Gustave Courbet: What Made Him The Father of Realism?

Gustave Courbet was the founding father of the politically-motivated Realism movement, which revolutionized European painting. He paved the way for the Impressionists and ultimately the birth of modern art.

Jan 5, 2021By John Sewell, BA & MA Art History, University of Birmingham
gustave courbet
Details from The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet, 1843-45; and The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life by Gustave Courbet, 1854-55


Gustave Courbet is widely renowned as one of France’s greatest painters ever. During his career, he revolutionized the artistic landscape of the country through the introduction of the Realism movement. His legacy as a politically-motivated provocateur has had a lasting impact on the work of artists and theorists alike. 


However, in order to understand just how revolutionary Courbet was, it’s important to understand the story of his career, the political contexts of his time and the nature of art before and after he had had his chance to leave his mark. 


Gustave Courbet: The Father of Realism

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Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830, via The Louvre, Paris


To begin with, it’s important to understand that the French Salon, a governmental organization that underpinned the goings-on in France’s art world, ruled all when it came to painting and thinking about art. 


In order to be successful, the artist had to not only win over the hierarchy of the Salon with brushwork and color choices but the subject matter they represented also had to be in-line with their perception of what art should be. 


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Prior to the 1830s, there had been a number of pervasive styles that dominated the Salon. First, there was the Rococo in the mid-1700s, with its frills and flowers; then came Neo-Classicism with its nods to antiquity. Finally, by the time Gustave Courbet was beginning to make a name for himself, Romanticism was the dominant force in French Art. 


Romanticism, as its name suggests, presented an idealized view of the world – incorporating many elements of both the Rococo and Neo-Classical styles. Delacroix and Gericault were leaders of the movements and their work set out to provoke deep, emotional responses among its viewers. From patriotism to awe in the power of nature, romantic painters framed their vision with immense theatre and emotional fervor.   


The Stone Breakers

the stonebreakers gustave courbet
The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet, 1849, via Phaidon Press


Gustave Courbet didn’t believe that this vision of the world provided people with the things they really wanted art to offer them. He believed that art could be used as a tool to reflect the realities of the world in which he lived. He hoped that it could highlight the hardships people faced in day to day life and in so doing, he sought to move people to consider their perceptions of the world around them. 


His Realist Manifesto laid out some of the reasons for his desire to paint the day-to-day life of modern existence. For example, he said, “An epoch can only be reproduced by its own artists, I mean by the artists who lived in it.” By which he meant that it was pointless to paint scenes from ancient history, as the artist wouldn’t understand what it meant to exist in that time in the same way they could their own.


the desperate man gustave courbet
The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet, 1843-45, in a Private Collection, via Institut Sapiens, Paris


Therefore, by painting the scenes of everyday life which an artist saw around themselves, they were able to create art which not only resonated more truly with their lives, but with the lives of their audience. This would, as he saw it, make for art, which was more impactful, powerful and relatable to the masses – rather than simply serving as an intellectual folly for the elites. 


Gustave Courbet said that he was inspired to paint this scene after having seen the two men depicted working by the side of the road. He said it was “not often that one encounters so complete an expression of poverty and so, right then and there I got the idea for a painting. I told them to come to my studio the next morning.”


Dutch Courage

anatomy lesson rembrandt van rijn
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632, via the Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague


Gustave Courbet’s desire to reflect the world as he really saw it came from a number of different sources. However, one of the most important influences on his artistic style came from his interest in Northern European art. He had visited the Netherlands when he was in his early twenties and had been particularly taken with the work of Rembrandt


He also found inspiration in the scenes of painters such as van Eyck and Rembrandt, who painted with great candor the day-to-day life of the citizens of the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. These artists showed the figures in their paintings drinking, worshipping, cavorting, and everything else in between.


Their reason for doing so was not just to poke fun at the comedic endeavors of every-day people, though that was certainly an element of it. But they also were also making a philosophical point about the nature of existence. 


Burial at Ornans

burial ornans gustave courbet
A Burial at Ornans, also called A Painting of Human Figures, the History of a Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet, 1849-50, via Musèe d’Orsay, Paris


Although much more somber than many of the Netherlandish scenes which had inspired Gustave Courbet’s outlook on depicting the lives of his subjects, The Burial at Ornans encapsulates many of the ideals of the Realism movement.  


Not only does it depict a scene of everyday life, but it also shows one which has a specific religious and social significance. Funerary scenes in art history are more commonly associated with the death and entombment of Christ, or specifically in the French cannon. Examples from ancient history include The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons by Jacques-Louis David.


However, here, Courbet chose to paint with the same sense of gravity and grandeur the scene of his uncle’s funeral in his hometown of Ornan. The people shown are the exact people from the town who attended the funeral in real life, and he painted them in his studio in the days following the event.


After the painting was shown at the Paris Salon in 1850, Courbet announced that “The Burial at Ornans was, in reality, the burial of Romanticism.” This demonstrated not only his disregard for the stylistic preferences which had dominated his age, but also showed his own understanding that this was a landmark painting in both his career and the history of art. 


