Born: 10 June 1819; Ornans, Doubs, France
Died: 31 December 1877; La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland
Active Years: 1838 - 1877
Field: painting, sculpture
Art Movement: Realism
Gustave Courbet was a controversial French painter, who bridged the gap between Romanticism and the Impressionist school of painters. He was controversial not only because he addressed social issues with his work, such as peasants and the working condition of the poor, and the rural bourgeoisie, but also because of the unsentimental way in which he portrayed them. Unlike the Romantic school of painters, Courbet did not use smooth lines and soft forms. Instead, he employed spontaneous brush strokes and a roughness of paint texture, which indicated that he was observing his subject directly from life, and thus challenging the academic ideas of the way art should be painted. Because of his development of a realistic form of painting, Courbet was a celebrity, and considered a genius, socialist, and savage. He also encouraged the perception of himself as an unschooled peasant.
Courbet grew up in a family with anti-monarchical sentiments, as his grandfather was a member of the French Revolution, and thus used his popularity as a platform to write essays and dissertations on political anarchism, democratic and socialist ideas. He became even more controversial in the 1860’s when he began painting erotic nude scenes, ranging from the detailed female genitalia in The Origin of the World, and two nude women sleeping in Le Sommeil. This catapulted his social popularity, and in the 1870’s used his voice to argue for the dismantling of the Vendome Column, a symbol of imperial power. After the column’s dismantlement, and an ensuing change in power, Courbet was held responsible for the act, and sent to prison for six months. In 1873 he was held responsible to pay to re-erect the column, and he went into a self-exile in Switzerland in order to avoid bankruptcy. In 1877 it was determined that he should pay 10,000 francs each year until his 91st birthday, at which time the debt would be paid off. Courbet died in 1877 at age 58 of liver failure, one day before the first installment was due.