet expressed himself when he wrote to Champfleury in January 1852 about the painting Les Demoiselles de village faisant l'aumône à une gardeuse de vaches dans un vallon d'Ornans (The village girls giving alms to a cowherd in a valley in Ornans), which featured his three sisters in the center, and which he exhibited along with two older paintings at the Salon in April. Shortly thereafter, a new trigger occurred: he decided to start working on large nude compositions. He voluntarily attacked one of the last bastions of academicism of the time, and the critics went wild, the officials sanctioned him.

Thus, Théophile Gautier, a critic whose attention Courbet had sought as early as 1847, expressed himself in La Presse on May 11, 1852, in these words: "The author of L'Enterrement à Ornans seems, this year, to have backed away from the consequences of his principles; the painting he exhibited under the title of Demoiselles de village is almost an idyll next to the monstrous trognes and serious caricatures of L'Enterrement. There is an intention of grace in his three figures, and if Mr. Courbet had dared, he would have made them completely pretty. These "monstrous trognes", an expression that will become a leitmotiv among the numerous reproaches addressed to the painter, qualified soon by Gautier of "Watteau of the ugly".

In mid-June 1852, Courbet wrote a very revealing letter to his parents about what he was setting up:

"If I did not write to you earlier, it is because I am currently making a painting of the wrestlers who were in Paris this winter. It is a painting as big as the Demoiselles de village, but in height. It is to make the nude that I did that, and also to appease them on that side. We have many evils to satisfy everyone. It is impossible to say how many insults my painting of this year has earned me, but I don't care because when I am no longer contested I will no longer be important.

Further on in this same letter, we discover that he is simply trying to earn a living, and therefore to be recognized, even in the authorities of the new political power. He thus visits the influential Charles de Morny, the half-brother of the prince-president Louis-Napoleon, who had just bought him Les Demoiselles de village, to solicit public commissions; he receives vague promises, then goes to Auguste Romieu, the director of the Beaux-arts, who declares "that the government could not support such a man" and that when he "would do other painting, he would see what he has to do" and "that the rest was posed as a political power and that one did not fear.  " Courbet therefore takes his side, and promises "that they will all swallow realism", at the risk of finding himself totally isolated. While proclaiming the wonderful abilities of the painter, his vigor, his talent as a colorist, Eugene Delacroix expresses in his diary, at the same time, a certain rejection for the vulgar subjects and hideous types represented by Courbet.

As for the Bathers presented at the 1853 Salon, the painting created even more controversy. It shows two women, one of whom is naked with a cloth that barely drapes her, while she no longer represents an idealized mythological figure. The critics of the time seized on this painting in a very virulent way: Courbet succeeded in obtaining a scandalous success. Théophile Gautier, ever more inspired, exploded in La Presse of July 21, 1853 about his Bathers: "Imagine a sort of Hottentot Venus emerging from the water, and turning towards the spectator a monstrous croup padded with dimples, at the bottom of which only the passementerie button is missing."

However, beyond this radicalism and critical rejection, one can see in this painting the obvious influence of Rubens, whom the painter had admired during his trip to Belgium in 1846 and to which he would return in 1851 and again in the 1860s, and where he built up a network of buyers. Thus, in addition to Brussels and Antwerp, he was regularly exhibited, from the end of 1851, in Frankfurt, where public taste was again divided between enthusiasm and incomprehension. All these paintings are less those of discord than a way to make Courbet talk: from now on, he occupies, not without intelligence, the media space of his time, to the point that he annoys. But the main thing is that the painter will now be able to live from his art.

The studio on the rue Hautefeuille continued to be a place where Courbet gathered friends and admirers, to whom the painter would return. One of his rare French buyers at the time was Alfred Bruyas (1821-1876), a stockbroker from Montpellier and partner in the Tissié-Sarrus bank, who collected paintings that included, at that time, rather disparate works by Camille Corot, Thomas Couture, Díaz de la Peña and Eugène Delacroix. In May 1853, Bruyas visited the Salon and was impressed by the three paintings by Courbet on display. He decided to buy the Bathers and The Sleeping Spinner. This transaction will bring the painter more than 3,000 francs. In October, Courbet took refuge in Ornans where he was celebrated as a hero and wrote to his buyer, who was described as a "friend", about his doubts and hopes:

"I burned my vessels. I have broken with society. I insulted all those who served me awkwardly. And here I am alone in front of this society. I must win or die. If I succumb, I will have been paid dearly, I swear to you. But I feel more and more that I am triumphing, because there are two of us and at this time, to my knowledge, only maybe 6 or 8, all young, all hard workers, all arriving at the same conclusion by different means. My friend, it is the truth, I am sure of it as of my existence, in one year we will be a million."

At the time he wrote this, Courbet had just returned from a failed meeting with the new director of the Beaux-arts, Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, a luncheon during which the painter had been asked to produce a large work to the glory of the country and the regime for the Universal Exhibition planned in Paris in 1855 - in fact the Salon of 1854 was cancelled -, but that he reserved his right of admission to the approval of a jury. Courbet informed him that he was the sole judge of his own painting. Nieuwerkerke, dismayed by such arrogance, understood that the painter would not participate in the festivities. It was at this time that he completed The Wounded Man, a self-portrait of a grumbling and dying man, and of which he spoke to Bruyas, confiding to him that he hoped to "achieve a unique miracle, to live from my art for my whole life without ever having strayed from a line of my principles, without ever having lied for a single moment to my conscience, without ever having made painting as large as my hand to please anyone, nor to be sold."

In May 1854, Courbet, who found in Bruyas a true patron of modernity, with whom to exchange critical views and, apparently, the same ideal, joined him in Montpellier, and took advantage of the opportunity to capture the harsh beauty of the Languedoc landscapes during a long stay. In the autumn he fell ill with a kind of fever and was cared for by a close friend of Bruyas, a beautiful Spanish woman whose portrait he painted. During the summer, Courbet paid tribute to his protector by painting a large composition entitled La Rencontre (known as Bonjour Monsieur Courbet). During this long stay in the south, he met François Sabatier-Ungher, at the Tour du Farges (Lunel-Viel), an art critic and Germanist translator.

