Gustave Courbet ‘The leader’

the hammock painting by gustave courbet

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Gustave Courbet's paintings are among the most powerful and controversial images of the 19th century. The son of a well-to-do farmer, Courbet was born in the remote town of Ornans in eastern France, close to the Jura mountains. He moved to Paris at the age of 20 and struggled for years to gain recognition as an artist. His chance came after the 1848 revolution when he was hailed as a leader of the new Realist school.

The Realists asserted that the contemporary world was the only fit subject for literature and art. And in 1850 Courbet shocked the Parisian public with monumental pictures of the peasants from his rural homeland. His larger-than-life personality was almost as startling as his art. But he soon gained acclaim as well as notoriety, until his involvement in the revolutionary Commune of 1871 led to his exile. He died in Switzerland, aged 58.

gustave courbet self portrait


Rebel from the Mountains

A larger-than-life figure with the reputation of an arrogant, beer-swilling peasant, Courbet was often the centre of controversy. But his public image hid an intelligent and sensitive man.

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was born on 10 June 1819 in Ornans, a small town in the Jura region of eastern France. Situated on the Swiss border, this mountainous area is rich with forests and pasture lands, while Ornans itself nestles in the rocky valley of the River Loue.

Courbet's family had lived in the area for generations. His father, Régis, owned a house in Ornans and a farm and vineyards in nearby Flagey. The family's ambivalent social position, with peasant origins but a new bourgeois identity, made Courbet particularly aware of the class divisions of rural France and was central to his personal and artistic development. He also fell heir to a deep-rooted affection for the local countryside, which was to figure so largely in his art.

Courbet's art training began at the age of 14, with lessons from 'père' Baud, a former pupil of the Neo-Classical painter Baron Gros. His parents were hoping that Gustave would study law when he moved to the nearby university town of E Besançon in 1837, but he swiftly enrolled at the C Academy, taking life classes under M. Flajoulot, another exponent of Classicism.

Two years later, Courbet left Besançon for C Paris, which in the mid-19th century had become li the European centre not only for art but also for p radicals and political activists of all kinds. A tall and strikingly handsome young man, the 20-year-old artist was supremely self-confident and fi gregarious, but his time in Paris started quietly enough. He began studying at the studio of a now-obscure painter, Steuben, who copied widely from the pictures in the Louvre and channelled his energies into seeking success at the Salon.

Courbet's early attempts at recognition were e none too successful. Between 1841 and 1847, only three of the 25 works he submitted were passed by the selection committee. And for the first 10 years, he sold almost nothing, remaining almost entirely dependent on his family sending him money.

During this period he also met Virginie Binet, about whom little is known except that she became his mistress and bore him a son in 1847.

One of the works Courbet exhibited at the Salon caught the eye of a Dutch dealer, who invited him to Holland and commissioned a portrait. In addition, he had the support of the new friends he had made in Paris. In January 1848 he wrote enthusiastically to his parents that he was very close to making a breakthrough. Influential people, he assured them, were impressed by his work and were forming a new school, with him at its head.

portrait of regis courbet

The Artist's father:
This portrait of Regis Courbet was visiting his exiled son in 1873. of peasant origins, he became a prosperous farmer and Mayor of Flagey, supporting Courbet during his early years.

portrsit of juliette courbet

Juliette Courbet:
The youngest of Courbet's sisters and 12 years his junior, Juliette was devoted to her brother and became his sole heir. This portrait shows her as a well-dressed young girl of 13, with all the refinement of a middle-class upbringing.

gustave courbet self portrait with a black dog

Courbet and his dog:
The first of Courbet's paintings to be exhibited at the Salon, this self-portrait shows the artist's proud, aristocratic bearing. Although it was painted in Paris, it is set in the countryside of Ornan.

oranas landscape painting by gustave courbet

Ornans Landscape:
This view shows the rocky landscape near Ornans, where Courbet spent his childhood. The majestic cliffs and lush valleys appear in many pictures paintind during regular visits home.


The friends in question came from the circle which gathered at the Brasserie Andler (or the 'Temple of Realism' as it was soon to be nicknamed). Among them were the poet Charles Baudelaire; Pierre Proudhon, the anarchist; Jules Champfleury, the Realist author and critic; and his cousin and childhood friend Max Buchon. It was at the Brasserie that the term 'Realism' was first coined to describe not only a style of art and literature that presented life as it was but also a philosophy committed to contemporary social issues.

