French Realism emerges in the awakening of the progressive uprisings of 1848 and it gains maturity in the period of social cynicism and political disillusionment that follows after it.[1] The connections between the French art and French politics in the mid-nineteenth century were exceptionally close. The most of the artists who opposed the tradition of artistic schools were also in greater or lesser extent in rebellion against the reactionary government, while most of its most severe critics of the conservative regime showed themselves as supporters of the conservative regime.[2] The Realist movement could be considered as an expression of these new forces arising in the own revolution of 1848, in which it called for a painting that would allow things and appearance express themselves.[3]

The artist Gustave Courbet, considered leading figure of the Realism, declared that painting is “essentially a concrete art which can exist only in the representation of real and actual things… An abstract object, invisible, non-existent, does not lie within the domain of painting”.[4] The painter considered that the Romantic emphasis on feeling and imagination was nothing more than a way to escape the realities of his time.[5] In a letter to Alfred Bruyas, Courbet underlines the materialistic interest of his time, the loss of the influential role of the artist in society, the phenomenon of commercialization in art and styles, which were degraded fashion.[6]

Although the term Realism is not very accurate, what eventually comes to define it is its devotion to radical policies. Courbet’s points of socialist views are the result of his friendship with the theoretical Pierre-Joseph Prodhon. While it is true that Socialism did not determine the specific content or appearance of artist’s paintings, it could be argued that it influenced the choice of subject matter and style, which opposed the previous great tradition.[7]

This essay first aims to analyse the formal aspects of two major paintings by Courbet, focusing on the treatment of the figure of the peasantry and the people belonging to the rural world. Secondly, to examine the historical context in which the artworks were produced and exhibited to the Parisian audience.

Courbet confronted visual patterns of his time in their search for a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world. [8] The artist elevated, for the first time, scenes of the rural peasant to the category of major historical paintings. Treatment in the art of working peasant figure did not begin in the nineteenth century. During the Middle Ages it already adorned cathedrals in the ‘Works in the months’, even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had been the central theme in the works of Breughel or Le Nains. However, it was not until the 1848 Revolution when the dignity of workers rises to official status, bringing artists to confront a serious and consistent way of life of the poor, a presentation of work as a superior topic in art, worthy of being represented as if it were a masterpiece on a monumental scale.[9]

Burial at Ornans (1850, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) is one of the most notable works by Courbet and, at the same time, the painting that originated more reviews. The canvas describes a funeral – possibly his own maternal grandfather – attended by the whole community, from the representatives of the council until the official mourners, to the nobles and the painter’s family. Even a dog is depicted in the foreground. The critic Claude Vignon wrote that he had never seen anything so frightening and so eccentric:

“Imagine a canvas of eight to ten metres that seems cut into one of fifty, because all the persons, ranged in a line in the foreground, are on the same plane and seem to form only a single episode of an immense decoration; there is not perspective, no arrangement, no composition; all the rules of art are overthrown and despised.”[10]

As exemplified by the words of the writer, most reprobate is the audacity of the artist to use a format, which belonged to history painting in the hierarchy imposed by the standards. Vignon sought all elements in the painting that correspond to the monumental character of the canvas, but he only found men and women dressed in black and behind “beadles and gravediggers with ignoble shape”.[11]

On the other hand, the artist rejected to embellish the reality. Despite the fact that the characters were portrayed with such care and conscientious observation of their positions, it is not a painting with relief. Very conscious of the purely representative image quality that Realism suggested, the paint was applied in several areas with a spatula to make itself visible the flat surface on which it was applied. Thus, the painting shows a solid surface of black pigment where fantasy disappears and imagination becomes a possibility to visualize the real world.[12] R. Desbois, who wrote a review about Courbet’s exhibition for L’Impartial 1849, was the first who criticized the artist for giving a new gesture to the painting in his search for reality. Although he argued that Courbet did exactly what he wanted to do, “he has seen ugliness and he has painted what he saw”, he also admitted that the argument was not enough to have painted reality with such excess.[13]

Another canvas painted by Courbet, which caused great impact on audiences and critics was The Stone-Breakers (1850, it was destroyed in Dresden during the Second World War). The subject matter of this painting is the seemingly objective representation of two men breaking stones on the road, which caused deep impression on the artist:

“I stopped to look at two man breaking stones on the road. It is rare to fine an expression of such utter and complete misery; at once I had an idea for a picture”[14]

If the photograph of the painting is observed, it can be appreciated that details the artist recounted in a letter to his friend Francis Way, such as holes in the shoes or tears in clothing, are not represented with great thoroughness, with hyper-realism. Thus, it could be argued that Courbet did not intend to describe the misery; the emotion aroused by the painting is characterized by great simplicity of the artist to depict the scene. However, the critic Claude Vignon said that Courbet wanted to “describe as crudely as possible all that is disgustingly dirty and harsh”[15] This reaction could arise from feelings produced by painting with massive strokes, where the artist need not tell or suggest rather than what existed in the canvas, what it was real.

In relation to a formal analysis, Meyer Schapiro emphasized the “earnest, empirical” character of the two drawing figures “as if [Courbet] were tracing a complicated shape for the first time” and put his attention on how the garments torn and bruised mask represented the construction of the human body beneath.[16] However, there is lack of pathos in the scene. The artist has concentrated on describing the activity of the labour itself, not the feelings of two people who do it. There are other paintings in the same period, which also depict scenes of the peasantry. For example, El Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet (1857-1859, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), where the artist evokes not only the everyday work of the peasants but also immovable rhythms of this simple life, giving his figures a character of eternity.[17] However, all of them coincide in reflecting any kind of emotion or feeling, such as worship or anguish, while Stonebreakers, in spite of its monumental scale, involves nothing more than the mere physical existence of two peasants working.[18] T. J. Clark found evident that the painter may have felt recognized his misunderstood own class in the psychology of those two men on the road near Maisiéres, so he avoided masking or decorate them with a bourgeois conventional reading of the situation in terms of personal or generalized tragedy, giving to the scene an individualized reading on the dignity of work.[19]

With regard to the composition, it could be considered that the two figures, both the old man and the young boy, were placed next to each other without any connection between them or gestures or narrative. Actually, anything that qualifies the flat assertion of his physical existence can be found.[20] The fact that the two figures have their backs to the audience, being impossible to see their faces, could be interpreted as Courbet’s desire to paint, not just two workers doing hard work and being paid for it, but the endless hopeless situation of those who develop this type of labour; the painter sacrifices individuality of the two persons in his purpose to translate a reality.[21]

Proudhon considered Stonebreaker as the first socialist painting that had been done, considering the work, as “a satire on our industrial civilisation, which continually invents wonderful machines to perform all kinds of labour, yet is unable to liberate man from the most backbreaking toil”.[22] However, although it has been assumed the intention of socialist artwork as a possible instrument of propaganda for a long time, it could be argued that these were rather social convictions which affected the Courbet painting, urging him to paint a scene for him reflected the cycle of endless misery that the system had perpetuated around him.[23]

In relation to the historical context, it could be argued that Courbet’s rural paintings could be seen as a social and political threat to the newly revived power of the bourgeoisie, after the revolts of 1848. Afterwards the Parisian uprising occurred during the subsequent year, the revolutionary initiative had passed the peasant and a very complex situation emerged, with sudden resurgences of revolts. Thus, for T. J. Clark there are two clear factors to be considered: In the first place, the idea of the peasantry as unconditional support of the conservative bloc began to be confusing, causing concern in the French capital. This fact led to rumours of a peasant revolution. On the other hand, the focus of this conflict was the intense hostility among the peasantry and rural bourgeoisie.[24] The revolution of 1848 could be considered the first major confrontation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, getting itself to spread across Europe.[25] So, two years later, the socialist threat was a memory that still caused fear, a recent wound that could come to perceive as a future threat to the middle class.[26]

Another important aspect is the burial ceremony, a matter of particular importance to the Parisians. Between 1839 and 1847, a percentage of 78.6% of the citizens of Paris were buried in a mass grave, not having sufficient financial capacity to afford a proper burial. Thus, the burial was a distinctive institution that belonged to the bourgeoisie. The working class was very bitter about the way he had become a privilege of the bourgeois class.[27]