Concentrated, working relentlessly on a dozen paintings between Ornans and Paris from November on, he prepared, with the help of Bruyas and other accomplices such as Francis Wey, Baudelaire, Champfleury, in secret, a real coup d'état in painting. "I hope to bring society into my studio," he wrote to Bruyas about a mysterious large painting, "and thus make known my propensities and repulsions. I have two and a half months for the execution and I will still have to go to Paris to do the nudes, so that, all told, I have two days per character. You see that I don't have to have fun.

This friendship will eventually fade over the years.

In April 1855, Courbet was refused several of his paintings - for example, Un enterrement à Ornans and La Rencontre considered too personal - for the Salon which was to open on May 15 at the same time as the Universal Exhibition held at the Palais de l'Industrie. In fact, he was pushed to organize a personal exhibition on the fringe of the official Salon. Crying conspiracy, he asked for help from Alfred Bruyas who gave him financial support. The Public Prosecutor's Office, represented by Achille Fould, gave him the building permit. In a few weeks, on avenue Montaigne, a few meters from the Palais, a brick and wood pavilion was built to house 40 of the painter's works. He had posters and a small catalog printed.

This "Pavilion of Realism" gave Courbet the opportunity to publicly express what he meant by "realism" and to cut short certain misunderstandings: "The title of realist was imposed on me as the title of romantic was imposed on the men of 1830. The titles in no time gave a right idea of the things; if it were otherwise, the works would be superfluous I studied, without any spirit of system and without bias, the art of the old and the art of the modern. I did not want to imitate the one or to copy the other; my thought was not to reach the idle goal of art for art's sake. To be able to translate the customs, the ideas, the aspect of my time, according to my appreciation, to be not only a painter, but also a man, in a word, to make living art, such is my goal.

This quasi-manifesto was partly written by Jules Champfleury and also contains the principles of Baudelaire. Enthusiastic, Courbet even had the idea of asking a photographer to take his paintings to make up images that he would sell to visitors. The work was delayed. The inauguration took place on June 28 and the pavilion closed in late fall. It is difficult to measure the real success obtained. The entrance fee, raised to one franc, was reduced to 50 cents. The press published numerous caricatures of the painter's paintings and portraits. We have the testimony of the visitor Eugène Delacroix who wrote in his Journal: "I go to see the exhibition of Courbet that he reduced to 10 cents. I stayed there alone for nearly an hour and discovered a masterpiece in his rejected painting; I could not tear myself away from this sight. One of the most singular works of this time was rejected there, but it is not a guy to be discouraged for so little." The piece Delacroix is talking about is The Painter's Studio, a very large format, which Courbet could not even fully complete as he was so pressed for time. As for the journalist Charles Perrier, he writes in L'Artiste that "everyone has seen, plastered on the walls of Paris in the company of acrobats and all the merchants of orvietan and written in gigantic characters, the poster of M. Courbet, apostle of realism, inviting the public to go and deposit the sum of 1 franc at the exhibition of forty paintings of his work.

After 1855, however, Baudelaire will distance himself from the painter, "not following up".

The year 1856 saw a new progression in Courbet's depiction of everyday life, revisiting genre scenes and portraits, and executing a series of paintings that announced what would become the painting of the moderns during the next twenty years. Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine (summer) is a capital painting, it is presented at the Paris Salon in June 1857, in the middle of three landscapes and two portraits, including that of the actor Louis Gueymard - Courbet will receive more and more commissions of this nature. His ladies, Jules Castagnary judged them thus: "It is necessary to see in opposition to the "Demoiselles de village". These are virtuous. Those are devoted to vice...". Courbet's sulphurous reputation was still in its infancy. Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, jury of the Salon of 1857, caricatured them as articulated wooden dummies thrown on the ground. In Le Charivari, Cham amuses himself by relegating the painting as follows: "Woman of the world suddenly taken by colic in the countryside (by M. Courbet). The painter wanted to prove that he could paint the woman as it should be as well as the common woman", probably summarizing the general opinion, namely the incomprehension. Other compositions such as this Woman in a Cavalier's Clothes (1856) did not leave indifferent young painters such as Édouard Manet who was to become friends with Courbet before breaking with him and his outrageous "naturalism".

In 1857-1858, Courbet was in Frankfurt for several months. He produced many portraits and landscapes there. There he discovered the great undergrowth of the Black Forest and the hunting with hounds, which would later inspire him. He stayed again in Belgium, where he had many buyers. Barthélemy Menn exhibited his work in Geneva in 1857, and again in 1859, in the company of Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny and Eugène Delacroix, two exhibitions that did not receive any coverage in the local press.

He befriended the Nivernais landscape painter Hector Hanoteau, whom he probably met at the Andler brewery, and with whom he painted Bathers, known as Two Naked Women (1858).

In June 1859, he discovered the Normandy coast a second time, this time in the company of Alexandre Schanne and as part of a botanists' study trip to Le Havre. There, they met Eugène Boudin and slept at the Saint-Siméon farm, a cheap inn. Boudin wrote in his notebooks: "Courbet's visit. He was satisfied with everything he saw, I hope. If I believed him, I would certainly consider myself as one of the talents of our time. It seemed to him that my painting is too weak in tone: which may be true, strictly speaking; but he assured me that few people paint as well as I do. As for Schanne, he reports that "Courbet painted two pictures there: a sunset on the English Channel, and a view of the mouth of the Seine with apple trees in the foreground.

