Repository 144: Happy Bday Courbet | The Premier Artist as Rebel

Gustav Courbet,  Self-portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843–1845 (Private collection)

Gustav Courbet, Self-portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843–1845 (Private collection)

“…in our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.”
– Gustave Courbet, 1850

On this June day 195 years ago in France, Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was born. Courbet was one of the best, most audacious artists in his time, and a major player in the 19th century art revolution in France that moved the focus of art from institution to individual. He can be described as the first artist rebel – before there was an Oscar Wilde, a David Bowie, a Rage Against the Machine there was Courbet.

What made him a rebel was exactly this – he chose everyday subject matter and elevated it to the size of paintings usually reserved for kings, history, mythology and religion. This was a conscious decision where he equated the realism in his art with political anarchism. Showing a burial of peasants (as pictured below) almost 22 feet wide was scandalous and shocking. Parallel to his carrying on with “vulgar” subject matter in these large sizes, he was an extremely outspoken and political individual. His fingers and toes were planted heavily in the gallery world and in the government’s nose of the time. He fanned the fire of his celebrity by writing essays on democratic and socialist ideas – all politically motivated.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850, oil on canvas, (123.6 x 261 inches - ~ 10.5 x 22 feet), Musee d'Orsay, Paris.  Exhibition at the 1850–1851 Paris Salon created an "explosive reaction" and brought Courbet instant fame.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850, oil on canvas, (123.6 x 261 inches – ~ 10.5 x 22 feet), Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Exhibition at the 1850–1851 Paris Salon created an “explosive reaction” and brought Courbet instant fame.

Before Courbet an artist was simply that – no fanfare, simply an artist/artisan. Remember it wasn’t until Impressionism that people started to marvel at the persona of the artists (i.e. Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugain). Courbet bridged the world of the Romantics to the world of Impressionists. Popular belief lands the Impressionists as the troublemakers and rebels. In fact it wasn’t exactly so – Courbet paved the way for new perceptions of art and artists given his assistance on mixing personal politics with painting. Impressionists arguably were more concerned with taste making than he was.

Courbet so pitted himself against the system at the time that when the Salon rejected his paintings due to their size and subject, that in 1855 he went ahead and mounted his own gallery space, the “Pavilion of Realism” to showcase his work right across the street from Universal Exhibition going on at the time. Ballsy indeed. This is the first record of an artist-organized show by the way.

While I adore his chutzpah, and find his art quite nice I think the only downfall to his path as artist celebrity was an unfortunate seed planted for the myth of the “suffering artist”. With all of his clever system navigation, Courbet also posed to be from the peasant class and self taught to make his work of the “real” subject matter be that much more believable. He was anything but poor, and attended the finest academy of art to study painting.

The best achievement of his incredible body of work and life’s practice is his emphasis on the real in art – this emphasis on exploring reality opened the doors to so many artists in the future and today. Merci Monsieur Courbet!

“Courbet, painted by Himself”, Cover of La  Lune, June 9, 1867 Artist as self promoter, celebrity, bon vivant

“Courbet, painted by Himself”, Cover of La Lune, June 9, 1867
Artist as self promoter, celebrity, bon vivant

OH! And he made this lovely painting. C’est vrai Monsiuer Courbet, c’est vrai…

Gustave Courbet, "L'Origine du monde, 1866  Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du monde, 1866
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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11 responses to “Repository 144: Happy Bday Courbet | The Premier Artist as Rebel

  1. Terrific post..! I remember turning a corner at the Musée D’Orsay and coming across “LOrigine du Monde”, hung all alone on a wall .. amazing. Shocking!!! Can you imagine what the critics were saying at the time?

  2. p.s. I just finished a lovely read called “I Always Loved You”, a novel by Robin Oliveira, about the intense relationship between Degas and Mary Cassatt, and all their peers in Paris during that Belle Epoch, including Courbet. Great book.

  3. Right? Shocking indeed. Next most shocking thing was soup cans in the gallery. Now there is nothing left to shock really. Unless you rock the capitalist boat…wondering what an origine du monde would look like today? Instead of a woman’s privates..copyright infringement? Fun to think about. The book you mentioned sounds lovely – thanks for the recommendation and as always for reading!!

  4. Reblogged this on cleaning up the studio and commented:
    A happy 195th birthday to Gustave Courbet, “one of the best, most audacious artists in his time, and a major player in the 19th century art revolution in France that moved the focus of art from institution to individual.” Reposting here, with thanks to Catherine Haley-Epstein for this great post. She notes: “Before Courbet, an artist was simply that – no fanfare, simply an artist/artisan. Remember it wasn’t until Impressionism that people started to marvel at the persona of the artists (i.e. Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin)…. Courbet paved the way for new perceptions of art and artists given his [insistence] on mixing personal politics with painting.” Read on, and don’t miss the last image in the post….!!

  5. Where to begin Dan? Wow. With respect to Courbet, his Origin du Monde was not exactly revolutionary – images of nude women, nameless and almost faceless were par for the course in his day and stood in as 19th century porn (degrading or not depending on which side of the painting you were on). It would have been revolutionary if his image was 22 feet wide. This artist’s performance piece from last week was also not revolutionary, but definitely reactionary and has caused some valuable discussion on the web about women as object, and institutional critique. I’ve never found Courbet’s Origin du Monde piece to be profound, I rather enjoy people’s reaction to it (ergo this artist’s piece). And while I absolutely know there is a great need for attention to be brought to the objectification/suppression/mistreatment of women worldwide, I don’t know if using the same language of the objectification (sparkly dress, red lipstick and being naked) will be the best way to move the discussion forward. A new language is needed to see the urgency of these gender issues. Thanks for bringing this performance piece to my attention, and thanks always for reading!

    • Great response, Catherine.. I wasn’t sure just how I felt about Deborah de Robertis’s performance piece. Your take on it makes so much sense. Thanks as always for your insight and well-informed opinions.

      • Agreed. Like Karen, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this intervention either. The artist’s statement regarding the fact that Courbet’s work does not show the hole in the vagina seems interesting to me as well. I agree with you that the piece could be been a very interesting statement about the objectification of women, but the artists statement and actual performance do not articulate that. Seems like mixed/confusing messages and a spectacle in the end.

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