In conclusion, it could be argued that the Courbet’s paintings of rural poor scenes caused great impact on mid nineteenth-century Parisian society for two main reasons. The first one references to the formal aspect of the artwork. On the one hand, the dimensions of the painting were disconcerting, which usually should be in proportion to the historic dignity of the subject matter and that in his paintings did nothing but highlight the vulgarity of the low-class human. On the other hand, the lack of an elaborate composition around a well-defined centre caused dramatic criticism. The crude representation of the everyday did not reach to sublimate in any ideal sense, as the true art should do. The second reason is related to political and social aspects. The use of techniques, proportions and refinement of high art to create an image that represented the peasantry supposed a rebellion against the norms of a society to which he himself belonged. The democratization of art that Courbet achieved through his paintings about rural poor could be seen as an expression of political anarchy, even radicalism.



[1] L. Nochlin, Realism. Style and Civilization (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1971), p.46

[2] G. Mack, Gustave Courbet (New York: Da Capo Press, 1951), p.97

[3] J. Malpas, Realismo (London: Tate Gallery, 1997), p.9

[4] Mack, ‘Gustave Courbet’, p.101

[5] Woldemar, H. and A. F. Janson, History of Art: the Western Tradition (London: Pearso Education Ltd, 2004), p.738

[6] M. Doñate, Realismo(S) : La Huella de Courbet (Barcelona: MNAC, Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya, 2011), p.63

[7] Woldemar, Janson, ‘History of Art: the Western Tradition’, p.738

[8] Nochlin, ‘Realism. Style and Civilization’, p.13

[9] Nochlin, ‘Realism. Style and Civilization’, p.112

[10] J. Lindsay, Courbet (Somerset: Adam & Dart, 1973), p.76

[11] Lindsay, ‘Courbet’, p.76

[12] Rosen, C. and H. Zernen, Romanticismo y Realismo. Los mitos del arte en el siglo XIX (Madrid: Hermann Blume, 1988), p.146

[13] T. J. Clark, Gustabe Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson,1973), p.122

[14] B. Foucart, Gustave Courbet, (Switzerland: Bonfini Press S. A., 1977), p.18

[15] Foucart, ‘Gustave Courbet’, p.19

[16] M. Schapino, ‘Courbet and the Popular Imagery, Essay on Realism and Naïveté’  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 4 (1942), pp.164-191

[17] F. Bayle, Comprender la pintura del museo de Orsay (Paris: Artlys, 2011), p.18

[18] Nochlin, ‘Realism. Style and Civilization’, p.119

[19] M. Fried, Courbet’s Realism (London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 1990), p.101

[20] M. Fried, ‘Courbet’s Realism’, p.101

[21] Lindsay, ‘Courbet’, p.60

[22] Lindsay, ‘Courbet’, p.59

[23] Lindsay, ‘Courbet’, p.60

[24] Lindsay, ‘Courbet’, p.80

[25] Antigüedad, M. D. and S. Aznar, Siglo XIX: El Cauce de la Memoria (Madrid: Itsmo,1998), p.194

[26] Nochlin, ‘Realism. Style and Civilization’, p.47

[27] Clark, Gustabe Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, p.128



Antigüedad, M. D. and S. Aznar, Siglo XIX: El Cauce de la Memoria (Madrid: Itsmo, 1998)

Bayle, F. Comprender la pintura del museo de Orsay (Paris: Artlys, 2011)

Clark, T. J. Gustabe Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973)

Doñate, M. Realismo(S) : La Huella de Courbet (Barcelona: MNAC, Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya, 2011)

Foucart, B. Gustave Courbet, (Switzerland: Bonfini Press S. A., 1977)

Fried, M. Courbet’s Realism (London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 1990)

Lindsay, J. Courbet (Somerset: Adam & Dart, 1973)

Mack, G. Gustave Courbet (New York: Da Capo Press, 1951)

Malpas, J. Realismo (London: Tate Gallery, 1997)

Nochlin, L. Realism. Style and Civilization (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1971)

Rosen, C. and H. Zernen, Romanticismo y Realismo. Los mitos del arte en el siglo XIX (Madrid: Hermann Blume, 1988)

Schapino, M. ‘Courbet and the Popular Imagery, Essay on Realism and Naïveté’ in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 4 (1942)

Woldemar, H. and A. F. Janson, History of Art: the Western Tradition (London: Pearson Education Ltd, 2004)