The 1860s: between excess and nostalgia

During the 1860s, Courbet was less in Paris than in the provinces or abroad (Germany, Belgium, Switzerland). At first he was always faithful to Ornans, in the Doubs, and stayed for a long time in the neighboring Jura, where he made deep friendships, and finally, he stayed in Normandy, by the sea, an element that fascinated him more and more.

On March 6, 1860, he bought the old Bastide foundry in Ornans, a building in which he set up his house and a large studio - he used this place until his exile in 1873 in Switzerland.

In 1861, he became a member of the committee of the Société nationale des beaux-arts. In July, he was nominated for the Legion of Honor, but the emperor himself struck his name off the list and the state renounced the purchase of Le Rut du printemps, combat de cerfs, a large-format (3.55 × 5 m) hunting scene that was once again totally out of step with convention. He wrote to the writer Francis Wey that "is something I went to study in Germany. I have seen these fights . I am exactly sure of this action. In these animals there is no apparent muscle. The fight is cold, the rage deep, the blows are terrible. In August, he was invited to exhibit and give a lecture at an international event in Antwerp. In autumn 1861, he exhibited two paintings (Landscapes of Dead Leaves and Sketch of a German Lady) alongside Delacroix, Daubigny and Corot, at the Cantonal Exhibition of Fine Arts in Geneva, invited by Barthélemy Menn.

On September 28, 1861, a meeting of art students was organized at the Andler brewery by Jules-Antoine Castagnary, who asked Courbet to direct a workshop for teaching painting. On December 9, classes began with 31 students enrolled, but on December 29 Courbet gave up, announcing: "I cannot teach my art, nor the art of any school, since I deny the teaching of art, or that I claim, in other words, that art is all individual and is for each artist only the talent resulting from his own inspiration and his own studies of tradition. It seems that Emmanuel Lansyer stayed in his studio for almost four months.

A series of still lifes was produced in 1861-1862, when he stayed in Saintonge at the invitation of the enlightened patron Étienne Baudry (1830-1908). Courbet understood the importance of this theme, which paved the way for Impressionist compositions. Baudry commissioned him to paint nudes, including Reclining Nude Woman.

In 1862-1863, he stayed in Saintes and participated, with Corot, Louis-Augustin Auguin and Hippolyte Pradelles in an open-air workshop named "the Port-Berteau group" after the name of the site on the banks of the Charente (in the commune of Bussac-sur-Charente) adopted for their joint painting sessions. A collective exhibition of 170 works was presented to the public on January 15, 1863 at the town hall in Saintes. It was in this city that he painted in the greatest secrecy The Return of the Conference, a canvas of 3.3 m by 2.3 m, in the tradition of William Hogarth, which he wanted to be anticlerical and resolutely provocative, the target being the French Catholic Church, then embodied by the Empress Eugenie. This work, which depicts drunken priests, is a new provocation, orchestrated by Courbet, who wrote to the architect Léon Isabey (1821-1895) in February 1863: "I wanted to know the degree of freedom that our time grants us. He had just received the answer from the officials: the painting was successively refused at the Salon and even at the Salon des refusés. With this painting excluded for immorality, Courbet could put his program into action: reproduce and distribute the work by all existing means and thus ensure a real political instrument of protest and promotion of his art. He then organized a world tour around this painting: it was a first, an operation in which he gave himself a lot. The painting was shown in New York in 1866 thanks to his friend Jules Luquet, associate of Alfred Cadart, founder of the Société des aquafortistes, which brought together many artists who rallied to the realist movement. After being shown in Ghent in 1868, the painting, which Courbet kept until his death, disappeared around 1900, but we still have many photomechanical reproductions that the painter had made in his time.

From 1863 onwards, Courbet left the Andler brewery for the pension of François and Rose Laveur, rue des Poitevins, or the tavern of the Martyrs, located on the Right Bank, at 8 rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. In addition to leaving a 3,000 franc check to the Andler couple (which he paid in April 1869), Courbet invested, with others, in Montmartre: there, he rubbed shoulders with Pierre Dupont, André Gill, Édouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Aurélien Scholl, Charles Monselet, Jules Vallès; there was opposition, ingrists against colorists, and already, quarrels revolved around the future impressionists that the Salon would strive to refuse. Courbet witnessed the birth of a new generation of painters, who would gradually emancipate themselves from him. On September 25, 1863, his friend Pierre-Auguste Fajon, whom he had known in Montpellier since 1854 and who was a wealthy merchant, asked him to receive the young Frédéric Bazille: the meeting took place shortly after in Paris.

The exploration of remarkable sites located in the Jura illuminated the painter's palette during the year 1864. Several series of landscapes date from this period, including La Source de la Loue, La Grotte Sarrazine, La Roche pourrie and Le Gour de Conches. Attached more than ever to mineral nature and raw materials, Courbet sought to discover their secrets by meeting the Jura geologist Jules Marcou. There he met, among others, Max Claudet (1840-1893), a painter, sculptor and ceramist living in Salins-les-Bains whose mayor, the industrialist Alfred Bouvet (1820-1900), commissioned the painter to paint canvases. Courbet began to sculpt, producing medallion busts, and Claudet advised him.

In 1865, he posthumously composed Pierre Joseph Proudhon and his children in 1853: the loss of Proudhon was a hard blow for him. He stayed in Trouville and Deauville and painted a series of seascapes with Whistler, whom he had met a few years earlier with his mistress Joanna Hiffernan. Towards the end of his stay in Normandy, on November 17, Courbet wrote to his parents that he was "doing admirably" and told them that he was staying with Whistler, introducing him as his "pupil. As for the young American painter, he named one of his contemporary paintings Courbet sur le rivage or My Courbet (the two men became intimate and remained friends until the end.

In 1866, he stayed again in Deauville, this time at the home of Count Horace de Choiseul-Praslin with the painters Claude Monet and Eugène Boudin, and the painting The Greyhounds testifies, even in the company of the beautiful world, to his love of animals. In September, in Brussels, he was the undisputed star of the international exhibition of paintings. At the end of the year, he completed a series of nudes, commissioned by the Ottoman diplomat Khalil-Bey, which are The Sleep and The Origin of the World.