The Brasserie Andler was just down the road from Courbet's studio, and he was often to be seen in the crowded café. His larger-than-life personality soon made him the centre of the animated discussions which went on there nightly. He preserved his provincial Jura accent and smoked old-fashioned pipes; he was a great eater, a great drinker, and above all a great talker. But he had adopted this role of semi-literate peasant for a reason - both to distance himself from the bourgeois world of Paris and to gain acceptance in avant-garde society. It also concealed inner loneliness. He later wrote: 'Behind this laughing mask of mine which you know, I conceal grief and bitterness, and a sadness which clings to my heart like a vampire. In the society in which we live, it doesn't take much to reach the void.'

In February 1848 that society was violently shaken, when rioting broke out on the streets of Paris. Louis Philippe abdicated and a provisional Republican government took control. Courbet sided with the popular insurrection, although he took little part in the fighting. In the uneasy political atmosphere, the Salon still opened, but this time without a selection committee. Courbet, who had suffered so many rejections in the past, now had ten works displayed.

painting of louvre

Visits to the Louvre:
Courbet supplemented his early art classes with frequent visits to the Louvre, where he made copies of the paintings on show, developing a particular fondness for Rembrandt and the Masters of the Spanish school. He later played down the rather conventional nature of his training, proudly claiming that he was completely self-taught.

The Temple of Realism

In the late 1840s, the Brasserie Andler became a popular meeting place for many leading French intellectuals. It acquired its grandiose nickname from the group of writers and socialists who gathered there - among them Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Proudhon, Jules Champfleury, and Max Buchon. Courbet spent many evenings with them in heated discussions about the role of art and literature in contemporary society - ideas which were crystallized in Champfleury's catch-phrase Realism'.

le salut public baudelaire's revolutionary journal

Baudelaire's revolutionary journal:
The revolution of 1848 took the exponents of Realism by surprise, and only Baudelaire took an active part in the street fighting. Together with Jules Champfleury, he also produced the revolutionary magazine Le Salut Public. Courbet provided the drawing for the frontispiece - a parody of Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People.

portrait of baudelaire by gustave courbet
the interior of the brasserie etching by gustave courbet

The Brasserie Andler:
This etching by Courbet shows the interior of the brasserie - just two doors away from his studio.


Although the Second Republic only survived for three years until Louis-Napoleon's coup d'état, Courbet's name was made. His Salon entries of 1848 were greeted enthusiastically by the critics and the following year his large painting After Dinner at Ornans won a gold medal and was purchased by the government. The medal was particularly important since it exempted Courbet from the selection procedure at future Salons.

The timing of this privilege was most fortuitous, as the storm of protest against the Realist movement was about to break. Probably on the advice of Champfleury, Courbet had been steadily abandoning his early Romantic subject matter in favor of scenes of his beloved Ornans - which he visited regularly - containing portraits of his family, friends, and neighbors. The most striking example of this was Burial at Ornans which went on show at the 1850-1 Salon.

Courbet had embarked on this huge painting in the summer of 1849, with virtually everyone in the district clamoring to be included. The result was a vast, frieze-like composition, designed to catch the eye. The critics hated it. It was too big; the figures were too ugly; the beadles looked drunk; it was too individual. From now on every picture Courbet exhibited provoked a furor.

Not all the hostility which Courbet aroused can be attributed to purely artistic factors, however. In the aftermath of the Revolution, pictures of unidealized and uncompromising peasants, portrayed on a heroic scale, must have seemed deeply threatening to the new régime and its supporters. These fears were increased by friends such as Proudhon, who interpreted the works as political statements in a way that the artist had probably never intended.

picture of besancon

Courbet spent two years studying in Besançon before moving to Paris. In 1849 his cousin Max Buchon was imprisoned in the town for plotting an uprising, and the following year Courbet staged an exhibition of his Realist paintings in the market hall.

a loud beer-swilling peasant caricature of gustave courbet

A rustic persona:
Courbet and his paintings were often lampooned in the press. This caricature sums up his public image as a loud, beer-swilling peasant - a role that allowed him to remain true to his roots and still gain acceptance in the avant-garde circles of Parisian society.


