Gustave Courbet (French, 1819–1877) was a painter and key proponent of the Realist movement in France. Born in Ornans, Courbet was the eldest of four children. His birthplace and his family would both serve as the inspiration for many of his later works. When he was 20 years old, Courbet came to Paris, working in artist studios and studying Old Masters at the Louvre. Though seeking to establish his own painterly style early on, and firmly committed to the belief that artists should portray subjects from daily life, Courbet’s early works often drew inspiration from Romanticism.
After achieving critical and commercial success at the Salon of 1849, with his work After Dinner at Ornans, Courbet was free to create future works for the Salon without needing approval from the jury. With the Salon of 1850–1851, Courbet featured what would become two of his most well-known works, The Stone Breakers and Burial at Ornans. In creating such large-scale canvases depicting scenes from everyday life, Courbet was rebelling against the established academic traditions of the day, which mandated that large paintings should only have historic, biblical, mythological, or allegorical themes.
Throughout the 1850s, Courbet continued to develop a reputation as a provocative figure in the art world, often submitting shocking and sexual artworks to the Salons in Paris. In 1870, Courbet refused the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor), the highest decoration in France, after being nominated by Napoleon III. As an outspoken critic against the Napoleonic regime, Courbet assumed control of the Paris Commune in 1871, and ordered the dismantling of the Vendôme Column, which had been built by Napoleon I. After serving jail time, in 1873, he was ordered to pay to rebuild the column. Rather than risk bankruptcy, Courbet went into exile in Switzerland, where he remained until his death.
Today, Courbet’s works can be found in major museums throughout the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Musée d’Orsay.