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Ornans 1819 – 1877 La Tour-de-Peilz (Switzerland)

Gustave Courbet is the most widely known exponent of nineteenth-century Realism and is regarded as having paved the way for the development of Modernism. He was a rebel who flouted academic rules and opposed Romantics’ and Classicists’ idealised depictions of mythology and Antiquity. Instead, Courbet portrayed the reality of contemporary life imbued with left-wing social commentary. However, he is a varied artist whose spiritual and romantic content gives him other dimensions. He experimented with novel compositional strategies and a revolutionary painting technique which included the use of thick superimposed layers of paint applied directly with a palette knife. This approach strongly influenced Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), who began mimicking Courbet’s style in the 1860s.

In the 1840s, after a quick stint of academic training, he turned to the independent Académie Suisse, which counted among its pupils artists such Corot (1796–1875) and Manet (1832–83). He supplemented his education with visits to the Louvre, studying and copying the great masters, particularly the Dutch and Spanish seventeenth-century painters, Rembrandt (1606–1669) and Velázquez (1599–1660). They respectively inspired Courbet’s self-portrait The Cellist (1847) and his Man with a Leather Belt (1845/46). At the 1850 Paris Salon Courbet attracted equal praise and scorn for a series of large-scale paintings of mundane rural and proletarian genre scenes. Not only did they boast avant-garde compositions, but their sheer size gave them a gravitas usually reserved for history painting. The list includes the Stonebreakers (1849/50) (now lost) and the immense A Burial at Ornans (1849–50), which bears a resemblance to El Greco’s (1541–1614) Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586/88). Courbet published his Realist manifesto as a slap in the face of the establishment and in the same vein opened his ‘Pavillon du Réalisme’ in protest against the 1855 Exposition Universelle. The organisers had refused his The Painter’s Studio (1854/55) which he showed in his own Pavilion together with a catalogue containing his manifesto.

In the late 1850s and 1860s Courbet moderated his antagonistic behavior and focused on still-lifes, nudes, portraits, landscapes, marines and hunting scenes. Implicit criticism nevertheless remained embedded in his works, such as Killing a Deer (1867), symbolising ­Courbet’s own political persecution. Courbet’s extraordinary landscapes and marines dominate this period. Their frequent depictions of the same place and simplified construction are important for the development of later artists, notably Cezanne. Courbet’s nudes, such as the Woman with Parrot (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) were remarkably direct in their unblushing sensuality. His most daring being the The Origin of the World (1866), a close-up view of a woman’s pudenda. It was never intended for public display but is now one of the most famous paintings in the musée d’Orsay. In 1871, after being charged with the demolition of the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, Courbet exiled himself to Switzerland for fear of being held financially accountable. He continued to paint in La Tour-de-Peilz, producing a few masterpieces, such as the unfinished Panoramic View of the Alps (1877).


Top Auction Results for Gustave Courbet

Femme nue couchée
Sold for $15,285,000
New York, Christie’s, 9 November 2015, The Artist‘s Muse: A Curated Evening Sale, lot 10A

Étretat: Les Falaises
Sold for $3,749,000
New York, Sotheby’s, 6 November 2013, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, lot 40

Femme nue
Sold for £1,644,000 ($3,291,437)
London, Sotheby’s, 27 June 2007, 19th Century European Paintings including German, Austrian & Central European Paintings, and The Orientalist Sale, lot 222

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