Courbet did not have trouble denying such claims. He was rarely averse to provoking those in authority and took great pleasure in the vicarious radicalism of his reputation. So in 1853, when the government offered him an olive branch, Courbet was swift to rebuff it.

This attempt at appeasement came when the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, the Director of Fine Arts, proposed to Courbet that he should produce a major painting for the forthcoming World Exhibition, provided only that he submit a sketch in advance. Courbet rejected the overture indignantly, as a breach of his intellectual liberty. Needless to say, three of his most significant contributions to the exhibition were eventually rejected. The artist was disappointed, but not disheartened. And in 1855, in an unprecedented show of artistic independence, he staged his own one-man exhibition alongside the official displays.

The show was advertised under the banner of REALISM and contained a representative selection of Courbet's work dating back to the early 1840s. The centerpiece was his most original and ambitious canvas, The Painter's Studio - a monumental depiction of the artist's studio, people with a mixture of close friends and symbolic figures.

Courbet's loyal patron

The son of a wealthy financier, Alfred Bruyas devoted his life and fortune to collecting art and encouraging artists. He first met Courbet at the 1853 Salon, where he bought The Sleeping Spinner and The Bathers and invited the artist to paint his portrait.

This began their lifelong friendship: Bruyas was a generous patron and always remained loyal to the painter. Courbet first visited Bruyas at his home in Montpellier in 1854, when he painted The Meeting. The red-haired patron also appears as one of the artist's 'friends' in The Painter's Studio.

interior of a room in bruyas house, glaize

The Bruyas collection:
At his home in Montpellier, Bruyas amassed one of the most impressive art collections of the time. It was donated, in its entirety, to the Musée Fabre.

portrait of alfred bruyas

Portrait of Alfred Bruyas (1854):
Alfred Bruyas was an eccentric, rather melancholy character, who suffered from tuberculosis. His illness made him introspective and narcissistic - he commissioned no less than 34 portraits of himself, four of which were painted by Courbet.


This private exhibition marked a watershed in Courbet's life, separating him from many of his most formative influences. Proudhon had been jailed and Buchon exiled for their activities during the Revolution, while Champfleury gradually dissociated himself from his friend's socialist leanings. There were upheavals in Courbet's personal life, too. His longstanding mistress, Virginie Binet, left him in the early 1850s, taking their young son with her. Courbet was surprisingly philosophical about this, writing to a friend that his art was keeping him busy and that in any case, a married man was a reactionary.

Increasing recognition outside Paris made Courbet less reliant on success at the Salon and he on travelled extensively after 1855. In Frankfurt, he was treated as a celebrity, with the locals Academyplacing a studio at his disposal. In Trouville, on the Normandy coast, he met up with James Whistler, and plied a profitable trade in seascapes and nd portraits of the local beauties; in Etretat, he painted with the youthful Monet. He exhibited in Germany, Holland, Belgium and England, and decorations were showered on him, culminating in a gold medal from Leopold II of Belgium and the In Order of St Michael from Ludwig II of Bavaria both awarded in 1869.

picture of crime of the vendome column

Crimes of the commune:
An inspection of the toppled Vendôme column. includes Courbet, present in his capacity as head of the Republican Arts Commission. He can be seen, heavily bearded, ninth from the right.

gustave courbet self portrait in prison

The artist in prison:
This self-portrait was painted in SaintePélagie prison, following Courbet's implication in the destruction of the Vendôme column.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason that Courbet travelled so widely during the late 1850s and 1860s was to enjoy such accolades, but it was also partly to distance himself from a government that he still believed was hostile to him. When he was finally offered the Legion of Honour in 1870, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, it was already too late. Courbet declined the decoration grandly, as an example of state interference in art.


The gesture was remembered when the government fell, and Courbet was elected chairman of the republican Arts Commission. The following year, he narrowly missed election to the National Assembly but was accepted as a councilor, which in turn made him a member of the Commune. Tenure of these posts implicated Courbet in the destruction of the column in the Place Vendôme, a monument to Napoleon's victories, and when the Commune failed, he was arrested and condemned to six months imprisonment and a fine of 500 francs.


