Gustave Courbet Retrospective Opening in Switzerland


Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland, presents Gustave Courbet from September 7, 2014 through January 18, 2015. The exhibition focuses on Gustave Courbet’s individuality as an artist, his strategy of ambiguity, his innovative use of color with his impasto painting technique, and his playful treatment of traditional motifs and symbols. The exhibit brings together approximately 60 works including representations of women, self-portraits, grotto pictures and seascapes.

The French painter, Gustave Courbet, was one of the forerunners of modernism.  As the son of a well-to-do farmer, he deemed himself the “proudest and most arrogant man in France.” The Salon frequently rejected his work and career were interposed by scandal, frequently by his own deliberate hand.

Courbet produced a sensation at the Paris Salon in the 1850s when he exhibited a set of paintings based on his native Ornans, a village in eastern France. The works, including A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), based on the burial of his grandfather, showed the range and depth of his talent. Nearly 20-feet long, his burial painting defied convention by rendering vista from everyday life on a large-scale formerly used for history painting and in an emphatically realistic approach.

In addition, Courbet’s depiction of the mourners displayed near-indifference. It seemed just short of blasphemous to the people of Ornans and critics at the Salon. There were few to note Courbet’s achievement in uniting “form and content in so wide and wieldy a design.” Faced with the truthfulness of Courbet’s imagery, critics scoffed at the hideousness of the figures and rejected them as “peasants in their Sunday best.” However, upon closer examination, his painting projected details of village life with such accuracy, that social philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1865 commented that it was one of the earliest examples of Social Realism.


In 1852, Young Women from the Village also set near Ornans, generated discussion that was more heated. Critics were practically united in admonishing the painter for the “ugliness” of the three women, for whom the artist’s sisters posed, and the disproportionately small-scale of the cattle. Additionally, the critics were outraged that Courbet suggestively used the term demoiselles to signify the young women. They believed him to “blurring of class boundaries” as suggested by the use of such a term. In 1848, after the democratic uprisings in the countryside, the painter’s portrayals of the rural middle-class in his village, unsettled his Parisian audience.

Then, in 1855, Exposition Universelle rejected two of Gustave Courbet’s paintings. In retaliation, Courbet mounted his own retrospective in his “Pavilion of Realism” specially built within sight of the official venue. There, he displayed more than 40 works, including his unfinished painting, L’Atelier: A Real Allegory of Seven Years of My Artistic Life.  In the oil painting, Courbet rendered friends from Ornans and Paris on either side of him to represent the difference of urban and rural life. He placed himself at the center of the canvas, seated before his easel with a nude woman to signify nature as the source of all artistic expression.

With the retrospective, he included his “Realist Manifesto” that proclaimed his fidelity to subject matter drawn from modern life. He also wrote that he believed the purpose of art was to depict nature “just as it is.” He stated that his intention was to “create a living art.”

He moved from subjects expressive of Ornans to the café culture of bohemian Paris where he concentrated on portraits of the inhabitant and works inspired by popular café songs.  He also had popular success with his hunting scenes and society portraits from his summers at the seaside resort of Trouville.

At the heart of the Beyeler Foundation exhibition is Courbet’s L’origine du monde (The Origins of the World, 1866). According to Musée d’Orsay, the original holder of the work was the Ottoman-Egyptian diplomat and art collector, Khahil-Bey, an extravagant figure in 1860s Paris Society. Bey amassed a fleeting, but impressive collection devoted to the celebration of the female body.

Although Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a libertine manner, for this particular painting he ventured the distance of risk and candor that brought this canvas its atypical fascination. The rendering, despite an almost precise anatomical depiction is not tempered by any historical or scholarly means. He used full, sensual brushstrokes and color that educes from Venetian painting. Moreover, Musée d’Orsay explained that thanks to Courbet’s “great virtuosity and the refinement of his amber color scheme,” his painting dodges a pornographic reputation.

Whether Gustave Courbet was depicting the steep limestone cliffs or the thick forests found near Ornans, where he was born, his landscapes were often merged with depictions of the female nude. However, in a captivating symmetry, he also rendered canvases that centered on the murky darkness of the Jurassian mountain caves. He was a master of the invisible and an artist who established new pictorial ideas.

In Courbet’s time, 19th century art became an object to be appreciated when it most resembled something realistic.  It took on a statistical view of experience, and paintings like Gustave Courbet depended more and more upon visual experience. While critics admonished Courbet, his work was truthful and thus a realistic account of his subject. Gustave Courbet established his own potent technique of realism attributable to his own compulsion versus his critic’s commentary.

By Dawn Levesque

19th and 20th Century Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture
Fondation Beyeler Museum
Musée d’Orsay
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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