Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement

Rejecting established academic traditions that prescribed certain subject matter for art, painter Gustave Courbet refused an invitation to contribute a commissioned work to the Exposition Universelle at Paris and instead set up his own exhibition, the Pavilion of Realism, to present his paintings of contemporary subjects drawn from everyday life. By this bold act, he launched the realist movement in art.

Summary of Event

The son of a middle-class farming family of Franche-Comté, Gustave Courbet arrived in Paris in 1839 and set about teaching himself to be a painter by copying the masterpieces of the Louvre Louvre Museum
Art;museums Museum Museums;art . In Paris, he met with a number of artists, critics, and novelists who shared his ideas of what art and literature should be. They all were intent upon rejecting the traditional, academic rules for art and literature, a tradition that depicted the past and not the everyday as well as the exceptional and not the common, and preferred the imagination over observation in both art and literature. Extremely popular during this time were the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas, père, Dumas, Alexandre, père about musketeers and seventeenth century court intrigue peopled with bigger-than-life heroes. Victor Hugo’s Hugo, Victor novels, such as Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), took readers into past ages, and Prosper Mérimée Mérimée, Prosper transported readers to exotic places in novels such as Carmen (1845). The Salon Salon des Refusés of Paris preferred to exhibit paintings that dealt with the historical past. Courbet, Jules Champfleury, and Charles Baudelaire, Baudelaire, Charles
[p]Baudelaire, Charles;and realist art movement[realist art movement] among others, were seeking an artistic expression that presented contemporary life in an objective manner. Realist art movement
Art;Realist movement
Courbet, Gustave
Champfleury, Jules
Paris;Realist art movement
[kw]Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement (1855)
[kw]Establishes Realist Art Movement, Courbet (1855)
[kw]Realist Art Movement, Courbet Establishes (1855)
[kw]Art Movement, Courbet Establishes Realist (1855)
[kw]Movement, Courbet Establishes Realist Art (1855)
Realist art movement
Art;Realist movement
Courbet, Gustave
Champfleury, Jules
Paris;Realist art movement
[g]France;1855: Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement[3060]
[c]Art;1855: Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement[3060]
Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph
[p]Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph[Proudhon, Pierre Joseph];and realist art movement[realist art movement]

[p]Baudelaire, Charles;and realist art movement[realist art movement]
Bruyas, Alfred

During the 1840’s, Courbet painted many self-portraits and submitted a total of twenty-four works to the Salons between 1841 and 1847. Of these works only three were accepted. Then, in 1848, the Salon was not juried; Courbet exhibited seven paintings. In the Salon of 1849, he won a gold medal for his After Dinner at Ornans, and the government purchased the painting. In 1850, the Salon opened late because of the ongoing revolutions in Europe; the Salon continued into 1851. Courbet exhibited two enormous paintings, The Stonebreakers (1849) and Burial at Ornans (1849), for which he was severely criticized. The paintings were found offensive by both critics and the public for two reasons. First, the subject matter was deemed inappropriate, as it depicted people from the lower classes doing everyday things, and second, the people depicted were not “beautiful” but, instead, rather common and sometimes coarse, dressed in the simple clothing of the working class.

Gustave Courbet.

(Library of Congress)

The enormous size of the paintings (Burial at Ornans measured ten feet, three inches by twenty-one feet, nine inches) enabled Courbet to paint life-size figures, intensifying the offensive nature of the works, which defied the rules of academic painting. The works were, however, wonderful examples of the realism on which Courbet insisted. The paintings contained no elevated scenes or noble themes. Courbet had recorded on canvas what he had observed. His inspiration for The Stonebreakers actually had derived from his encounter with two men working along a road. Burial at Ornans depicted a funeral being held in his home town; he had actual townspeople pose for the painting. While Courbet received severe criticism from the traditional critics, his works were highly praised by art critics Baudelaire and Champfleury, who also sought realism in artistic expression. Champfleury, who was recognized as the leader of the realist movement in literature and was the first to use the term “realism” in the context of art criticism, hailed Burial at Ornans as a landmark in realist art.