Courbet began his sentence at Sainte-Pélagie prison in September 1871. But illness cut short his stay, and he soon was removed to a clinic at Neuilly. Misfortune dogged him: his son died in 1872, and throughout the following winter Courbet was plagued with rheumatism and liver problems. Worse was to follow. In May 1873, the new government ordered him to pay for the reconstruction of the Vendôme Column. The cost of this - later confirmed at over 300,000 francs - was prohibitive, and Courbet was obliged to flee from France. He chose Switzerland, where he felt at home among the French-speaking community and the familiar Jura mountains.

The exiled artist settled at La Tour de Peilz, where he remained in touch with French dissidents and - despite heavy drinking-was able to continue painting. He never gave up hope of returning to France, but the chance of a reprieve never came. Courbet contracted dropsy and died on the last day of 1877. He was buried locally but it was not until 1919, that his remains were finally transferred to the cemetery at Ornans.

picture of chillon castle on lake geneva, switzerland

Exile in Switzerland:
Courbet's last home was in Switzerland - just a few miles from Chillon castle on Lake Geneva – a subject he painted many times.


The Shock of Reality

Courbet insisted that it was the artist's job to paint only the world he knew. And his uncompromising images of contemporary rural society rocked the complacent attitudes of Parisian observers.

Courbet's fame today rests on his reputation as the leader of the Realist movement. But despite the fact that he called his 1855 one-man show the Pavilion of Realism', it was not necessarily a label he relished. In the preface to his exhibition catalogue, he declared that the title of 'realisť had been thrust upon him. And in the remainder of his manifesto, he endeavoured to remove the misconceptions about his art and to put forward his own aims: 'to record the manners, ideas and aspects of the age as I myself saw them, to be a man as well as a painter - to create a living art.'


Yet the methods that Courbet used to create his living art' were in some ways derived from the art of the past. In many of his most famous canvases, he made traditional use of secondary sources. For Burial at Ornans, for example, he incorporated elements borrowed from popular prints of the day with portraits of his family and neighbours; the model in The Studio was taken from a photograph, and some of his landscapes were composites, built up from separate studies.

In his work pattern, too, Courbet adhered to the conventional method: sketching during the summer and working up exhibition pieces in the studio during the winter. But in his insistence on painting only contemporary subjects, and in his presentation, Courbet's art was revolutionary.

Even the size of his canvases was the subject of much concern and comment. There was an accepted convention in Salon painting that only lofty subject matter – usually historical, Biblical or mythological scenes – was appropriate for largescale depiction. For peasant paintings such as Courbet's, a more moderate size was expected. But Courbet rejected this convention. His huge paintings of peasants baffled, shocked, and even threatened many city-dwelling observers, who searched in vain for some symbolic content.

Courbet was also criticized for his perverse liking for ugly subjects. But the 'ugliness of his art worked on more than one level. While the fat, dimpled nude in The Bathers was simply seen as physically repulsive, the discordant composition and stiff, unattractive figures of The Peasants of Flagey were more unsettling. In this uneasy composition, Courbet evoked in the most direct manner, the uneasy social situation of the peasant-bourgeois characters in the scene.

National Gallery, London But in his disrespect for 'beauty', Courbet was reacting against the strictures of academic painting, where there was a tendency to idealize. In Courbet's view, it was not the business of the artist to depict historical or imaginary scenes, but to paint only what he knew - the contemporary world. As for the art of the Old Masters, that was to be learned from, not mimicked.

the hammock painting by gustave courbet

The Hammock (1844):
Courbet painted this delightful picture during his early years in Paris. The languid pose, cool tones, and graceful lines show a great debt to the Neo-Classical master Ingres. Yet the sleeping girl's Grecian profile is coarsened by a double-chin - a hint of the “unideal which became Courbet's trademark.

the peasants of flagey returning from the fair, ornans painting by gustave courbet

The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, Ornans (1850-55):
This is the second version of one of the "peasant canvases which caused a scandal at the 1850-1 Salon. Instead of presenting peasants as part of a distant rural idyll, Courbet shows them as he knew them: the central figure is his father – a peasant, but also the mayor of Flagey.

the kill by gustave courbet

The Kill (1867):
Courbet painted many landscapes and hunting scenes during the snowy winter of 1866-7 which he spent at Ornans. In this gruesome drama, the raised arm of the hunter and the anguished posture of the dying stag are silhouetted against the luminous whiteness of snow and sky.

