If you guys remember two posts ago I was talking about Millet’s Gleaners and so on, so I wanted to mention the guy who paved the way for this sort of stuff, Gustave Courbet. He is considered to be the head of the Realist movement, and was influenced early on by a trip to the Netherlands to see Dutch masterpieces depicting every day life. There are some very famous examples of Courbet’s work at the musée d’Orsay, such as “Burial at Ornans” (1850) and “The Artist’s Studio”(1855). His style looks quite different than Millet’s, aesthetically, but at the heart of the matter, they are Realists; which means they are concerning themselves with painting real, modern people doing accurately real things. They are concerning themselves with shedding light on the average peoples of France (read: lower class) instead of giving attention to subjects which previously were committed to paint such as royalty or religion. A major difference in aesthetics can be attributed to the fact that Millet was a Barbizon School artist, which is a group of artists that traveled to the French countryside in search of rural subject matter (mainly in Barbizon). The movement was coming out of Romanticism so the subjects are somewhat Idealized, but at the same time moving towards Realism in subject matter. Unfortunately, Courbet’s works have always been somewhat rejected by my personal tastes because I consider his execution of ideas to be offensively heavy-handed and vulgar. None the less his works are quite celebrated.
Burial at Ornans
Ornans is significant because it depicts an event that happened during his lifetime, and the figures were posed by the people themselves. It is important to remember that previously the only people important enough to pose for their own portraits were generally royalty, or ancient greek or biblical figures were often posed for by poor students or prostitutes from lack of finances. In addition, this work is unbelievably enormous: 10 x 22 ft, a size normally reserved for biblical scenes. As the fantastical and decadent style of Romanticism was losing public interest, Courbet’s Ornans offered an every-day realistic view of life, and more importantly death, as the ordinary funeral procession is splayed out in huge scale before us. “The rigorous frieze-like composition and the gaping grave strewn with bones invite us to think about the human condition” 1.
L’Atelier du peintre. Allégorie réelle déterminant une phase de
sept années de ma vie artistique et morale
In the same room at musée d’Orsay, there is the Artist’s Studio which features Courbet in the centre and allegorical figures depicting the turmoil and reality of his life. On his right, he is flanked by his supporters, contemporaries and friends such as Alfred Bruyas, Proudhon, Champfleury and Baudelaire. On his left are his contenders, the wretched, the exploited and the twisted. He also added in a man with hunting dogs much later, supposed to be an allegory for Napoleon III, depicting him as a criminal. “The unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolis[e] poverty. We can also see the guitar, the dagger and the hat, which, together with the male model, condemn traditional academic art. […] When faced with the rejection of his painting, intended for the 1855 Universal Exhibition, Courbet built a “Pavilion of Realism” at his own expense. Here, outside the official event, he organized his own exhibition, which also included A Burial at Ornans” 2. A great amount of viewership were people who only came to belittle the artist, offended at his audaciousness and lack of tact.
The self-proclaimed “proudest and most arrogant man in France” 3
Courbet secured some financial success by flanking his controversial paintings with long standing favorite views, such as hunting scenes. He furthered his work of female nudes and erotic art depicting such scenes as women in bed, prostitutes napping with their undergarments showing, or just extreme vagina close ups, some of which attracted attention from the authorities. Two examples are the “Le Sommeil”(1866), and “Ces demoiselles des bords de la Seine”(1857), both at the Petit Palais. Ces demoiselles aimed to portray the “realism of the scene, with a frank sensuality” […] Courbet deliberately provoked critique, sparking a scandal by exposing Ces Demoiselles at the Salon of 1857” 4. Le Sommeil was never shown, instead immediately went into a private collection. There is a long history of erotic artworks and of France in particular there is a long history of the eroticised female nude painted by men for the appreciation of men. So while I can appreciate Courbet’s desire to bend the rules and question authority I find his treatment of his subjects crude and ugly, and his works make every attempt to bash his ideology over our heads like a lead pipe.
One of his most celebrated works, which has a more realistic and less sensualised feel, is the “Stonebreakers” (1850). The work is no longer viewable as it was destroyed during allied bombing in WWII. It depicts the lower-class people of abject poverty, two men whose only means of survival is breaking rocks to make way for a road. Courbet witnessed this scene and hired the two to come to his studio to pose for the painting. This painting, created a year after the Communist Manifesto was published, aims to shed light on class structure and the reality of the low class in France. The fact that we can’t see the end of the road, and the nondescript ambient lighting gives no indication that the work will be completed on any discernible timeline. Instead, the stonebreakers are engaged in perpetual labour. They are enslaved by the land they must work, and the only peep of any light on the horizon almost imperceptibly out of reach.
Courbet participated in the Paris Commune (French socialist uprising) and upon his suggestion, the Vendôme column was demolished. Following the fall of the brief reign of the commune, Courbet was sentenced to six months in prison and a five hundred Franc fine for his involvement. However when the Republic elected a new president it was decided that the Vendôme should be rebuilt, entirely financed by Courbet (323 091 Francs). Courbet went into exile to avoid bankruptcy. He was then told he could pay in installments of 10 000 francs per year until the age of 91, but he died the day before the first installment was due from the effects of heavy drinking.
A group of artists coined the “bande noire” working later in the 1800s, were inspired by Courbet who employed dark colours and whose compositions held a turbulent feel, especially his self portraits. They rejected the bright and colourful light of the Impressionists and Barbizon school in favour of dark and violent colour to express melancholy, the precision and realism of everyday life. The group included Charles Cottet , Emile-Rene Menard, Dauchez André, Rene Prinet Xavier, Lucien Simon, and associated non-members Edmond Aman-Jean and George Desvallières.
l’ascention du poilu, (1931)
Desvallières work made use of dark and turbulent subjects, eventually becoming more twisted and expressive as his life and work progressed. Desvallières met Gustave Moreau at the Académie Julian who influenced his work significantly, drawing Desvallières away from making traditional copies and influencing his personal style and independence. “Devallières devoted himself to the creation of the Salon d’Automne […] “whose role is to be excessive because the role of the other salons is to be quite the opposite”, for forgotten masters and for talented artists that were currently excluded from official exhibitions” 5. Desvallières aimed to give attention and public exhibition to Salon-rejected artists and to give support to those dedicated to their cause even if unpopular eg) Fauves. Upon the outbreak of WWI he voluntarily enlisted at the age of 53, and “it was on the occasion of one of these sallies, when he had passed close to death, that he vowed to paint only religious subjects in the future: a vow that he kept scrupulously until the end of his life” 6. His style mixes the dark and furious aesthetic of Courbet with the same turmoil felt during wartime France. The subject matter is in a modern setting, but expressive and inventive in its execution. Devallières began mixing religious images with violent military battle scenes, expressing his pain and horror of the war in which he lost his son Daniel (aged 17) in his own battalion, with the grace and comfort he found in religion.