Gustave Courbet

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I must be free, even of governments.The people have my sympathies. I must address them directly.

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (10 June 181931 December 1877) was a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting.

Quotes of Gustave Courbet[edit]

sorted chrologically, by date of the quotes

1840 - 1860[edit]

  • We finally saw the sea, the horizonless sea – how odd for a mountaindweller. We saw the beautiful boats that sail on it. It is too inviting, one feels carried away, one would leave to see the whole world.
    • In a letter to his parents (1841); as quoted in Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century, Howard F. Isham, publisher: Peter Lang, 2004, Chapter 'Waterworlds', p. 307
    • Courbet is reporting his experiences of a boat-trip with a friend over the Seine to the port of Le Havre; he made also a sketchbook of this trip in the Summer of 1841

  • In the coming year I must do a large painting which will definitely get me recognized for what I truly am, for I want all or nothing. All those little paintings are not the only thing that I can do.. .I want to do large-scale painting. One thing is certain, that within five years, I must have a name in Paris; that is what I strive for. It's hard to get there, I know.. .To move faster I only lack one thing, and that's money, in order to boldly execute what I have in mind. [very soon after this letter he attacked a canvas of eight feet high and ten feet wide]
    • In a letter (10 March 1845); as quoted in 'Gustave Courbet', by Georges Riat, Parkstone International, 2015,

  • ..there's nothing harder in the world than making art, particularly when no one understands it. Women want portraits without shadow, men want to be dressed up in their Sunday best; there's no way out. To earn money with things like that, you'd be better of walking on a treadmill. At least than you would not be abdicating your convictions.
    • In his letter (Paris, January 1846), as quoted in 'Gustave Courbet', by Georges Riat, Parkstone International, 2015,

  • It is the most wretched spectacle you can imagine. I won't fight for two reasons: firstly because I have no faith in waging war with guns and cannons, and it is not part of my creed. For ten years I have been fighting a war of wits. I would not be true to myself if I acted otherwise. Secondly, I have no weapons and I won't be persuaded. So you have nothing to fear where I am concerned
    • In a letter to his parents, (June 1848); as quoted 'Gustave Courbet', by Georges Riat, Parkstone International, 2015,

  • I've already done studies [for his large-scale painting w:The Burial at Ornans ] of the mayor, who weighs 400, the parish priest, the justice of the peace, the cross bearer, the notary Marlet, the assistant mayor, my friends, my father, the choirboys, the grave digger, two old revolutionaries from [17]'93...
    • Remark to w:Champfleury, (End of 1849); as quoted in 'Gustave Courbet', by Georges Riat, Parkstone International, 15 Sep 2015,

  • It is not often that one encounters so complete an expression of poverty and so, right then and there I got the idea for a painting. I told them to come to my studio the next morning.
    • Quote, (1850's) explaining to w:Champfleury and the writer Francis Wey; as quoted on Wikipedia; Masanès, Fabrice 2006, p. 31
    • Courbet explains the start of his painting 'w:Stone-Breakers' [painted in 1849-50 / destroyed in the Allied Bombing of Dresden in 1945]; this painting was inspired by a scene Courbet witnessed on the roadside.

  • our civilized society I must lead the life of a savage. I must free myself even from governments. My sympathies lies with the people; I must go to them directly. I must draw my wisdom from them, and they must give me life. For that reason I have just embarked on the grand, independent and vagabond life of the bohemian.
    • In a letter, (1850) to his friend Francis Wey; as quoted in 'Gustave Courbet', by Georges Riat, Parkstone International, 15 Sep 2015,

  • ..[ I ] painted the very people who had been present at the interment, all the townspeople. [Courbet pictured with his painting 'A Burial at Ornans' (1849/50) the funeral of his grand uncle which he attended in September 1848. People who attended the funeral became the models for the painting; no professional models]
    • Wikipedia

  • I heard the comments of the crowd in front of the painting of 'Burial at Ornans', I had the courage to read the nonsense that was printed regarding this picture and I wrote this article.. [in Le Messager de l'Assemblée]

  • In spite of being assailed by hypochondria, I have launched into an enormous painting 20 feet by 12, perhaps even bigger than 'The Burial', which will show that I am still alive, and so is Realism, as Realism exists.. .It is society at its best, its worst, its average. In short, it's my way of seeing society with all its interests and passions. It's the whole world coming to me to be painted..

  • When I got back to Ornans, I spent a few days hunting. I quite like the subject of violent exercise.. .It makes the most surprising painting you can imagine. There are thirty life-size figures in it. It is the moral and physical history of my studio

Realist Manifesto (1851)[edit]

  • The title of Realist was thrust upon me just as the title of Romantic was imposed upon the men of 1830. Titles have never given a true idea of things: if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary.

  • Without expanding on the greater or lesser accuracy of a name which nobody, I should hope, can really be expected to understand, I will limit myself to a few words of elucidation in order to cut short the misunderstandings.

  • I have studied the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice. I no longer wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial goal of "art for art's sake". No! I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality.

  • To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art – this is my goal. (Gustave Courbet, 1855) - note
    • In: 'Realist manifesto', Gustave Courbet, (1851); as quoted at 'Nineteenth–Century French Realism', The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn, Timeline of Art History
    • Courbet wrote his 'Realist manifesto' for the introduction to the catalogue of his independent, personal exhibition at the Pavilion of Realism outside the 1855 Universal Exhibition, echoing the tone of the period's political manifestos of those days

1861 - 1877[edit]

  • [An artist must apply] his personal faculties to the ideas and the events of the times in which he lives.. .[A]rt in painting should consist only of the representation of things which that are visible and tangible to the artist. Every age should be represented only by its own artists, that is to say, by the artist who have lived in it. I also maintain that painting is an essentially concrete art form and can exist only of the representation of both real and existing things.. .An abstract object, not visible, nonexistent, is not within the domain of painting.
    • In an open letter ('Credo'), (Paris, end of December 1861), published in the 'Courier du Dimanche', (addressed to prospective students); as quoted in Letters of Gustave Courbet, transl. & ed. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, University of Chicago Press 1992, pp. 203-204

  • I have never seen an angel. Show me an angel, and I'll paint one.
    • Quoted by Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to brother Theo (July, 1885); in The letters of Vincent van Gogh, ed. Ronal de Leeuw - Penguin, New York, 1996, p. 302

  • I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.'
    • In a letter of Gustave Courbet (1869); in Letters of Gustave Courbet, 1992, University of Chicago Press, transl. Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, ISBN 0226116530

  • Here I am, because of the People of Paris [ w:Paris Commune ], up to my neck in politics. President of the Federation of Artists, member of the Commune committee, city council delegate and delegate for Public Education: the four most important posts in Paris. I get up, I have breakfast, and I preside and sit on committees twelve hours a day. Now my head is starting to spin. But in spite of all this worry and trying to understand unfamiliar things, I am really happy..

  • Attendu que la colonne Vendôme est un monument dénué de toute valeur artistique, tendant à perpétuer par son expression les idées de guerre et de conquête qui étaient dans la dynastie impériale, mais que réprouve le sentiment d'une nation républicaine, [le citoyen Courbet] émet le vœu que le gouvernement de la Défense nationale veuille bien l'autoriser à déboulonner cette colonne.
  • (In as much as the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation's sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorize him to disassemble this column.)
    • In a letter (4 September 1870) to the Government of National Defense, (proposing that the column in the Place Vendôme in Paris, erected by Napoleon I - to honour the victories of the French Army - be taken down).

Quotes about Gustave Courbet[edit]

sorted chronologicall, by date of the quote

1850 - 1860[edit]

    • 'The Burial at Ornus' [wrongly cited in the catalogue of the Paris' Salon; it was: 'w:The Burial at Ornans'!] is a vulgar and blasphemous caricature, a signboard painting, which is full of hatred even for art; what a sad thing, in fact, when a true talent [Courbet!] tries to win the facile and extravagant applause of the nineteenth century through the exaggeration of ugliness.
    • Philippe de Chiennevières, (January 1851) in 'Lettres de l'Art francais'; as quoted in 'Gustave Courbet', by Georges Riat, Parkstone International, 15 Sep 2015,

  • There have always been two schools of thought in painting: that of the Idealists and that of the Realists.. .Monsieur Courbet belongs to the second school, but he differs from it in that he seems to have taken an ideal opposite to the usual ideal: whereas the straightforward Realists are happy to copy nature as they see it, our young painter, parodying for his own benefit the verses of Nicolas Boileau Despréaux, seems to be saying: 'Only the ugly is beautiful, only the ugly is likeable.' It is not enough for the people to be common; he selects his subjects and then deliberately exaggerates their crudeness and vulgarity.

  • I went to see the paintings by Courbet. I was astonished by the vigour and the relief of his vast picture; but what a painting! What a subject! The commonness of the forms would not matter; it is the commonness and uselessness of the thought which are abominable.. ..Oh Rossini! Oh Mozart! Oh geniuses inspired by all the arts, who draw from things only the elements that are shown to the mind! What would you say before these pictures?

  • The landscape [in his painting 'The Bathers', painted by Courbet in 1853] is of an extraordinary vigor, but Courbet has done no more than enlarge a study exhibited there, near his large canvas; the conclusion is that the figures [the two bathers in the painting] were put in afterwards and without connection with their surroundings. This brings up the question of harmony between the accessories and the principal object, a thing lacking in the majority of great painters.
    • Quote of Eugène Delacroix from 'The Journal' of 15 April 1853; as quoted in Artists on Art – from the 14th – 20th centuries, ed. Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves; Pantheon Books, 1972, London, p. 231

  • [After leaving the w:Exposition Universelle (1855) ].. .I went to the Courbet exposition. He has reduced the price of admission to ten sous. I stayed there alone for nearly one hour and discovered a masterpiece in the picture, they rejected [the jury of the official Salon exhibition in Paris]. I simply could not tear myself away from the sight of it.. ..In [Courbet's painting 'The Studio'] the planes are well understood. There is atmosphere, and in some passages the execution is really remarkable, especially the tights and hips of the nude model and the breasts.. .The only fault is that the picture, as he painted it, seems to contain an ambiguity. It looks as though there were a real sky in the middle of the painting. They [The Salon-jury] have rejected one of the most remarkable works of our time, but Courbet is not the man to be discouraged by a little thing like that.
    • Eugene Delacroix, a note of his Diary, (3 August, 1855); as quoted in Chapter 9: 'Courbets Studio of the Painter: in The Rhetoric of Realism, Courbet and the Origins of the Avant-Garde, Stephen Eisenman, London, Thames and Hudson 2002, p. 221

  • Monsieur Courbet, too, [Baudelaire had previously been commenting on w:Ingres ] is a powerful worker, he has a wild and patient will; and the results he produces, results which for some have more charm than those of the great master of Raphaelesque tradition.. ..doubtlessly because they display a sectarian spirit, a butcher of faculties. Politics and literature, too, produce these vigorous temperaments, these protesters, these anti-Supernaturalists whose only justification is their sometimes salutary, reactive spirit. Providence, presiding over the interests of painting, gives them accomplices in all those who are tired or oppressed by the predominant, opposing idea. But the difference is that the heroic sacrifice that Monsieur Ingres makes for the honour of tradition and Raphaelesque beauty, Courbet accomplishes in the interests of external, positive, immediate nature. They have different motives when waging war on the imagination, and the two opposing obsessions lead them to the same immolation.

  • At the moment, Madame, in the avenue Montaigne, just near the Painting Exhibition, one can see a sign with the words: REALISM. G. Courbet. Exhibition of forty paintings. It is an exhibition in the English style. A painter, whose name has become widely known since the February Revolution, has chosen his most significant paintings, and has had a studio built to exhibit them.. .It is an incredibly audacious act, it is the subversion of all institutions associated with the jury, it is a direct appeal to the public, some are saying it is freedom.. .It is a scandal, it is anarchy, it is art dragged through the mud. Others are saying these are fairground pictures.. ..Courbet was considered a troublemaker because he produced honest, life-size paintings of the bourgeoisie, peasants and village women. That was the first point. People could not admit that a stone breaker was worth as much as a prince: the nobility objected to him according so many meters of canvas to ordinary people; only sovereigns had the right to be painted full length, with their decorations, their rich clothes and their official expressions. What? A man from 'Ornans' [were Courbet was born], a peasant in his coffin, dares to draw a large crowd at his funeral: farmers, people of low estate..

1861 - 1880[edit]

  • ..a valiant fellow; he has a broad conception that one might adopt, but still it seems to me to be rather course in details..
    • w:Eugène Boudin, in an entry of his Journal (Le Havre, 1860s); as quoted in Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century, publisher: Peter Lang, 2004, Chapter 'Courbets Realism', p. 308

  • I don't need to plead for modern subjects here. This cause was won a long time ago. After those remarkable works by Eduard Manet and Courbet, no-one would now dare to say that the present day is unworthy of being painted.. .We find ourselves faced with the only reality: in spite of ourselves, we encourage our painters to portray us just as we are, with our styles of dress and our manners.

  • Courbet! and his influence was odious! the regret I feel and the rage, hate even, I feel for all that now would astonish you perhaps but this is the explanation. It's not poor Courbet whom I find loathsome, any more than his paintings work - As always I recognize the qualities they have - I am not complaining either about the influence of his painting on mine - there was none, and you will not find it in my canvases - There couldn't be; because I am too personal and I had many qualities that he did not have but which suited me well - But this is the reason why all that was so bad for me. That damned Realism made an immediate appeal to my vanity as a painter! and mocking all tradition cried out loud, with all the confidence of ignorance, 'Long live Nature!!' nature! My dear fellow, that cry was a great misfortune for me! - Where could you have found an apostle more ready to accept this theory, so appealing to him!. ..Ah my friend! our little band [artist-group around Courbet] was a depraved group! Oh! how I wish I had been a pupil of wIngres! .. .But I repeat I wish I had been his pupil! What a master he would have been - How soundly he would have guided us - drawing!
    • Whistler, (c. 1869) in his letter to W:Henri Fantin-Latour; Repository: Library of Congress, Call-Number: Manuscript Division, Pennell-Whistler Collection, PWC 1/33/25

  • In a great bare room (at Étretat, Normandy), a fat, dirty, greasy man [Courbet] was spreading patches of white paint on to a big bare canvas with a kitchen knife. From time to time he went and pressed his face against the window-pane to look at the storm. The sea came up so close that it seemed to beat right against the house, which was smothered in foam and noise. The dirty water rattled like hail against the windows and streamed down the walls. On the mantelpiece was a bottle of cider and a half-empty glass. Every now and then Courbet would drink a mouthful and then go back to his painting. It was called 'The Wave', and it made a good deal of stir in its time.
    • Guy de Maupassant, (1870s): describing the way of painting by the later Courbet; as quoted in Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century, publisher: Peter Lang, 2004, Chapter 'Waterworlds', p. 311

1880 - 1900[edit]

  • If Courbet could only paint what he saw, he saw wonderfully, he saw better than anybody else. His eye was a subtle and assured mirror, where the most fleeting sensations, the most delicate nuances became clear. With this exceptional ability to see, came an exceptional ability to render what he saw. Courbet used paint thickly, but without harshness and without roughness: his pictures are as smooth as ice, and shine like enamel. He achieves relief and movement at the same time by using just the right shade; and this shade, put on flat with a palette knife, acquires an extraordinary intensity. I have never seen any richer or more distinguished use of colour, nor one that gains so much with age.

  • A builder. A rough and ready plasterer. A colour grinder. He [Gustave Courbet] is like a Roman bricklayer. And yet he's another true painter. There's no one in this century that surpasses him. Even though he rolls up his sleeves, plugs up his ears, demolishes columns, his workmanship is classical!.. .His view was always compositional. His vision remained traditional. Like his palette-knife, he used it only out of doors. He was sophisticated and brought his work to a high finish.. .His great contribution is the poetic introduction of nature - the smell of damp leaves, mossy forest cuttings - into nineteenth century painting; the murmur of rain, woodlands shadows, sunlight moving under trees. The sea. And snow, he painted snow like no one else!
    • Quote by Paul Cézanne from 'What he told me – II. The Louvre', in Joachim Gasquet's Cézanne, - a Memoir with Conversations, (1897 - 1906); Thames and Hudson, London 1991 p. 198

  • These great 'Waves' – the one in Berlin ['The Wave' (La Vague), 1869] is prodigious, one of the marvels of the century, far more swollen and palpitating than this one [the painting 'Stormy Sea', Cézanne saw in the Louvre]; a muddier green and a dirtier orange [in 'The Wave' of Berlin] – a tangle of flying spray, a tide drawn from depths of eternity, a ragged sky, the livid sharpness of the whole scene. It seems to hit you full in the chest, you stagger back, the whole room reeks of sea-spray.
    • Quote by Paul Cézanne, (in the Louvre, 1890's); as quoted in Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century, Howard F. Isham, publisher: Peter Lang, 2004, Chapter 'Waterworlds', p. 313

1900 and later[edit]

  • * But what an eye Monet has, the most prodigious eye since painting began! I raise my hat to him. As for Courbet, he already had the image in his eye, ready-made. Monet used to visit him [Courbet], you know, in his early days.
    • Quote by Paul Cézanne from 'What he told me – I. The motif', in w:Joachim Gasquet's Cézanne, - a Memoir with Conversations, (1897 - 1906); Thames and Hudson, London 1991 p. 164

  • Courbet is the father of the new painters.

  • A work of art must narrate something that does not appear within its outline. The objects and figures represented in it must likewise poetically tell you of something that is far away from them and also of what their shapes materially hide from us. A certain dog painted by Courbet is like the story of a poetic and romantic hunt.
    • Quote by De Chirico (c. 1919) in Artists on Art – from the 14th – 20th centuries, ed. by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves; Pantheon Books, 1972, London, p. 440

  • No painter before Courbet was ever able to emphasize so uncompromisingly the density and weight of what he was painting.
    • w:John Berger, (1965), in The Success and Failure of Picasso, Penguin Books, Ltd. 1965. pp. 52-53; as quoted on Wikipedia: Gustave Courbet, note 50

  • Courbet, whilst still using paint on canvas, wanted to go beyond [pictorial] conventions and find the equivalent of the physical sensation of the material objects portrayed: their weight, their temperature, their texture. What perspective towards the horizon meant to w:Poussin, the force of gravity meant to Courbet. (italics in original)
    • w:John Berger, (1965), in The Success and Failure of Picasso, Penguin Books, Ltd. 1965. pp. 52-53; as quoted on Wikipedia: Gustave Courbet, note 51

  • The task was to combine the two [ Cézanne's dialectical method revealing the process of seeing - Courbet by his materialism]. Followed up separately, each would lead to a cul-de-sac: Courbet’s materialism would become mechanical; the force of gravity, which gave such dignity to his subjects, would become oppressive and literal. Cézanne’s dialectic would become more and more disembodied and its harmony would be obtained at the price of physical indifference. Today, both examples are followed up separately.
    • w:John Berger, (1965), in The Success and Failure of Picasso, Penguin Books, Ltd. 1965. pp. 55-56; as quoted on Wikipedia: Gustave Courbet, note 49

  • On the left is the realist tradition of the 19th century, with its impulse to social description, radical criticism and meditation on things as they are.. ..culminating in Courbet at his mightiest [paintings] (The Studio, The Funeral at Ornans and a portrait of a trout that has more death in it than Rubens could get in a whole Crucifixion).
    • Robert Hughes, reviewing exhibits in Paris' Centre National d'Art Contemporain, in 'Out of a Grand Ruin, a Great Museum' from TIME magazine (8 December 1986)

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