Before the young Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) had even completed The Stone Breakers, he had already started work on an even greater masterpiece, A Burial at Ornans, one of the canonical paintings of the century.
Shown in the same Salon in 1850 was his monumental A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), which brought Courbet instant fame. This huge painting shows in remarkably unemotional and objective terms the funeral of the artist’s great uncle in the small provincial town of Ornans. The event took place in September 1848, but the painting gives the impression that it is a faithful contemporary record.
Courbet actually painted the work entirely in the studio, using those who were present as models. It shows a moment which could only have existed in the artist’s memory: like Géricault’s earlier Raft of the Medusa, it doesn’t necessarily represent an image which ever existed in reality. But it has been carefully researched, imagined, composed, and painted to give the impression of accuracy and objectivity, rather than some Romantic fantasy.
Such a huge canvas showing what would previously have been considered a minor genre motif demanded revision of what was accepted as history painting. That was reinforced by the third painting of Courbet’s shown in that Salon, another view of the lives of everyday people, this time the inhabitants of a tiny village to the south of Ornans.
Peasants from Flagey Back from the Fair (1850) shows those countryfolk driving oxen and other animals along a country road by the light of the setting sun. These are not the rural poor by any means, but middle class farmers. In the right foreground, a man with a black eye (presumably from a punch-up) holds an umbrella and lets a small pig lead the way. Strapped to his back is large metal kettle with a spout and other goods.
In these three signal works, Courbet had shown the hard daily lives of the near-destitute (The Stone Breakers), a social and business event for the middle-class (Peasants from Flagey Back from the Fair), and a major rite of passage for those at the top of rural society (A Burial at Ornans). These ordinary lives were part of Courbet’s new and social history painting based on the real.
The following year, Courbet started work on another potentially radical take on contemporary life, but seems to have abandoned this before completion, his Firefighters Running to a Blaze (1851). Set in a town, possibly even the huge city of Paris, a large team of firefighters have arrived with their pump to tackle a housefire.
This canvas was found rolled up in Courbet’s studio after his death, by his daughter Juliette, and is unsigned.
His exhibited works continued the country theme with Young Ladies of the Village (1851-52), which shows the artist’s three sisters Zélie, Juliette and Zoé promenading on common land in a small valley close to Ornans. Dressed in their finest, the three have stopped to give alms to a small ‘peasant’ girl who is tending a couple of cows there.
Following this succession of paintings of groups in the country, Courbet turned his attention to individuals who illustrated aspects of contemporary rural life, and pushed the boundaries of what should be seen in fine art.
In The Sleeping Spinner from 1853, a young woman who has been busy spinning in her home has finally given in to her tiredness, leaving her wheel at rest as she dozes.
That same year, The Wrestlers shows a popular sport, with two well-muscled men grappling with one another to the entertainment of distant crowds. Unusually for his figurative paintings of the time, Courbet makes it clear that the wrestlers were painted in the studio and appear almost pasted into the setting, without integration of their shadows, for example, and his perspective looks slightly askew. This was the pendant to his more scandalous Bathers below.
Painted and shown at the Salon in the same year, The Bathers may pale by comparison with slightly later works by Manet and the Impressionists, but its realism was seen as provocative at the time. These two women are no classical beauties, and one of them even has dirt on her foot, as they bathe and picnic in a wood.
Despite its stormy reception at the Salon – comparable to reactions to Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe in 1863 – Courbet’s painting finally brought the artist financial independence when it was purchased by his new patron Alfred Bruyas for three thousand francs.
The art collector Alfred Bruyas is centre stage in Courbet’s tribute The Meeting, painted the following year (1854) and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1855, where is was derogatively re-titled Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet. Its composition is based on the traditional theme of the wandering Jew, but it looks stilted and contrived.
Far more significant that year was The Wheat Sifters (1854), which joins the emerging social realism of Jean-François Millet and later Naturalism of Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. However, the three figures seen here are not Millet’s rural poor, as they have sacks of grain behind them and their clothes are in a good state of repair. Even the soles of their shoes are far from worn, and the boy at the right is inspecting a wooden machine used for processing grain.
Courbet had painted some early landscapes, but it wasn’t until the mid 1850s that he took that landscape painting more seriously.
In 1854, Courbet apparently met up with the landscape specialist Charles-François Daubigny in the countryside of south-eastern France, to the east of the city of Lyon, where the two painted Optevoz Lock together. Although not a good image of this work, I’m afraid, I’m surprised that this collaboration is an example of how Daubigny’s paintings became influenced by Courbet, not the other way around.
Daubigny turned this plein air sketch into a finished studio painting which won him a third-class medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1855, and was purchased by the state. He went on to influence both Monet and Cézanne.
Courbet also visited the French Mediterranean coast, near Montpellier, where he painted himself alone on The Beach at Palavas in 1854. He developed coastal themes in his later landscapes.
This rugged view of the foothills of the Alps to the south-west of Besançon, near the Swiss border, followed in about 1855.
Also typical of these landscapes are two marvellous views of the countryside near Ornans, in his Rock of Ten Hours (1855) above, and Château d’Ornans (1855) below. The town seen in the valley in the middle distance is Ornans, straddling the River Loue, and the Château is the hamlet at the left, poised above the valley. Women are washing clothes in the pool in the foreground.
But Courbet wasn’t intending to make his mark as a landscape artist. His next major and still-controversial work was set indoors, in The Painter’s Studio (1855), which opens my next article about his work, in celebration of the bi-centenary of his birth.