Gustave Courbet: an Innovative Realist Who Bucked Traditions

An innovative and revolutionary painter....and personality....of the nineteenth century, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) really got the ball rolling for future generations of artists. He did not hesitate to challenge the establishment in any way he thought necessary in order to win the right to make a living expressing himself as he saw fit to as a painter.


In 1846, Courbet told his parents that his goal was “to change the public’s taste and way of seeing”, and as the leader of the realist movement in Paris, it looks like he did exactly that.

Gustave Courbet. A Burial at Ornans. 1849-50.

Courbet did not agree that paintings should only be of religious, historic or mythological nature. He was also tired of landscape, still life and flattering portraits as portrayed in traditional art. He wanted to paint scenes and people as they looked: flattering, beautiful, or not..... Courbet wanted art to be less frivolous, and more realistic and representative of ordinary daily life.

Gustave Courbet. The Stone Breakers. 1849.

Courbet claimed to never use imagination but just to paint what he saw. This made him a revolutionary of art in the 19th century.

Courbet set out to cause an upheaval in the art world and he did. The art movement he began, realism, formed the base of several art movements soon to follow. One of which was Impressionism, which made a huge mark in the art history of Paris and the rest of the world.

Gustave Courbet. The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair. 1850-1855.

Courbet was innovative, not only in subject matter, but also in technique. He developed and mastered a painting method using a palette knife or even his thumb to apply paint and shape images. This was radical for a time when people were so used to glossy and smooth canvasses. His technique is now very common practise.

In spite of his break with tradition, the Paris Salon, a very traditional and academic annual exhibit in Paris, was accepting some of his works. In 1855, when the Exposition Universelle, a Salon-like exhibition on the Champs-Elysees, only accepted six of his paintings, Courbet held his own exhibition nearby, calling it “the Pavilion of Realism”. He displayed 40 of his paintings at this exhibit and presented his new approach to art.

It was pretty much unheard of in the nineteenth century for an artist to market his own paintings, so Courbet paved the road for future generations that way too.

Gustave Courbet. Hello Monsieur Courbet. 1854.

Courbet was born in 1819 in Ornans, France but moved to Paris at the age of 20, in 1839. He died in 1877, in Switzerland.

If you would like to read more about Gustave Courbet, here is a great article about him from the Smithsonian Magazine.

If you would like to see original work by Gustave Courbet when you are in Paris, you can see him at the Musée D’Orsay.

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Gustave Courbet. Self-Portrait with a Pipe. 1849.