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Gustave Courbet

Courbet, Gustave (güstävˈ kōrbāˈ) [key], 1819–77, French painter, b. Ornans. He moved to Paris in 1839 and studied there, learning chiefly by copying masterpieces in the Louvre. An avowed realist, Courbet was always at odds with vested authority, aesthetic or political. In 1847 his Wounded Man (Louvre) was rejected by the Salon, although two of his earlier pictures had been accepted. He first won wide attention with his After Dinner at Ornans (Lille) in 1849. The next year he exhibited his famous Funeral at Ornans (1849–50) and Stonebreakers (1849, both: Louvre). For his choice of subjects from ordinary life, and more especially for his obstinacy and audacity, his work was reviled as offensive to prevailing politics and aesthetic taste. Enjoying the drama, Courbet rose to defend his work as the expression of his newfound political radicalism. His statements did nothing to recommend the work to his enemies.

In 1855, Courbet exhibited the vast Painter's Studio (Louvre). Attacked by academic painters, he set up his own pavilion where he exhibited 40 of his paintings and issued a manifesto on realism. While he continued to provoke the establishment by submitting works to the Salon that were twice rejected in the mid-1860s, within that decade he triumphed as the leader of the realist school. His influence became enormous, reaching its height with his rejection of the cross of the Legion of Honor offered him by Napoleon III in 1870. Under the Commune of Paris (1871), Courbet was president of the artists' federation and initially active in the Commune; he was later unfairly held responsible, fined, and imprisoned for the destruction of the Vendôme column. In 1873 he fled to Switzerland, where he spent his few remaining years in poverty. Although his aesthetic theories were not destined to prevail, his painting is greatly admired for its frankness, vigor, and solid construction.

See his letters, ed. by ten-Doesschate Chu (1992); J. Lindsay, Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art (1973) and P. ten-Doesschate Chu, The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture (2007); studies by T. J. Clark (1973), S. Faunce and L. Nochlin (1988), M. Fried (1990), and J. H. Rubin (1997).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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