In January 1867, he lost his "greatest friend", Urbain Cuenot, and went to Ornans for the funeral. There he had the idea to start painting snow effects. The following month, still in mourning, he rushed to work and sketched L'Hallali du cerf, a very large format. While a lawsuit for unpaid bills was going on about his painting Venus and Psyche (which has disappeared), and the Beaux-Arts administration refused to pay him for Woman with a Parrot, he decided to ask the architect Léon Isabey to build him a pavilion for the World's Fair, as in 1855, but this time in more resistant materials: In fact, the "Courbet Pavilion" remained in place until the riots of 1871, but it was not until May 1868 that it became his personal gallery, and then a place for storage. In April 1867, Courbet wrote to his friend Castagnary that he was working on a painting with the help of a certain Marcel Ordinaire, one of the two sons of Édouard Ordinaire, who was very close to the painter. On May 30, it finally opened to the public, exhibiting 135 catalogued works. Caricatures rained down again, embroidering his overweight, especially to portray his sense of excess. In a letter to Alfred Bruyas on April 27, he confided that "this exhibition is definitive. In fact, if Courbet will never produce as much as in this year, he accumulates nearly 700 paintings since he became a painter.

At the end of the summer of 1868, ejected from his pavilion-gallery at the Alma by the owner of the land, he participated massively in the Ghent Salon of Painting held from September 3 to November 15, with, among other things, two profoundly anti-clerical paintings, The Return of the Conference and The Death of Jeanot at Ornans (The Expenses of Worship), which he accompanied by two series of albums illustrated with his drawings and published by Albert Lacroix, Victor Hugo's Brussels publisher. At the same time, he exhibited other paintings in Le Havre, at the Société des beaux-arts. In October, Jules-Antoine Castagnary, increasingly close to Courbet, launched the image of Courbet as a painter-philosopher with radical political opinions. He frequented the Café de Madrid, in the Rue Montmartre, where republican opponents of the imperial regime met. It was also the year of one of his last great nudes, The Source.

At the beginning of 1869, Courbet was on the verge of ruin: his main Parisian gallery owner, Delaroche, went bankrupt, swallowing up two years of the painter's income. Exhausted but by no means discouraged, he became active and participated, thanks to Léon Gauchez, in the Brussels Salon, where he was awarded the gold medal. Then, for the Bavarian International Exhibition organized at the Glaspalast in Munich, he showed some twenty paintings and, with his success, was personally awarded the Order of St. Michael by King Louis II - the other painter to be knighted was his friend Corot. Les Casseurs de pierres (1849) finally found a buyer. During his stay in Munich, he painted the Portrait of Paul Chenavard, after a painter friend who accompanied him. This "German success" would be reproached to him at the time of the 1872 trial. From August onwards, he undertook a long stay in Étretat, a little-known resort at the time: there, he was busy responding to new commissions, Paul Durand-Ruel seemed to find him clients for his cliffs; he had the idea of a new series of seascapes, La Vague, whose layout was to dazzle the 1870 Salon. In November, on his way back from Munich and before Ornans, he stayed in Interlaken in Switzerland: Courbet composed eleven landscapes of the Alps. At the end of December, he loses his other great friend, Max Buchon, and falls into depression. He probably completed his last large nude, The Lady of Munich (disappeared).

The 1870s

For the Paris Salon held in May 1870, Courbet proposed two paintings, La Falaise d'Étretat après l'orage (The Cliffs of Étretat after the Storm) and La Mer orageuse (The Stormy Sea), which, according to the painter, were a counterpart to his work; this was the last time he participated in this event; the critics were favorable to him and he sold his paintings. A few weeks earlier, he had been involved in a project to reform the rules of the Salon, which finally came to fruition in 1880 with the creation of the Salon des artistes français and the breaking up of the public monopoly. At the same time, he made the curious acquisition of an old collection of paintings in which there were a dozen Rubens.

His republican ideas, but especially his taste for freedom, made him refuse the Legion of Honor, proposed by Napoleon III, in a letter addressed on June 23, 1870, sent shortly after his stay at his friend the painter Jules Dupré in L'Isle-Adam, to the Minister of Letters, Sciences and Fine Arts, Maurice Richard, who tried to court him after the plebiscite. The letter, published in Le Siècle, caused a scandal and ended as follows: "I am fifty years old and I have always lived free. Let me finish my existence free: when I will be dead, it will be necessary that one says of me: This one never belonged to any school, to any church, to any institution, to any academy, especially to any regime, if it is not the regime of freedom ". On July 15, France declares the war to Prussia.

After the proclamation of the Republic on September 4, 1870, he was appointed, on September 6, by a delegation representing the artists of Paris, "president of the general surveillance of French museums": Courbet then directed a committee in charge of the safeguarding of the works of art preserved in Paris and its surroundings. This protective measure was normal in times of war, when Prussian troops were approaching the capital. The commission, organized in battalion, installed in the Louvre palace, includes among others Honoré Daumier and Félix Bracquemond. On the 11th, Courbet wrote to the minister Jules Simon about the Sèvres factory, threatened by the enemy. On the 14th, he wrote a note to the government of National Defense proposing to "dismantle the Vendôme column" and suggesting to recover some of its metal for the Mint. On the 14th, he was in charge of protecting the Versailles museum, then the following days the Luxembourg museum, the rooms of the Louvre museum and the Garde-Meuble. On the 16th, the siege of Paris began. On October 5, he protested against the government's desire to pull down the Vendôme column in favor of a new bronze statue in honor of Strasbourg, the annexed city: Courbet reaffirmed that the column should be moved from the rue de la Paix to the Invalides and that the bas-reliefs should be kept out of respect for the soldiers of the Grande Armée. On October 29, Courbet read at the Athénée theater, at the initiative of Victor Considerant, an appeal to German artists, and concluded "to peace, and to the United States of Europe". On December 1, he and Philippe Burty resigned from the "Louvre Archives Commission," which had voted to keep the principal officials of the old regime in their posts. He remained president of the Safeguarding of Museums. In January, he offered a painting in a lottery, and the money raised was used to build a cannon. At the same time, the studio on rue Hautefeuille was bombed by German shells and Courbet took refuge at the home of Adèle Girard, 14 passage du Saumon: she undoubtedly became his mistress, and later chased him away on May 24, then blackmailed him to the Republican authorities during his trial. While on January 28, the armistice was signed, on February 23, he wrote to his parents. In this letter, we learn that he had given up running for the legislative elections on February 8 and that his studio in Ornans had been looted.

