Art History: Gustave Courbet, "The Burial at Ornans," 1849 oil on canvas, 51x58"

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Gustave Courbet, The Burial at Ornans1849 oil on canvas, 51x58" 

Form: Courbet's paintings are rendered in a realist and a realistic/naturalistic manner.  His value structure, anatomy and color are all fairly well observed and true to life.  Nevertheless, Courbet also worked with some formal elements that were less naturalistic.  His color is made up of a palette of low key somber earth tones.  The composition of this image is traditional but a bit odd.  The grave is cropped in the center foreground and the figures stand in a frieze like band just behind the hole.  The background's sky and low flat mountains are almost surreal (dreamlike) in their appearance.  His paint quality is a bit unique in that he incorporates the use of impastos in his work.  He employed a heavy use of the palette knife to literally trowel the paint on to the surface of the canvas.  The figures in the image are realistic but they are also "types" of people and in some ways their rough and course features are almost caricature like in how they are rendered.

Iconography:  The Burial at Ornans, depicts "real" people attending the funeral of a common or "real" person.  Courbet specialized in working class people and ordinary landscapes.  He took the idea of "History Painting" and expands on it by heroicizing the ugly common people of the country whom he had a great amount of sympathy for.  In some ways he is creating a monument for the common French peasant but the image also has some of the moralizing memento mori like warnings contained in Masaccio's "Trinity with Donors."  The hole in the foreground is very similar in its symbology to Masaccio's skeleton.

The strange truncated grave of the buried peasant demonstrates his anti heroic composition and an interest in the documentary and formal qualities of photography.  His memento mori is an attempt to illustrate the common fate of all humanity and for him his painting was and attempt to show this in an unedited truth to perceived fact - "the here and now."  Even the formal qualities of using earthy tones and the rough impastos are for Courbet symbolic of the rough and drab nature of reality.

Context:  Courbet was considered the father of Realist movement in 19th century art and accepted the term "realism" to describe his art.

According to the Brittanica,

Courbet (b. June 10, 1819, Ornans, Fr. d. Dec. 31, 1877, La Tour-de-Peilz, Switz. ) was a
French painter and leader of the realist movement. Courbet rebelled against the Romantic painting of his day, turning to everyday events for his subject matter. His huge shadowed canvases with their solid groups of figures ("The Artist's Studio," 1855) drew sharp criticism from the establishment. From the 1860s a more sensuous and colorful manner prevailed in his work.
Courbet was born in eastern France, the son of Eléonor-Régis, a prosperous farmer, and Sylvie Courbet. After attending both the Collège Royal and the college of fine arts at Besançon, he went to Paris in 1841, ostensibly to study law. He devoted himself more seriously, however, to studying the paintings of the masters in the Louvre. Father and son had great mutual respect, and, when Courbet told his father he intended to become a painter rather than a provincial lawyer, his father consented, saying, "If anyone gives up, it will be you, not me," and adding that, if necessary, he would sell his land and vineyards and even his houses.
Freed from all financial worry, young Courbet was able to devote himself entirely to his art. He gained technical proficiency by copying the pictures of Diego Velázquez, Ribera, and other 17th-century Spanish painters. In 1844, when he was 25, after several unsuccessful attempts, his self-portrait "Courbet with a Black Dog," painted in 1842, was accepted by the Salon--the only annual public exhibition of art in France, sponsored by the Royal Academy. When in the following years the jury for the Salon thrice rejected his work because of its unconventional style and bold subject matter, he remained undaunted and continued to submit it.
The Revolution of 1848 ushered in the Second Republic and a new liberal spirit that greatly affected the arts. The Salon held its exhibition not in the Louvre itself but in the adjoining galleries of the Tuileries. Courbet exhibited there in 1849, and his early work was greeted with considerable critical and public acclaim.
In 1849 he visited his family at Ornans to recover from the hectic life in Paris and, inspired again by his native countryside, produced two of his greatest paintings: "The Stone-Breakers" and "Burial at Ornans." Painted in 1849, "The Stone-Breakers" is a realistic rendering of two figures doing menial labour in a barren, rural setting. The "Burial at Ornans," from the following year, is a huge representation of a peasant funeral, containing more than 40 life-size figures. Both works depart radically from the more controlled, idealized pictures of either the Neoclassic or Romantic schools; they portray the life and emotions not of aristocratic personages but of humble peasants, and they do so with a realistic urgency. The fact that Courbet did not glorify his peasants but presented them boldly and starkly created a violent reaction in the art world.

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