‘To record the manners, ideas and aspects of the age as I myself saw them… to create living art – that is my aim,’ wrote the famously temperamental pioneer of 19th-century Realism, Gustave Courbet. In the France of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, Courbet’s ‘aim’ was nothing less than revolutionary. A committed socialistic republican, he employed the monumental scale of Eugène Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David’s classical realism but replaced its gods and historical figures with everyday scenes of peasant culture or the unidealised human body. It was an artistic revolution that produced some of the most important works of 19th-century painting and paved the way for the birth for modern art.
Courbet was born into the farming community of Franche-Comté on France’s border with Switzerland. Though he moved to Paris at the age of 20, the people of Franche-Comté would appear in many of his works. His breakthrough came with three depictions of the people of his homeland. A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair (1850) and The Stone-Breakers (1849) were exhibited at the 1851 Salon where they caused a scandal with what was considered Courbet’s vulgar aggrandisement of humble, everyday subject matter.
Courbet’s work would always court the contempt of the bourgeois establishment of Napoleon III’s France. Much of his work in the 1850s was vilified by the French Academy, including his allegorical masterpiece, Painter’s Studio (1854-5), which was rejected from the Exposition Universelle in 1855. But over his lifetime he attracted as many admirers as detractors. Though his politics remained fiercely revolutionary and some of his work, such as Origin of the World (1866), pushed realism to new levels of candour, by 1870 he had become an establishment figure himself.
After the fall of Napoleon III he spent six months in prison for his role in the 1871 Paris Commune. Released with a huge fine to pay, he fled to Switzerland where, despite ill health and the shoddy influence of his many assistants, he produced late masterpieces such as Winter Landscape: The Dents du Midi (1876) and Panorama of the Alps (1877).
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