Disappointed by the government of National Defense, close to the Jura Federation of Bakunin, he took an active part in the episode of the Paris Commune from March 18, 1871. After the supplementary elections of April 16, 1871, he was elected to the council of the Commune by the 6th district and delegated to the Fine Arts. On April 17, 1871, he was elected president of the Federation of Artists. He then had all the windows of the Louvre Palace boarded up to protect the works of art, as well as the Arc de Triomphe and the Fountain of the Innocents. He took similar measures at the Gobelins factory, and even protected the art collection of Adolphe Thiers, including his Chinese porcelain. He was a member of the Commission of Public Instruction and, with Jules Vallès, voted against the creation of the Committee of Public Safety, signing the manifesto of the minority.

After an appeal by Vallès published on April 4 in Le Cri du peuple in which he vilified the monument, the Commune decided, on April 12, on a proposal by Félix Pyat, to pull down rather than to demolish the Vendôme column. Courbet had once called for its execution, which would later make him responsible for its destruction, but he did not vote for its demolition on the 12th, as he had been in office on the 20th. It had been scheduled for May 5, 1871, the anniversary of Napoleon's death, but the military situation made it impossible to meet this deadline. Several times postponed, the ceremony took place on May 16, 1871, the column was pulled down, not without difficulty and under the control of the engineer Iribe, at 5:30 p.m., under the acclamations of the Parisians and in the presence of Courbet.

Courbet resigned from his position on May 24, 1871, protesting against the execution by the Communards of his friend Gustave Chaudey who, as deputy mayor, was accused of having fired on the crowd on January 22, 1871 (a fact that was never actually proven). After the Bloody Week, he was arrested on June 7, 1871 and imprisoned at the Conciergerie and then at Mazas. A few days earlier, he had written to the editor of Le Rappel: "I have been constantly occupied with the social question and the philosophies that are related to it, walking in my way in parallel with my comrade Proudhon. I have fought against all forms of authoritarian and divine right government, wanting man to govern himself according to his needs, for his direct benefit and according to his own conception". On June 27, an open letter signed by him was published in The Times of London, in which he affirmed that he had done everything to protect the Parisian museums. From the beginning of his incarceration, the press reproached him for the destruction of the column; Courbet then wrote a series of letters to various elected officials in which he "undertook to have it raised at his own expense, by selling the 200 paintings which: this proposal, he was going to regret.

On July 27, he learned of the death of his mother, who had died on June 3, while still in prison and two months too late. His trial began on August 14 in Versailles, in the presence of fifteen other communards and two members of the Central Committee. On September 2, the sentence fell, the 3rd council of war condemned him to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs on the following grounds: "having provoked as a member of the Commune, the destruction of the column". He served his sentence in Versailles, then from September 22 in Sainte-Pélagie. He also had to pay 6,850 francs in legal fees. As he was ill, he was transferred on December 30 to a clinic in Neuilly where he was finally operated on by Auguste Nélaton, threatened as he was by an intestinal obstruction. On March 1, he was released. During his stay in prison, he painted many still lifes and left some sketches of the families of imprisoned federates.

His involvement in the Commune earned him a great deal of acrimony from many writers; thus, Alexandre Dumas fils wrote about him: "From what fabulous coupling of a slug and a peacock, from what genesis antitheses, from what sebaceous ooze can this thing called Gustave Courbet have been generated? Under which bell, with the help of which manure, following which mixture of wine, beer, corrosive mucus and flatulent oedema could have grown this sound and hairy gourd, this aesthetic belly, incarnation of the imbecile and impotent Ego ".

However, Courbet was not abandoned, Horace de Choiseul-Praslin, Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet, Amand Gautier wrote to him in support, not to mention Étienne Baudry. When the Paris Salon reopened in April 1872, the jury, headed by Ernest Meissonier, refused to accept his two paintings, a large reclining nude (The Lady of Munich) and one of the still lifes with fruit, which he had just completed. This decision provoked a strong reaction in the art world and in the popular press. Paul Durand-Ruel was one of the only gallery owners to support him, buying about twenty paintings that he exhibited in his gallery, as did other dealers who organized exhibitions of rejected artists such as Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet: this situation led in 1873 to the opening of a new "Salon des Refusés.

On his return to Ornans at the end of May 1872, the demand for paintings was so great that Courbet could not keep up and he organized the arrival of collaborators or assistants who prepared his landscapes. He made no secret of this method of production, especially in his correspondence. We know, moreover, that Courbet did not hesitate to sign from time to time a picture painted by one or other of his collaborators, if he judged it to be in order. The best known assistants are Cherubino Patà (1827-1899), Alexandre Rapin, Émile Isenbart, Marcel Ordinaire, Ernest Paul Brigot (1836-?) and Jean-Jean Cornu.

Unfortunately, in May 1873, the new president of the Republic, Marshal de Mac Mahon, decided to have the Vendôme column rebuilt at Courbet's expense (323,091.68 francs according to the estimate). The law on the restoration of the Vendôme column at Courbet's expense was voted on May 30, 1873. After the fall of the Commune, Courbet was driven to ruin, his property sequestered and his paintings confiscated.