still-life with apples and pomegrante by gustave courbet

Still-life with Apples and Pomegranate (1871):
When Courbet was imprisoned in 1871, he could only paint still-lifes. The thickly applied paint and earthy colors of the fruit which loom out of the shadows imbue this still life with a sense of solid reality.

sunset on lake geneva painting by gustave courbet

Sunset on Lake Geneva:
Painted in 1874, during his exile, this quiet evening scene is one of many views of Lake Geneva that Courbet executed in his final years. On the far shore is France - forbidden territory.

the stonebreakers painting by gustave courbet

The Stonebreakers (1849):
The original painting was destroyed in 1945, but its grim message remains. The men's monotonous toil will get them nowhere, or as Courbet put it, 'in this job, you begin to like the one and end like the other.'

It was partly for this reason that Courbet was so reticent about his own conventional training and probably why he was so reluctant to take on students of his own. When, for a very brief period in 1862, he was persuaded to run a studio, he was determined that his pupils should not be tempted by their life classes into painting only nudes in heroic poses. Hence the spectacle which greeted one visitor of a red and white bull, wild-eyed and flicking its tail, serving as the artist's model.

This freshness of approach was evident not only in Courbet's choice of subject matter but also in his use of paint. Even his sternest critics did not dispute his technical skill and, in particular, his ability to capture the richness of material surfaces. Courbet painted rapidly and with extraordinary dexterity. And he pioneered the use of a trowel-shaped palette knife, called a couteau Anglais (English knife), which was long and flexible, allowing a surprising delicacy of touch. He employed coarse paints, often mixed with sand to stress their materiality, and applied very thickly onto the canvas. Because of this, his pictures contrasted dramatically with the smooth, highly finished paintings usually shown at the Salon.

In his landscapes, Courbet opted for a blunt, non-picturesque approach, in defiance of the popular style, where a well-ordered collection of natural features, each carefully linked to the next, would draw the spectator into the scene. By contrast, Courbet sought to produce a single, powerful image on the surface of the canvas. He built his forest scenes around a dense, screen-like core, which prevented the eye from penetrating inwards and forced it to linger on the surface.


Courbet's Realism

'I maintain ... that painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects; an object which is abstract, not visible, nonexistent, is not within the realm of painting.'


This shallow picture space is also used to great effect in group portraits like the Burial where the figures run right across the surface of the vast canvas, with a direct visual impact that was too powerful to be ignored.

Even outside the act of painting, Courbet asserted his artistic independence by taking the revolutionary step of exhibiting his own show, under his own terms - and by his reluctance to accept the role of teacher. In an open letter to his students, he set out this philosophy, declaring that sincerity to oneself was the key to all art and that with the aid of tradition and personal inspiration, every artist had to be his own master.

the bathers by gustave courbet

The Bathers (1853):
This meaty nude provoked a scandal at the Salon. One commentator declared that she was ugly enough to make a crocodile lose its appetite. Not only was the woman fat, she was also modern, middle-class and making an incongruously classical gesture to her plain-featured maid who responds in a similar way. In placing these less than ideal contemporary figures in classical poses, Courbet both emphasized their realism and elevated modern life to the level of so-called 'history painting'.


Pictures of Peasants

The image of the peasant at work has been a recurring feature in painting since the Middle Ages. Indeed, in the 16th century, Bruegel earned the nickname 'Peasant Bruegel' because of his many paintings on the theme. But it was in the mid-19th century, particularly after the 1848 revolution, that the massive rural population of France became a central concern for artists. While Courbet's contemporary, Millet, presented peasants as heroic figures at one with the land, and at a safe distance from modern social issues, Courbet showed the harsh reality of the peasant's position in society, with none of Millet's reassuring, but socially unaware, sentimentality.

jean-francois millet, the gleaners

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) The Gleaners (1857):
In an atmosphere of timelessness and harmony, the gleaners perform their tasks with almost religious devotion.

peasant dance by pieter bruegel

Pieter Bruegel (c.1525-69) Peasant Dance (c.1567):
This picture of peasant revelry has a moral – the effects of excess are seen in the drunken quarrel on the far left.


