Conventional 19th century France wasn’t well known for its willingness for social change or playing safe with art; which is why Gustave Courbet pretty much revolutionized the nation with his artistic flare and no-care attitude. The self-proclaimed ‘proudest and most arrogant man in France’, led the Realist movement in France. Courbet’s work stemmed deeply in the present, he didn’t believe in the concept and theatrical style of the romanticism of art or the neo-classical art variations. His work spoke of what was happening then and there. As a Realist – one of its founding members to be precise – Courbet believed that an artist’s work was seeking the truth even if it meant showing social injustices and contradictions through art.
Courbet was born as Jean Desiree Gustave Courbet on June 10, 1819 in the rural district of Ornans in France. Contrary to other artists’ beginnings, Courbet grew up in a very supportive and close knit family. Having grown up near the French Alps left a profound impact on Courbet’s work as well as he had a great affinity for painting picturesque landscapes involving mountains. Initially Courbet was involved in studying law but grew tired of it, he discovered painting when a professor invited him for painting lessons. Fully engrossed in art now, Courbet moved to Paris when he was 21 and did something unconventional. Instead of taking art lessons and studying the works of well-known artists, Courbet self-taught himself painting in the Louvre of all places. Courbet used oil paintings and became well known for his style which normally involved painting landscapes, seascape and figurative compositions. Due to having lived in a rural area, Courbet became well acquainted with the sufferings of the poor and their lack of social rights. And being the vocalist he was, this was ardently reflected in his art, many art lovers consider some of famous works as Courbet speaking out against the social norms which were prevalent in 19th century France back then.
His work such as, Young Women of the Village, caused an uproar amongst the upper classes in France. Normal custom would mean the viewer would get to see a painting of beautiful women clad in fashionable clothes. Instead it featured three young farm girls in all their hard-working glory. All three are clad in dirty clothes complete with rags in a field with half-starved cattle in the back ground. Controversy was caused due to the ‘ugliness’ of the painting which only caused Courbet to call it ‘reality’. Moreover it was a huge wake up call to many who didn’t fully acknowledge the huge class difference. Courbet open and bold depictions of the class system unsettled his Parisian audience. In fact so open and vocal was Courbet in his disdain of social imbalance that he even served a 6 month prison term in Paris and lived in exile in Switzerland until his death.
Courbet gained a mass following due to his openness to share the ugly side of society via his paintings. At times his disdain would result in very crude paintings laden in layers of slabs and thick paint. This is evident in his work A Burial at Ornans and The Source of the Loue. In many ways Courbet was the anti-hero as well, publicly denouncing awards like the Legion of Honor and stating he belongs to no religion or state. Whatever his opinions were, one can’t deny Gustave Courbet was truly a master of Realism.