Fearing a new imprisonment, Courbet crossed the border clandestinely at Les Verrières on July 23, 1873. After a few weeks spent in the Jura (Fleurier, La Chaux-de-Fonds), Neuchâtel, Geneva and the canton of Valais, Courbet realized that it was on the Lake Geneva Riviera, thanks to the many foreigners staying there, that he would have the best chance of making contacts and finding possible outlets for his painting. He stayed briefly in Veytaux (Chillon Castle), then set his sights on the small town of La Tour-de-Peilz (on the shores of Lake Geneva) and in October 1873 moved into the Bellevue guesthouse (run by the pastor Dulon), accompanied sporadically by Cherubino Patà. In the spring of 1875, he rented a house on the shore of the lake, called Bon-Port, which became the home base for the last years of his life. From there, he circulated a lot, and the reports that spies (infiltrated even among the colony of outlaws of the Paris Commune) sent to the French police inform us about his numerous contacts and his innumerable trips (Geneva, Fribourg, Gruyère, Interlaken, Martigny, Leukerbad, La Chaux-de-Fonds, etc). His condemnation became effective with the judgment of June 26, 1874 of the civil court of the Seine.

From the first years of his exile, he kept up a lively correspondence with his lawyers (among them Charles Duval), his faithful friends (Jules-Antoine Castagnary and Étienne Baudry) and his family, a network thanks to which he managed to bring in money and paintings, since he could not be seized on Swiss soil. His sister Juliette was the most devoted. In March 1876, he wrote to her: "My dear Juliette, I am perfectly well, never in my life have I been so well, in spite of the fact that the reactionary newspapers say that I am assisted by five doctors, that I am hydropic, that I am returning to religion, that I am making my will, etc. All these are the last vestiges of Napoleonism, it is the Figaro and the clerical newspapers."

He painted, sculpted, exhibited and sold his works; he organized his defense against the attacks of the government of the "Moral Order" and wanted to obtain justice from the French deputies: his letter addressed to the deputies in March 1876 was a real indictment in which he cited as an example the magnanimity of the Americans and the Swiss, who also had to pay for their civil wars. France now claimed 286,549.78 francs from him. Courbet began to pay the costs of the proceedings in order to lift the seizure and delay the trial, while waiting for an amnesty; in January 1877, appealing, he only recognized 140,000 francs of cost: in November 1877, the State offered to spread his debt over thirty years, and the last known letter from Courbet reveals that he refused to pay the first draft of 15,000 francs.

He participated in many local events (he was welcomed in many Confederate democratic circles and in the meetings of outlaws. As in the past, he organized his own publicity and maintained social relations both in cafés and with representatives of the establishment of the country that hosted him. He received encouragement from abroad: in 1873, invited by the Austrian Artists' Association, he exhibited 34 paintings in Vienna on the sidelines of the World's Fair; the painter James Whistler contacted him to exhibit works in London; in the United States, he had his own clientele and had been exhibiting regularly in Boston since 1866; for the World's Fair in Philadelphia, a certain B. Reitlinger of Zurich commissioned four paintings from him for the World's Fair in Philadelphia (a lawsuit ensued in which Courbet spent a lot of energy

Several local painters visited him at La Tour (Auguste Baud-Bovy, Francis Furet) or presented their paintings in the same exhibitions (François Bocion, Ferdinand Hodler). Dealers, mainly Paul Pia, a French engineer exiled in Geneva where he had opened a store, regularly offered works of the Franc-Comtois painter for sale. At the same time, Courbet worked for Madame Arnaud de l'Ariège in her château des Crètes in Clarens and donated paintings for tombolas for disaster victims and exiles. He thought about a flag project for the typographers' union in Geneva, and painted a portrait of a lawyer from Lausanne, the radical deputy Louis Ruchonnet (he conversed with Henri Rochefort and Madame Charles Hugo in La Tour-de-Peilz and, a few days later, acted as flag bearer for a local society at a gymnastics festival in Zurich.

His work, by multiplying the variants, does not escape this continual back and forth between a triviality close to kitsch and a poetic realism. This uneven production is not limited to the period of exile, but it has become more pronounced since the threat to the painter of having to pay the exorbitant costs of rebuilding the Column. This has encouraged many forgers to take advantage of the situation and, already during the artist's lifetime, the art market has been invaded by works attributed to Courbet, whose originality is difficult to appreciate. The circumstances, the narrowness of the cultural space of the country that welcomed the painter, the distance from Paris, are all factors that do not encourage him to produce works of the importance of those of the years 1850-1860. In this unfavorable context, Courbet nevertheless had the strength to produce portraits of great quality (Régis Courbet father of the artist, Paris, Petit Palais), largely painted landscapes (Sunset on Lake Geneva in the Jenisch Museum in Vevey and the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Gallen), and some Chillon Castle (such as the one in the Gustave-Courbet Museum in Ornans). His health deteriorated at the end of 1876: he began to gain weight again, much diminished by an incurable stomach and abdominal dropsy.

In 1877, in anticipation of the World's Fair the following year, he began work on a Grand Panorama des Alpes (The Cleveland Museum of Art) which remained partially unfinished. He also began sculpting, the two works of these years of exile being La Liberté ou Helvetia in 1875 and La Mouette du Léman, poésie, in 1876.

In solidarity with his compatriots exiled from the Paris Commune, Courbet always refused to return to France before a general amnesty. His wishes were respected, and his body was buried in La Tour-de-Peilz on January 3, 1878, after his death on December 31, 1877, during New Year's Eve, when his heart gave out. His body was laid to rest by the painter André Slomszynski. In Le Réveil of January 6, 1878, Jules Vallès paid tribute to the painter and to "the man of peace":

"He had a better life than those who smell, from youth to death, the odor of ministries, the mold of orders. He crossed the great currents, he plunged into the ocean of the crowds, he heard the heartbeat of a people like cannon shots, and he ended up in the middle of nature, among the trees, breathing in the perfumes that had intoxicated his youth, under a sky that has not been tarnished by the vapor of the great massacres, but, which, tonight perhaps, set ablaze by the setting sun, will spread over the house of the dead, like a great red flag."

