Friday, April 15, 2011

40 Days of Artists: Courbet

Gustave Courbet was another French realist, and learned under a minor painter and in various ateliers.  Though later on, he claimed to be self-taught.  He gradually evolved his style into a classically realistic manner.  Courbet painted everything - still life, landscapes, portraits, and nudes.  He incorporated much of the classical style in his figures, as well as some influence of Caravaggio in his chiaroscuro. 
At times, the light/dark contrast was overly emphasized to the point of looking unnatural.  This can be seen in a seemingly daylight scene with two Wrestlers, whose figures are shown with dramatic shadows, but with no cast shadows on the ground, and really no reason for such shadows to begin with.  Courbet clearly painted the figures in a studio, separate from the landscape setting.  Courbet most likely did this with a lot of other paintings as well where the lighting does not match up.
Courbet was also quite outspoken on matters of philosophy, education, politics and the Church.  In a letter to a group of students, Courbet basically stated that art cannot be taught, and that the only way to learn it is by doing it.  Though he learned through an atelier, he held the attitude that he was self taught.  He was also outspokenly anti-Imperialist and anti-clerical.  One painting in particular mocked Catholic priests, and has since been destroyed.
But probably Courbet's most notorious paintings were his nudes.  Some of them were simply nothing more than elegant, classical depictions of bathers and such.  But two in particular caused quite an outrage of being grossly indecent - Sleep and Origin of the World.  Origin was painted in 1866, but was hardly ever publicly displayed in a gallery until 1995 when the Musée d'Orsay acquired it.  The model for the painting is thought to be the lover of another painter James Whistler.  Courbet and Whistler had been close friends, but Origin is the most likely reason for their eventual brutal estrangement and separation.
Courbet's reputation and outspoken cynicism and vanity were about as notorious as some of these paintings, though his attitude and philosophy of realism and beauty in art were demonstrated through his work.  Courbet died in France on December 31, 1877.

Gustave Courbet
Self Portrait (Man with Pipe)
oil on canvas
45 x 37 cm.

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