Political Pals

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Portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet, 1848, via Musée Fabre, Montpellier


Gustave Courbet’s interest in such socio-political ideas was, however, not necessarily of his own inspiration. He was close friends with a number of France’s most influential and, at the time, controversial thinkers. This included the famous writer Charles Baudelaire, as well as the philosopher and theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon


Though Baudelaire and Courbet were close friends, they didn’t always agree on the more grandiose ideas that their respective work dealt with. Baudelaire felt that Courbet’s desire to represent to world realistically was an attempt to “wage war on imagination” – which Baudelaire felt was “the Queen” of human faculties. 


Meanwhile, Courbet and Proudhon were much more closely aligned philosophically speaking. This may have stemmed from their similar upbringings in the border regions of France and Switzerland, and manifested itself for both in a strong anarchical, pro-republican outlook. 


Proudhon’s writing and activism inspired Courbet, while Courbet’s painting inspired Proudhon’s writing and activism. Courbet had called his friend “the pilot of the 19th century,” while Proudhon used Courbet as a shining example of how art could be used to achieve political change in one of his final essays, The Principle of Art and its Social Application.



The Artist’s Studio

the artists studio gustave courbet
The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life by Gustave Courbet, 1854-55, via Musèe d’Orsay, Paris


In fact, Baudelaire himself makes an appearance in one of Gustave Courbet’s most famous paintings. In The Artist’s Studio, Courbet is giving the audience his most personal insight into his perception of the world and the people within it.


To the left of the scene, Courbet depicted the everyday folk (including Jewish and Irish immigrants) who had formed such a crucial role in the formation of his artistic work. One of them, a young boy, stares up at Courbet admiringly as if to suggest that he is in fact paving the way for generations to come, and inspiring the formation of a world which is yet to be realized. 


Conversely, immediately to his left, stands a nude woman posing and holding a white sheet. She might represent beauty and virtue in the classical sense, but Courbet wants nothing to do with her. His back is turned to her and his focus is solely on the working-class people who sit before him. 


Meanwhile, beyond her are a crowd of those who have influenced his work and his outlook on the world. From Proudhon and Baudelaire to Courbet’s most prominent collector, Alfred Bruyas. 


Altogether, this collation of people and ideologies is a manifestation of Courbet’s belief in his own value to the world and more specifically. It also shows the power of his art to impart the change he wished to see on it.


Artists Of The Realism Movement

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Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys by Jean-François Millet, 1872, via The Met Museum, New York 


Gustave Courbet was not alone in his mission to depict the world as realistically as possible. The Realism movement included other artists who followed Courbet’s lead and included notable artists such as Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier and later Édouard Manet.


The influence of the Realism movement’s artists could be seen throughout the world as well as in France. John Sloan and other members of the Aschan School of painting in the United States captured the daily life in New York’s working-class neighborhoods. This influence continued into the 1900s with the likes of Edward Hopper and George Bellows.


Ford Maddox Brown is thought to have followed in Courbet’s footsteps in a number of his paintings. As well as his more romantic efforts, showing whimsical scenes of myth and fantasy; he would also depict realistic visions of every-day life. His most notable example of this is a painting of an emigrating couple aboard a boat, titled The Last of England.


Origine Du Monde: Epitome Of Gustave Courbet’s Realism

origine du monde gustave courbet
Origine do Monde by Gustave Courbet, 1866, in Musée d’Orsay, Paris, via The Guardian


Gustave Courbet was the figure who came to define the Realism movement and it was in this painting that he most actively achieved many of his aims. After all, this painting was so ‘real’ that it wasn’t publicly exhibited until more than 100 years after it was created for fear of controversy and public outrage.


The painting was initially commissioned for a private collection by the wealthy Ottoman diplomat, Halil Şerif Pasha, who lived in Paris. After he found himself in financial difficulty, the work danced around Europe from collector to collector until eventually, it ended up in the possession of the Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in 1955.


It was only in 1988 that the work first went on public display as part of a Courbet retrospective held by the Brooklyn Museum. It has been on display at the Museé d’Orsay since 1995 when Lacan died and his family offset their inheritance tax bill by gifting the work to the French state.


In many ways, though hidden to obscurity for most of its existence, this artwork was one of Gustave Courbet’s most powerful examples of the Realism movement. It was in its realness that this painting might be deemed so confrontational to many. Not only does it show an anonymous, nude, and hairy female body, but its name reflects the reality of the birth of nearly every single human.

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By John SewellBA & MA Art History, University of BirminghamJohn holds both a BA and an MA in Art History from the University of Birmingham, UK. His academic research focussed on nineteenth and early-twentieth century depictions of narcotics use, addiction and race-relations. However, his interests extend far beyond this; and his work covers an array of topics from many different periods and locations around the world. Alongside writing, he is also the founder of Eazyl - an online art marketplace for emerging artists which charges no commission fees.