His remains were transferred in June 1919 to Ornans, in a very modest grave in the communal cemetery.


Gustave Courbet coated his canvas with a dark, almost black, background composed of asphalt, from which he ascended to clarity, details of figures and landscapes, by superimposing touches of lighter colors. This technique borrowed from the Flemish school of painting is, perhaps, condemning some of Courbet's works. Indeed, if it has not been isolated by a shellac varnish, this tar, over time, rises through the paint and tends to darken and dangerously crack the surface of his paintings. Rescue and restoration operations have been undertaken, sometimes on a large scale, as for The Painter's Studio (2014-2016, under the supervision of the Musée d'Orsay) or occasionally, for example, for The Stag in the Forest (1867, 100 x 75 cm, Musée du Château de Flers).

Sources of inspiration

In some of Courbet's compositions of the 1840s, we find repeats of certain motifs borrowed from Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix, two painters he admired, especially for their large formats.

Courbet sometimes resorted to photography, particularly in the representation of the female nude: like Delacroix before him, he used photographs instead of the traditional posing sessions with live models. Thus, the central figure of the Bathers (1853), but also the female composition featuring the model in The Painter's Studio, are inspired either by the model himself or by photographs taken by the photographer Julien Vallou de Villeneuve. In the case of the canvas intended for a private reception, L'Origine du monde, its tight framing evokes the "pornographic" stereophotographs produced under the radar at that time by Auguste Belloc. Low Tide, Immensity (Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum), recalls a Sun Effect in the Clouds (1856-1857) by landscape photographer Gustave Le Gray. In the same way, the photographer Adalbert Cuvelier, from 1850-1852 onwards, began to pose in front of his lens tradesmen, manual workers and craftsmen (Blacksmith and Man with a Wheelbarrow): Courbet was reproached for the fact that his painting hid nothing of what the precise aesthetics of the daguerreotype reveal, and that, in addition, it magnified the details.

Monographic exhibitions

Few artists of this period built their careers more than Courbet through the strategy of scandal and provocation, underpinned by an individualistic and moral impulse. Several events clearly mark this construction: the Salon of 1850-1851, the exhibition of Les Baigneuses at the Salon of 1853 - which aroused an unprecedented critical outburst in most periodicals of the time - the erection of the Pavilion of Realism in 1855, the elaboration of the work The Return of the Conference in 1863 and the anti-clerical campaign of Ghent in 1868, and finally the republican commitment in 1869-1870, which culminated in his participation in the Paris Commune. Several works have analyzed the phenomenon of scandal and its reception: a calculated provocation where the canvas is caught in the clutches of the discourses and conflicts of the time. The critics of the time interpreted the painter's works in a perfectly antinomic way, nourishing the image of an insubordinate and rebellious painter. Thus, while the detractors (Edmond About, Charles Baudelaire, Cham, Théophile Gautier, Gustave Planche...) stigmatize a realist painting, its defenders (Alfred Bruyas, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Émile Zola) consider that it is able to convey spirit of independence, freedom and progress. Some historians go so far as to imagine that this space of debate would be a democratic space, in the sense that the philosopher Claude Lefort understands it, insofar as it institutes a conflict of opinions around its painting.

The first painting by Courbet that Delacroix was able to see was Les Baigneuses, in 1853. Delacroix confided to his diary that he was "astonished at the vigor and salience" of this work, but he criticized it for "the vulgarity of the forms" and even worse for "the vulgarity and uselessness of the thought," which he described as "abominable." On the other hand, two years later, he admires the Painter's Studio and A Burial at Ornans, including "superb details." More generally, Delacroix denounced the bias of detail to the detriment of imagination in the triumphant realism of which Courbet appears as the champion.

The critical analysis of Baudelaire, who was his ally until 1855 before distancing himself from it and opposing it, brought Courbet and Ingres closer together in that in their respective works "the imagination, that queen of faculties, has disappeared." He certainly saw in Courbet "a powerful worker, a savage and patient will" but especially one of these "anti-supernaturalists" who deliver a "war to the imagination", with their "philosophy of brutes" and their "poverty of ideas."

In 1867, Edmond de Goncourt came back dismayed from his visit to the Courbet pavilion: "Nothing, nothing and nothing in this Courbet exhibition. Hardly two sea skies. Apart from that, something piquant in this master of realism, nothing of the study of nature. The body of his Woman with a Parrot is as far, in its genre, from the truth of the nude as any eighteenth-century academy. The painting The Sleep, by the one he calls a "popular idiot" inspires him only disdain: "Two earthy, dirty, breneus bodies, knotted in the most ungainly movement and the most slanderous of the voluptuousness of the woman in bed; nothing of the color, of the light, of the life of her skin, nothing of the loving grace of her limbs, a beastly garbage."

Studies on Courbet

Between 1853 and 1873, Courbet was certainly at the forefront of the media scene of his time, but did not elicit many in-depth studies. After his death, an attempt was made in the 1880s to rehabilitate his memory and to preserve his work in France, given that a good number of his paintings had gone to foreign collections: the French state had until then, on rare occasions, purchased few works by the painter. The first critical inventory was made by Jules-Antoine Castagnary with the exhibition organized at the Beaux-arts de Paris in 1882. The role of his sister, Juliette Courbet (1831-1915), who was both the heir to the collection and the guardian of her father's memory, and who kept a close eye on the collection until his death, was crucial. During this period, the critic Camille Lemonnier attempted a first analysis.