The Painter's Studio

This huge painting is the most complex and enigmatic of all Courbet's works. He gave it the subtitle, 'a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life. And in a letter to his friend Champfleury, he wrote that the painting showed all the people who serve my cause, sustain me in my ideal and support my activity.

The artist himself sits in the middle; on his right are 'friends, fellow-workers and art lovers'; on his left is the world of commonplace life: the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploiters, the exploited, those who live on death'. Yet though Courbet identified the characters, he left the precise meaning of his 'allegory' a mystery.

Interpretations abound: the painting has been seen as a disguised attack on the betrayers of the Republic who use democracy as a means of consolidating Imperial power; as an esoteric representation of Freemasonry, and of course - as a gigantic self-advertisement.

the painter's studio by gustave courbet
the painters studio by gustave courbet

Napoleon the poacher:
The 'poacher' has recently been identified as Napoleon III. In Courbet's opinion, he had 'bagged the Republican Presidency in 1848 as a means to Imperial power which he assumed in 1852.

the painter's studio by gustave courbet

The artist's sister?:
The identification of the lover as Juliette Courbet might make this a symbol of brotherly love.

the painter's studio by courbet

The death of journalism:
On the 'death' side of the allegory, at the feet of a lay figure (used by academic painters for copying) is a skull. It rests on a newspaper, symbolizing the 'death of the Paris press which praised academic art and ridiculed Courbet. It may also refer to the restriction of journalistic freedom under the Empire.

picture of julien vallou de villeneuve

A photographic source:

Courbet based the nude model in his painting on a photograph - probably from the same set as this one by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve. In The Studio, she is waiting to take up her position as a naked bather in the landscape.


Burial at Ornans was the focus of attention - and criticism - at the Paris Salon of 1850-1. One of Courbet's first Realist paintings, it treated an ordinary event on the vast scale usually confined to 'historical paintings.

Its autobiographical content is typical of Courbet's work. The Meeting commemorates the artist's first visit to his patron Alfred Bruyas, while The Winnowers shows his sisters sifting corn at the family farm. In The Painter's Studio, Courbet himself occupies the centre of a vast allegorical composition.

Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine shows a lazy Sunday afternoon in Paris. It provoked another scandal: one of the girls is dressed only in her underwear. The Sleepers is even more risqué, but it was a private commission and caused no public outcry.

The Trellis shows a less controversial response to the natural world, as does Cliffs at Etretat, where the large scale and fresh approach create a powerful impression of the raw grandeur of nature.

the meeting or bonjour, monsieur courbet by gustave courbet

The Meeting or Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet 1854:
This painting commemorates Courbet's arrival outside Montpellier in May 1854 on the occasion of his first visit to the home of his patron Alfred Bruyas. It depicts a specific moment, but the frozen gestures of the characters seem to have great significance. The painting is almost emblematic of the social relationships between the three men. His head held high, the artist meets his patron as an equal (perhaps as a superior), while Bruyas' servant stands by with his head bent in deference and humility. Indeed, one critic even described it as 'Fortune housing to Genius'. The composition is derived from a popular print of the Wandering Jew, the 19th-century personification of the 'outsider with whom Courbet liked to identify himself.

young ladies on the banks of the seine by gustave courbet

Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine 1856-7:
Begun in Ornans in 1856 and finished in Paris in time for the 1857 Salon, this painting of two young women resting in the shade after a Sunday walk along the river shocked polite Parisian society. While the girl in the background leans against a tree trunk, resting her chin in her lace-mittened hand, her friend has stripped off her dress and sprawled out on the grass: she lies on the warm riverbank in her chemise, corset, and petticoats. Her eyes are half-closed in a suggestive sideways gaze which implies the presence of an observer - presumably a male. Proudhon interpreted the painting as a comment on the loose morals of 'kept women', but it seems more likely that Courbet simply delighted in the lazy sensuousness of the weekend scene, and the delicate textures of the girls' fashionable clothes.

the trellis by gustave courbet

The Trellis:
In 1862 Courbet began a year-long visit to his friend Étienne Baudry at his château near Saintes in France. Perhaps inspired by his friend's interest in botany, he painted a great number of flower pictures during his stay. This is one of the most delightful examples. Divided into two distinct sections, it shows a gorgeous display of blooms being tended by a young woman, whose floral-print dress echoes the flowers on the trellis. It recalls the symbolic flower paintings of the 17th century Dutch Masters which glorified love and youth. Grouped together on the trellis are flowers that bloom in spring, summer, and autumn – symbolizing the stages of life and love. But Courbet's typical shallow picture space has left little room for the girl herself; with her darkly outlined face, she appears like a cut-out.


