Text by Sylvain Amic, Kathryn Calley Galitz, Laurence des Cars, Dominique Lobstein, Bruno Mottin, Thomas Galifot, Bertrand Tillier.
Nowadays it is difficult to conceive of the impact that Gustave Courbet’s paintings made on French art of the mid-nineteenth century. At once casting himself as revolutionary, bohemian and peasant, Courbet (1819-1877) overturned a deeply-entrenched tradition of academic painting in France, and, eschewing the Romanticism of Delacroix and the NeoClassicism of Ingres, coined instead an idiom he named “Realism.” Realism was not pretty, classically proportioned or literary; rather, it confronted the conditions of rural working life, then an unimaginable subject for art. The first masterpiece of this new style was “Burial at Ornans” (1849-1850), a colossal anti-epic that depicted an ordinary funeral in Courbet’s home town. The contrast between the work’s scale and its subject matter was pronounced, and its murky earth tones struck critics as willfully ugly--a defining reaction that would recur throughout the Modern period, particularly in the reception of early works by Manet and Picasso. Courbet’s palette emphasized mass and body politically--that is, in a manner that affirmed the world itself rather than the transcendence of it. His equally famous “The Origin of the World” of 1866, which presented the female genitalia close-up, made this stance explicit. The conceptual beginnings of the “painting of Modern life” are as much in Courbet’s Realism as in Charles Baudelaire’s famous essay of the same name.
In this new assessment, published on the occasion of a major 2008 traveling exhibition, renowned experts shed light on the development of Courbet’s realistic, critical style and trace his influence on his contemporaries and subsequent generations, as well as his relationship to early photography. At 480 pages, this monumental volume provides a long-overdue reckoning of this great artist’s work.