The first serious critical biography is the one conducted by Georges Riat in 1906, because he worked in collaboration with the family and had access to first-hand documentation. It was followed by a real first monograph undertaken by Charles Léger between 1925 and 1948. Abroad, Julius Meier-Graefe (in 1921) and Meyer Schapiro (in 1940) opened the field to comparative study. From the 1950s onwards, critical interest increased as exhibitions multiplied (Boston, Philadelphia) and political reappropriation took place: Louis Aragon wrote an essay, L'Exemple de Courbet (1952), which proposed, in addition to his analyses, a first cataloguing of the painter's drawings. In Switzerland, the works of Pierre Courthion in 1948-50 and in 1987 allow us to rethink the chronology of the work, which the painter himself had contributed to confuse, and to return to his years of exile. The painter's grand-cousin, Robert Fernier, founded the "Friends of Gustave Courbet" and launched the first steps of what became the catalog raisonné, which was published in 1977, the year of the centenary of the painter's death, a commemoration that allowed Paris (Petit Palais) to host a retrospective exhibition, which was also presented in London (Royal Academy). This event gave rise to numerous essays, particularly in English-speaking countries, and a new school of criticism emerged with Linda Nochlin, Timothy Clark - who published An Image of the People. Gustave Courbet and the Revolution of 1848 (1973) - then Michael Fried with Courbet's Realism (1997), at the same time as his correspondence was finally published by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu (1996). The year 1995 was marked in Paris and on the international scene by the public discovery of The Origin of the World, which gave rise to an abundant literature.

The retrospective organized in 2007-2008 in Paris at the Grand Palais and in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, relayed by a colloquium at the Musée d'Orsay, made the diversity of the painter's production more sensitive, mixing paintings intended - in their time - for public reception and paintings reserved for the interiors of collectors. Ségolène Le Men published an important monograph on this occasion, at the same time as numerous specialized studies were published.

In 2017, Thierry Gaillard published an article devoted to the transgenerational analysis of Gustave Courbet, namely the repercussions on the painter's life of the unfulfilled mourning of his older brother and his two uncles (maternal and paternal), all potential heirs. This position of being a "replacement" child will motivate the painter to stand out from the crowd, to innovate, while giving his work an exceptional strength, characteristic of the need for recognition (never satisfied) from which the so-called "replacement" children suffer.

Transferts de Courbet, edited by Yves Sarfati at Presses du réel in 2013 offers an original reading of Courbet's life and work with contributions from historians, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and neurologists.

Request for transfer to the Pantheon

In 2013, a case pleading for the transfer of the remains of Gustave Courbet (kept in the cemetery of Ornans since 1919) to the Pantheon was filed by psychiatrist Yves Sarfati and art critic Thomas Schlesser with the president of the National Monuments Center Philippe Bélaval. The proposal for a posthumous tribute to the artist appears at the symposium Transferts de Courbet in Besançon in 2011 (published by Presses du réel in 2013). It is supported by an article in the Quotidien de l'art of September 25, 2013 (then by an article in the "ideas" section of Le Monde. fr where it is said that "by honoring Courbet, it is the republican commitment and justice, that we would honor", that "by honoring Courbet, it is the world of today and that of Fine Arts, that we would honor" and that "by honoring Courbet, it is the Woman, with a big F, that we would honor". Among the members of the committee supporting the pantheonization of the artist are: Nicolas Bourriaud, Annie Cohen-Solal, Georges Didi-Huberman, Romain Goupil, Catherine Millet, Orlan, Alberto Sorbelli.

The work includes paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures. Courbet is not an engraver: in his early years, he probably executed some drawings on lithographic stone.


Courbet produced more than a thousand paintings, two thirds of which are landscapes. He sometimes signed and dated paintings at the time of an exhibition, either after the final execution of the painting; this sometimes resulted in approximations on his part. With rare exceptions, Courbet generally painted alone before 1872. Upon his return to Ornans after his release from prison, he surrounded himself with collaborators. For a long time it was thought that the workshop formed by Courbet at that time (with Cherubino Patà, Marcel Ordinaire, Ernest-Paul Brigot...) had continued during the period of exile in Switzerland, which was not the case. The general inventory of the corpus remains incomplete to this day. In addition, there are many forgeries and the expert appraisals of certain paintings attributed to Courbet do not always present the necessary seriousness.

This list invites the enumeration of the paintings currently preserved and accessible to the public:

Drawings of illustrations

In chronological order:

In reverse chronological order:

In alphabetical order of author :


  1. Gustave Courbet
  2. Gustave Courbet
  3. Courbet, peintre : tirage de démonstration, notice sur Gallica.
  4. Cf. aussi suite de clichés appartenant aux collections du musée Gustave Courbet (Ornans), épreuves au gélatino-bromure d'argent, 24 × 19 cm.
  5. Sa tombe indique par erreur le 10 août 1819 — cf.
  6. Léger 1948, p. 16
  7. Duret 1928, p. 3-4.
  8. ^ Political turmoil delayed the opening of the Salon of 1850 until 30 December 1850.[15]
  9. ^ Bade.
  10. ^ L'Origine du monde - Gustave Courbet | Musée d'Orsay, su URL consultato il 1º febbraio 2023.
  11. ^ Un funerale a Ornans, su, Musée d'Orsay, 2006. URL consultato il 22 ottobre 2022 (archiviato dall'url originale il 2 dicembre 2017).
  12. ^ a b c Courbet e la Comune, su, Musée d'Orsay, 2000. URL consultato il 20 giugno 2016 (archiviato dall'url originale il 15 agosto 2016).
  13. ^ Haddad, p. 117.
  14. Téophile Thoré Bürger Salony 1844-48, Salony 1861-1868, cyt. za Courbet w oczach własnych i w oczach przyjaciół, red. P. Courthion, Warszawa 1963, s. 40.
  15. Courbet „O sztuce”, wstęp do katalogu wystawy indywidualnej w Pawilonie Realizmu (1855), cyt. za.: Courbet..., s. 259.

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