Politics of the People

Born of peasant stock, the political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon dreamed of creating a utopian workers' state. But when the revolution came, it brought a bloodbath, not an earthly paradise.

'In 1848', claimed Courbet long afterward, 'there were only two men ready: me and Proudhon.' In that year the people of Paris had risen against the government of Louis Philippe, only to replace him with Louis-Napoleon, the adventurer nephew of Bonaparte himself. Implicit in Courbet's boast was a view of himself as a shrewd and committed f revolutionary, whose social ideas were ahead of his time. But he in fact was no more than a spectator in those turbulent February days. It was Proudhon alone - Courbet's friend and compatriot from the Jura hills - who could really claim to have anticipated the events and sought to shape them.

A founding father of the international anarchist movement, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had been born in 1809 in the provincial city of Besançon, just a few miles from Courbet's birthplace at Ornans. Proudhon's parents were both of peasant stock. His father was a cooper-brewer, his mother a cook, and he himself was apprenticed to a printer. This trade provided him with his education, for it was as a corrector of texts that he acquired a knowledge of grammar, ancient languages, and theology. His gift for learning so impressed the Academy of Besançon that in 1838 he was awarded a scholarship, which allowed him to move to Paris and undertake a regular course of study. But the fruits of this learning did not please Proudhon's sponsors. In 1840, the year Courbet himself arrived in Paris, the unruly young printer produced What is Property?, a sensational tract whose well-known answer 'property is theft made him famous overnight.

The ideas put forward in this and subsequent books reflected Proudhon's peasant-craftsman background and appealed most to those radical Frenchmen who had also moved from the countryside to the growing industrial cities. Proudhon's philosophy, which is often called 'mutualism', sought an economic solution to the injustices of commercial exploitation. Dismissing the revolutionary overhaul of the state urged by other radical thinkers, Proudhon wished to dispense with the state altogether. Instead, he called for 'anarchy', a harmonious society where an all-powerful, law-enforcing government would be unnecessary.

Proudhon's perfect society was an idealized version of Besançon and its environs, a network of small communities of producers who would exchange their surplus goods for the things they could not produce themselves, aided by a system of free monetary credit. By cutting out the middleman, this 'mutualist' barter would eliminate the abuses of property. Proudhon was advocating self-help rather than state intervention: for him, big was bad, and he had no time for evolutionary theories based on parliamentary struggles or the strength of the masses.

In the early 1840s, Proudhon divided his time between a job with a water-transport firm in Lyon and literary activities in Paris. In the capital, Proudhon was often found in the Brasserie Andler, where Courbet was also a regular and soon became a disciple.

proudhon and his children painting by gustave courbet

Proudhon remembered:
Courbet could never persuade Proudhon to sit for his portrait, so he painted this 'historical portrait in 1865, after his friend's death. Proudhon is shown as he was in 1853, sitting on the steps of his Paris home, with two of his children playing.

proudhon's sketch by honore daumier

Leaving the land:
In Proudhon's day, three-quarters of the population of France worked on the land. But a drift to the cities (here Paris is seen in the background) was characteristic of the industrialization that all major European countries went through in the 19th century, and as the peasants became less tied to the land they were seen as a threat by the middle classes.

courcelles gas-works by delahaye

The workers' lot:
In the 19th century, the working and living conditions of the lower classes were often appalling. Proudhon envisaged a society in which every worker would have a free and independent life.


In 1847 Proudhon settled down in Paris more permanently in order to devote himself to his newspaper, Le Peuple. And despite his well-aired misgivings about the value of parliamentary struggles he allowed himself to be elected to the new National Assembly when the monarchy of Louis Philippe was overthrown in February 1848. Predictably, he took his seat on the far left of this Assembly and soon identified himself with those militant workers who were agitating for a radical reconstruction of society. But when LouisNapoleon seized power, Proudhon paid for his activities with three years in prison.

