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Gustave Courbet

Born: Ornans, 10 June 1819
Died: La Tour-de-Peliz, Switzerland, 31 December 1877
Nationality: French

wealthy farming family


Petit Séminaire (1830s, Ornans); with Charles-Antoine Flageoulot (pupil of Jacques-Louis David) at Collège Royal and Académie (Besançon); Académie Suisse (Paris)


1838 – executes lithographs for his cousin Max Buchon’s Essais poétiques

1839 – moves to Paris

1849 –exhibits After Dinner at Ornans at Paris Salon

1851 – exhibits The Stonebreakers, Burial at Ornans and Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon) at Salon

1855 – Painter’s Studio rejected from Exposition universelle (Paris); 11 other works are accepted; exhibits independently in his Pavillon du Réalisme

1870 – refuses Cross of the Legion of Honor

1871 – convicted of participating in destruction of Vendôme Column and briefly imprisoned; during The Paris Commune, Courbet serves as president of the commission for the protection of artistic monuments in Paris and as delegate for the fine arts

1873 – exiled to Switzerland

1882 – retrospective exhibition at Ecole des Beaux-Arts


Netherlands (1846); Belgium (1846-47); Baden-Baden and Bad Homburg

Commissions from: 

Charles, Duc de Morny; Alfred Bruyas; Kahlil-Bey

Important Artworks: 

Wounded Man, 1844-54 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Portrait of Baudelaire, 1848-49 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier)

After Dinner at Ornans, 1849 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille)

Young Ladies of the Village, 1852 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Woman in the Waves, 1868 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)



Courbet described his artistic goals in an informational pamphlet distributed at his Pavilion of Realism in 1855:

“I have studied, outside of any system and without prejudice, the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns. I no more wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other. No! I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition and the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality.
     To know in order to create, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short to create living art – this is my goal.”

Translated and reprinted in Linda Nochlin, ed., Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848-1900: Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966), 33-4.

In a November 1851 letter published in Le Messager de l’Assemblée Courbet declared:

“I am not only a socialist, but also a democrat and a republican, in a word a partisan of the entire Revolution and, beneath that, a realist, that is to say a sincere friend of actual truth.”

Cited in John F. Moffitt, “Art and Politics: An Underlying Pictorial-Political Topos in Courbet’s Real Allegory,” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 8, no. 15 (1987): 183.


Paul Crapo argues that Courbet’s choice of subject matter was often politically motivated:

“Courbet’s repeated dealings with the imperial regime [of Napoleon III] impacted strongly on the subjects he chose to execute and the canvases he sent to the annual Salon. Equally as important…these dealings also helped the painter define the qualities essential to his art and come to a fuller understanding of his calling as an artist.”

Paul B. Crapo, “The Problematics of Artistic Patronage under the Second Empire: Gustave Courbet’s Involved Relations with the Regime of Napoleon III,” Zeithschrift für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 58, no. 2 (1995): 240.

Web Resources

Metmuseum: Courbet 

smarthistory: Courbet, Painter's Studio

smarthistory: Courbet, Stone Breakers

smarthistory: Burial at Ornans