The Stonebreakers, in particular, and Burial at Ornans were considered possible attacks upon the French government. Courbet was very much influenced by the ideas of his friend Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph
[p]Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph[Proudhon, Pierre Joseph];and realist art movement[realist art movement] , an anarchist Anarchism and advocate of the rights of the people. Because of his own peasant origins, Courbet always identified with the poor and was involved with the Socialist Party, eventually serving as chairman of the art commission during the Paris Commune Paris Commune (1871) of 1871. He had spoken of The Stonebreakers as a depiction of the abject misery he saw around him. In Burial at Ornans, his figures are arranged without any thought to class distinction.

As preparations were being made for the Exposition Universelle Exposition Universelle
Paris;Exposition Universelle of Paris for 1855, Comte Alfred Nieuwerkerke, the exposition’s director of fine arts, invited Courbet to exhibit a commissioned work. Courbet, unwilling to have his work judged or dictated by an official government group, refused the invitation. He did, however, submit a number of his noncommissioned paintings to the exposition. Although eleven of his works had been accepted, Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio (1854-1855) had been rejected.

In response to the rejections, Courbet had a pavilion constructed near the Exposition Universelle and set up his own exposition, which he called the Pavilion of Realism. He displayed forty of his paintings, including Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio. The Painter’s Studio, whose full title was The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of Seven Years of My Artistic Life, stood in striking contrast to the historical paintings of the Salon artists. The painting embodied Courbet’s criteria of the artist expressing only what he observed and experienced. In The Painter’s Studio, Courbet showed himself painting in his studio. The work also includes other people, animals, and objects important to Courbet’s artistic milieu. Baudelaire, Baudelaire, Charles
[p]Baudelaire, Charles;and realist art movement[realist art movement] Champfleury (who wrote the catalog for the pavilion), and Alfred Bruyas Bruyas, Alfred , Courbet’s major financial backer, are depicted to one side of the painting; ordinary people of various social classes are depicted on the other side. In the center, in addition to the painter, one sees a nude female model, a child, and a cat, subjects of his other realist paintings.

By 1855, Courbet had become very influential in the realist movement. Every Thursday, a group of realist artists and writers met with Courbet at the Brasserie Andler to discuss their craft. On September 2, 1855, Champfleury published his first manifesto on realism in the form of a letter to novelist George Sand, discussing Courbet and his work.


Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism established realism as an authentic, legitimate school of painting. It also declared the artist’s independence and right to engage in creative artistic endeavors without government or academic sanction. Courbet’s bold stand set a precedent for independent, private exhibitions. In 1860, Courbet, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, and Jean-François Millet set up a large-scale private exhibition. At the Paris World’s Fair Paris;World’s Fair (1867)[Worlds Fair (1867)]
World fairs;Paris of 1867, both Courbet and Édouard Manet Manet, Édouard had one-person shows in special pavilions. By refusing to accept official rejection of his realist art and by setting up his pavilion, Courbet brought realism to the attention of the public, increased social awareness of the new form, and helped to make possible the development of an art and literature that depicted everyday life. This development would pave the way for the French naturalists a generation later.

Further Reading

  • Clark, Timothy J. Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Focuses on Courbet from 1848 to 1853. Examines Courbet’s efforts to redefine art and to connect with a popular audience. Discusses the connection between the socialist battle of the pamphlets and Courbet’s paintings.
  • Fried, Michael. Courbet’s Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Examines Courbet’s artistic technique with a painting-by-painting discussion.
  • Lehan, Richard. Realism and Naturalism: The Novel in an Age of Transition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. A comprehensive intellectual and literary history of realist and naturalist fiction. Realist painters shared the creative ideas and goals of realist and naturalist writers.
  • Lehning, James R. Peasant and French: Cultural Context in Rural France During the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Explores the class from which Courbet came and which was so often the subject of his paintings.
  • Nochlin, Linda. The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth Century Art and Society. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. Discusses Courbet’s radical realism as well as the interaction of art, society, and politics during the nineteenth century.
  • Rubin, James Henry. Courbet. London: Phaidon Press, 1997. Part of the Arts & Ideas series, this is a collection of essays about Courbet’s life and art work.

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