Soon after his release, Proudhon went to live in Belgium, but in 1862 he returned to Paris. He was now in his fifties, and an acknowledged leader of the French radicals, but his authority was slight. Many of his most fervent supporters had rejected his insistence on abstention from parliamentary politics, and several Proudhonists stood for election in 1863. The master himself fulminated against such political developments, but in his last years, he also found time for lengthy commentaries upon art. In 1865 he sent regrets to Courbet from his deathbed for not having completed Du Principes de l'Art (On the Principles of Art), which he had started as a defense of Courbet's paintings; the artist himself undertook the task of preparing it for posthumous publication. And Proudhon was overjoyed to see his followers prominent in the 'First International – the International Workingmen's Association, founded the previous year.

The Association had begun as a combination of stolid British trade unionists, fiercely anti-intellectual Frenchmen, and an assortment of revolutionary veterans. It was dominated by Karl Marx, a formidable German Jew of bourgeois background, whom Proudhon had met briefly in 1844. They had even corresponded for a time. But their political differences soon overwhelmed initial comradely etiquette, especially after Marx responded to Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty with a scathing critique entitled The Poverty of Philosophy.

louis napoleon bonaparte in france

Emperor of the French:
Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great Napoleon, was the central political figure during Proudhon's career. After two unsuccessful attempts at coups, he became president of France in 1848 and proclaimed himself Emperor in 1852. He was deposed in 1871, after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War.


After Proudhon's death in 1865, the mantle of leading anarchist fell on Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian disciple and roaming revolutionary, whose power base was among the impoverished peasant watchmakers of the Swiss Jura - classic Proudhon territory. Bakunin was committed to instant revolution: the underprivileged should rise as one and annihilate capitalism in a single destructive swoop. Bakunin infuriated Marx, who g believed that socialism was only possible as a 5 development from a fully industrialized capitalist society, and whose patient strategy was based on industrial workers in the big cities rather than peasant craftsmen in small towns and villages. So when Marx found himself unable to control the First International because of the cloak-and-dagger machinations of Bakunin, he decided to write it off. In 1872, Marx transferred its headquarters to New York, allowing it to collapse by 1874.

Meanwhile, fate dealt a crushing blow to France's revolutionaries with the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871. Courbet himself was a wholehearted Communard, just as Proudhon would have been, and dedicated his energies to this historic attempt to create an independent, workers' Paris. But the Commune drowned in blood. After atrocities on both sides, the official French government wrested the capital from the revolutionaries street by street.

picture of paris ablaz hotel de ville

Paris ablaze:
The Commune wrought destruction on the property as well as life. Among the public buildings burnt were the Hôtel de Ville and the Tuileries Palace.

barricades of 1871 by devambez

Workers on the barricades:
Between 18 March and 28 May 1871, Paris was thrown into chaos by an insurrection that became known as the Paris Commune. Coming in the wake of France's defeat by Prussia, this was perhaps the first organized revolt of the proletariat against the forces of capitalism. The revolutionary government that was set up called for social reforms, including a ten-hour working day and the end of night work for bakers. However, the insurgents were not well-organized militarily and the Commune was put down amid dreadful carnage. An estimated 20,000 people were killed in the streetfighting and thousands more were punished. Karl Marx wrote a book on the Commune, which became a symbol of the social revolution that the middle classes dreaded and the workers desired.


In the traditions of socialism, however, the bravery of the Communards won them the status of heroes, and Courbet earned a reputation as a truly revolutionary artist. Even Marx, usually so scathing about the anarchist dream of a rapid transformation of society, acknowledged that Working-man's Paris, with its Commune, will be celebrated forever as the glorious harbinger of a new society.' In truth, the accolade belonged less to Courbet than to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the self-taught peasant who founded no party but whose ideas inspired a lasting dream of freedom.

the sainte-pelagie jail painting

Freedom in prison:
The Sainte-Pélagie jail in which Proudhon and Courbet were held as political prisoners was very liberal. Proudhon was allowed to write and Courbet to paint.

picture of karl marx

A powerful rival:
The German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-83) was the founder of the economic theory that purported to show the inevitable triumph of the working class. He met Proudhon in 1844, but their initial cordial relations soon changed to acrimonious intellectual rivalry.

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