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Burial at Ornans

Gustave Courbet, 1849-50
Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Following his visite to Courbet’s one man exhibition in 1855, Eugène Delacroix commented on Burial at Ornans in his 3 August 1885 diary entry:

“In this picture the figures are all on top of one another and the composition is not well arranged, but some of the details are superb, for instance, the priests, the choir-boys, the weeping women, the vessel for Holy Water, etc.”

Cited in Lorenz Eitner, Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750-1850, vol. 2: Neoclassicism and Romanticism (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1970), 120. 


Albert Boime interprets Courbet’s Burial at Ornans as a critique of French society:

“Courbet shrewdly exploits a funeral rite as the pretext for the reconciliation of the diverse constituencies of this society, for the funeral, like the Sunday dress, equalizes its participants and temporarily suspends the effects of the division of labor….The worker/peasant, whom the system daily impoverishes and reduces to a machine, takes his place at the interment as assistant to the clergy, as symbolic bridge between revolutions, and, ultimately, as the sturdy gravedigger who embodies the future. The ceremonial occasion and the funereal costume diminish the distance between town and countryside, between the urban and the rustic, so that the only difference that remained with the degree of ugliness. 

Funeral at Ornans exemplified the realist-rural discourse carried to its logical conclusion, depicting the rural world as being as much a political and social mess as its cosmopolitan counterpart. It might be said as well that Courbet’s small rustic society was realizing itself as part of a larger constellation, evolving from the local to the national and fulfilling Rousseau’s conception of the ‘general will.’ Thus it is altogether unsurprising that the theme troubled middle-class art critics for one reason or another. While Louis-Napoleon’s regime was gradually suppressing republican innovations and trying to achieve a disciplined social order, Courbet presented an uncontrollable community with a seeming penchant for troublemaking.”

Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle 1848-1871 (Chicago-London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 182-3. 


Michael Fried offers a singular approach to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans :

“As in my essay on the first two breakthrough pictures, I shall be concerned primarily with what I see as Courbet’s determination to establish a particular relationship, antitheatrical in essence, between painting and beholder, at a moment in the history of painting in France when the conventions of visual drama by means of which some of Courbet’s major predecessors had sought to exclude the beholder from the scene of representation were increasingly revealed as radically unsuited to the task – as emphasizing, rather than obliviating, the beholder’s presence.”…

“All of this raises the further issue of the Burial’s highly distinctive and frankly physical paint-handling, which as I see it is meant to evoke and thereby to solicit the beholder’s quasi-incorporation within the painting but which at the same time produces an undeniable signature-effect of its own that historically has tended not only to distance the beholder but to lead him to attribute qualities like aggression to the picture as a whole.”

Michael Fried, “The Structure of Beholding in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 9,  no. 4 (June 1983): 636, 681.

Similar subjects by Other Artists:

Edouard Manet, The Funeral, c. 1867 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Erik Werenskiøld, Peasant Funeral, 1883-85

Albert Edelfelt, A Child’s Funeral, 1879 (Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki)

Anna Ancher, Funeral, 1888-91

About the Artist

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