There have been and continue to be many artists who have influenced the art world in any number of ways. While some – Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso – are household names, countless other lesser known artists have made significant contributions as well. Often it is the revolutionary ideas of lesser knowns that pave the way for future generations of artists. Some of them were simply ahead of their time in the ideas and methods they chose to explore; others expressed their life experiences in such a way as to prove their uniqueness. Courbet is the perfect example of an artist who is not a household name, yet who had a profound effect on the art world. He was quite simply one of the most influential artists of the 19th century. He established himself as the Father of Realism by breaking down the traditional hierarchy of subject matter and challenging the conventions of the art world in which he lived. Paradoxically, he also made explicit statements about the purely formal values inherent in painting. This concept of the paint and canvas themselves becoming an integral part of a painting – in some cases, becoming the subject of the painting – is a concept that is dominant in 20th century abstract painting, which is often considered the antithesis of Realism. Courbet also worked to revolutionize the existing canons of the art world in which he lived; this inevitably involved him in a number of controversies throughout his career. By speaking his mind both artistically and politically, Courbet secured his position as a formidable presence in the art world; a presence whose influence continues to have an effect on artists long after his death.
Courbet was born on June 10, 1819 in Ornans, France and his rural origins had a vast influence on his painting. Even as a youth he was outspoken, especially on the subject of his future career plans. Courbet’s father wanted only for his son to advance in the bourgeois world; Courbet, however, had other ideas. He was sent to Paris in 1840 to study law at his father’s behest, but his intent was to become an artist and this was the path he pursued. Though his style of painting would change many times during his career, he began in the 1840’s by producing paintings in the prevailing style, which continued to employ the conventions and formulas of “Neoclassicism”. This did not last long, however. Neoclassicism had at one time been filled with meaning, but it had become increasingly artificial. The ideas at its core had relevance in the late 18th century, but had become somewhat devoid of meaning by the 1840’s. The same was true of the depiction of many Biblical subjects in a society where anticlerical attitudes and secular ideas were becoming increasingly dominant.
In the early years of his career, Courbet concentrated on portraits – of family, friends, and himself. Even in his early works, Courbet’s figures are based not on the conventions of academic form and proportion, but rather on first hand observation of living people known to him. Courbet’s depiction of “real people” was both alien and disturbing to those accustomed to viewing idealized historical renderings. His figure paintings did not depict “types” drawn from the tradition of genre painting, but rather were representative of the actual people they were depicting.
The fact that Neoclassicism did not reflect the current state of society only strengthened Courbet’s belief that it was both the right and the responsibility of every artist to create art that represented their vision, rather than a vision imposed upon them from another source. This was a revolutionary idea in a world where attending government controlled art schools (academies) and showing work at government run art exhibitions (Salons) were the orders of the day. Courbet worked primarily on his own as opposed to through the Academie. This seems not only fitting, but inevitable given Courbet’s intense dislike of the whole structure of classical learning on which the French art schools (”ecoles”) were based.
Though he was not particularly fond of the whole apparatus of the Salon, he knew that it was the only way to gain any type of exposure for his work. Between 1841 and 1847, Courbet submitted twenty – four paintings for review by Salon juries – three were chosen. The first of these was a self portrait now called “Courbet with a Black Dog”, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1844. Courbet portrays himself as the image of the young Romantic, a poet or painter (or both), centrally situated in the midst of a flowing landscape. (Is it a foreshadowing of later landscape paintings?) Though we cannot know exactly why this particular painting was chosen for exhibition, it was the beginning of Courbet’s lifelong love-hate (or perhaps tolerate-hate is more appropriate) relationship with the Salon.