Courbet, a farmer's son, was born June 10, 1819, in Ornans. He went to Paris about 1840, ostensibly to study law; instead, he taught himself to paint by copying masterpieces in the Louvre, Paris. In 1850 he exhibited The Stone Breakers (1849, formerly Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, destroyed 1945), a blunt, forthright depiction of laborers repairing a road. In it, Courbet deliberately flouted the precepts of the romantics—champions of emotionally charged exoticism—and of the powerful academics—guardians of the moralizing Beaux-Arts traditions. He further outraged them with his enormous Burial at Ornans (1850, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), in which a frieze of poorly clad peasants surrounds a yawning grave. Courbet compounded his defiance of convention in another huge painting, The Artist's Studio (1855, Musée d'Orsay), which he subtitled A True Allegory Concerning Seven Years of My Artistic Life. In it, Courbet sits painting a landscape center stage, attended by a small boy, a dog, and a voluptuous female nude; at left a group of figures, potentially subjects for his paintings; at right a lively, spirited crowd of his friends admires his work. At the same time he issued a provocative manifesto detailing his social realist credo of art and life. By this time he enjoyed widespread popularity.
By then Courbet's distinctive painting style was fully developed, marked by technical mastery, a bold and limited palette, compositional simplicity, strongly modeled figures, and heavy impasto—thick layers of paint—often applied with a palette knife.
As radical in politics as he was in painting, Courbet was placed in charge of all art museums under the revolutionary 1871 Commune of Paris and saved the city's collections from looting mobs. Following the fall of the Commune, however, Courbet was accused of allowing the destruction of Napoleon's triumphal column in the Place Vendôme; he was imprisoned and condemned to pay for its reconstruction. He fled to Vevey, Switzerland, in 1873, where he continued to paint until his death on December 31, 1877.
Selected Museum Collections:
Musée du Louvre, Paris; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; National Gallery, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD; Kunstmuseum, Basel; Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Chateau Musée, Boulogne-sur-mer; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels; National Museum of Art of Romania, Bucharest; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires; Albright-Knox Art Museum, Buffalo, NY; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen; Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge; Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH; Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; New Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; Musée national Magnin, Dijon; Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai; The Bowes Museum, County Durham, UK; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX; Städel Museum, Frankfurt; Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles; Musée Cantini, Marseilles; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milkwaukee, WI; Minneapolis; Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN; Musée Fabre, Montpellier; Neue Pinakothek, Munich; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford; Musée Carnavalet, Paris; Musée National Picasso, Paris; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Musée des Augustins, Toulouse; Centraal Museum, Utrecht; Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna; Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA; National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan, Armenia; E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich